Is the ocarina a good instrument for young children?

While children certainly can learn to play the ocarina with a good approach, I cannot say that the ocarina is universally a good instrument for young children as there are many factors at play. Teaching music is a complex affair because everyone learns differently, so no single approach is universal.

The ocarina's simple appearance can be deceptive, as playing the instrument well is quite technically involved. Wind instruments often look easier than they are because many playing techniques happen inside the body. For example, the tongue must be used to create articulation. This can be unintuitive to children who generally 'puff' into wind instruments, creating a very indefinite sound.

The ocarina's pitch is also highly unstable, and requires a lot of skill in breath control to play in tune. If a child happens to have absolute pitch, or has developed relative pitch from a prior instrument, this skill will develop organically. However, lacking these skills and without guidance, it is easy for a child to play wildly out of tune without their awareness, creating a false sense of ability.

Finally, playing the ocarina musically requires the learner to develop an awareness of musicality. It is pretty easy to 'fake' playing music on any instrument by visually showing someone how to play the notes, but such performances generally aren't very musical. Adding interest comes down to the application of ornamentation and subtle changes to rhythm, details that are best learned by listening to and studying many performances.

None of these are impossible to learn but they do need to be taught. Don't think that you can lazily give an ocarina to a child and they will learn to play it with no guidance. Exposure to instruments is a good first step, and generally playing around with one will allow a child to learn how it works, but this is not enough. Personally, I never grasped music as a child largely because I lacked this guidance, even though I was surrounded by instruments.

Do be aware that ocarinas are loud and have a very piercing tone, so they can be fatiguing to listen to for prolonged periods. Learning an instrument absolutely demands repetitive practice. Thus, if you are a parent and your child takes to the instrument, you'll hear this sound for years. You have to be willing to accept this. Never tell your child to stop practising as this encourages them to give up.

Teaching approach

Whether or not a child successfully learns any instrument depends a great deal on approach, something that is often lacking. The order that things are introduced matters a great deal, and I feel that before anyone can become inspired to play an instrument, they need to be exposed to it. Sam Aaron, the creator of SonicPi, has questioned why we even teach children traditional instruments considering they rarely listen to music that includes them, and thus they lack a personal connection.

If you are a parent, exposing your children to a wide range of music is a good idea. It would also help a lot if you, or someone in the family, plays an instrument, as children learn a lot from watching their environment. If this is not the case, you can always start learning along with your child. Having this experience gives you the ability to answer any questions, and gives a child someone to practice with. Practising alone can be pretty dull, even for an adult.

Playing an instrument can appear to be a single task, but it is actually a number of separate skills, such as rhythm and melody. Attempting to learn all of these at once is usually overwhelming for a beginner, and thus they are best taught separately. I believe that rhythm is the best place to start as almost everything in music is based on it. Rhythm is also intuitive to learn by ear, ignoring the technicalities of sheet music.

While teaching someone to play a melody on an instrument, you can demonstrate how to clap along with the melodies rhythm while listening to a recording. Additionally, instead of clapping, a percussion instrument such as a drum or egg shaker can be used. If this is done repeatedly, it will enter the child's subconscious; thus, they will no longer have to think about it. To achieve that, it MUST be practised regularly. One lesson a week is NOT enough. Guide them to practise slowly with a focus on accuracy, and make a point of how it gets easier after a few days if they are struggling.

Once a child has learned to reproduce a rhythm, the corresponding melody can be layered on top. Learning to play the melody is thus easier as the child need only consider the notes. Doing this initial step on an instrument like the recorder or ocarina is pretty difficult, as there are quite a few techniques that must be learned first, inducing fingering, breath control, and tonguing. Children generally want to just play something as soon as possible; thus, it is tempting to ignore technique, which generally ends with struggle and frustration.

I feel it is easier to use a percussion instrument like a xylophone or glockenspiel to teach music to young children. These instruments require little in the way of physical accuracy to reproduce a basic tune. Their mechanics are also very simple, with no need for complex finger movements or breath control: you just bash the right bar with a stick, and hitting the bars too hard won't cause the instrument to go out of tune. The structure of such instruments is also easily grasped, once a child understands octaves.

Electronic instruments also offer an interesting opportunity in this space which, as of writing, has not been deeply explored. Using capacitive touch sensing, it is possible to simulate fingering systems from instruments like the ocarina, and greatly simplify the task of playing the instrument by mapping pressure to volume instead of pitch. The instrument can also be adjusted to player skill, such as greatly reducing pressure sensitivity to be more tolerant of new players.

Once a child has grasped the basic mechanics of music, have got the desire to 'just play something' out of their system, and understand that practice results in future improvement, they can far more easily approach the ocarina, or any instrument for that matter. All Western music is based on the same system of notes, so skills are easy to transfer.

Closing

Every child is different and learns differently. Thus, a teaching method that works for one child may not work for another. This problem is not unique to the ocarina, and music teachers need to be able and willing to accommodate those differences. A child with absolute pitch, for example, should have no difficulty playing the ocarina in tune, but could need help learning rhythms or music theory. Some children may despise theory and prefer playing by ear, whereas others may actually prefer a theoretical or even mathematical approach. The above method can be varied to accommodate such differences.

Children will also tend to gravitate towards different instruments and aspects of music. Some may take to percussion instruments, some may take to wind or string instruments, and others yet may prefer keyboard or computer-based instruments. Thus, it's important for children to be able to try multiple types of instruments so they find what they most enjoy playing. As noted at the end of the prior section, this isn't hard once the basics are grasped, as music skills are transferable between instruments.

When introducing a new subject, it can take time for the information to "click", so failure for a child to immediately understand what you are teaching does not necessarily mean that your approach is bad. However, if something obviously isn't working after you've given it more time, you *must* change your approach, as doing otherwise will only annoy the child. This is especially difficult in a classroom environment, as it is impossible to cater to everyone. It may work better if children were allowed to try multiple teachers, or if teachers could quickly identify these learning styles and put children with the best teachers for them.

Finally, I don't believe that every child can or should play an instrument. Again, people have different interests and abilities, and this includes the inability to play music. If someone struggles with music, there is certainly something else they do connect with. They should not be forced to do things they obviously don't get on with, even after trying multiple approaches.

The pages 'What is the easiest instrument to learn?' and 'How to approach music as a beginner' cover some of the above topics in much more detail.

Thoughts on...

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