Cons of the ocarina as a first instrument and what they cannot teach you

On a surface level, ocarinas can look like ideal first instruments, being technically simple and having an approachable fingering system. However, they do have cons, as playing them is much more involved than initially apparent. Their technical limitations also prevent you from learning certain critical aspects of music.

While ocarinas look simple, playing them well is a lot more involved than their appearances would have you believe. Wind instruments in general can be deceptive as many techniques for playing them happen inside the body. You must learn to exhale at a constant rate, and use your tongue to control the airflow. Mouth posture and blowing angle also matter a lot as they affect the instrument's tone, especially on the high notes.

Additionally, ocarinas pose several more challenges relating to volume, tuning, ergonomics, range, and lack of volume dynamics. These are discussed in greater detail below. Do note that all of these issues can be addressed, so the point here isn't to discourage you, but create awareness.

Ocarinas are loud

Nobody's first experiences with music sound brilliant, so it is important to be able to play without fear of embarrassing yourself. The ocarina can be a poor first instrument in this regard as it is loud. It is not possible to effectively mute the ocarina due to its piercing tone, which is very audible even at low volume. Doing so also throws the instrument out of tune, and makes it sound airy.

The ocarina's pitch is highly unstable

As ocarinas have fixed finger holes, you may think that using the correct fingering will give the desired note. This is not the case: every note requires a different pressure to play in tune. Having finger holes does help with intonation when moving from one note to another, but it is easy to drift. You can end up with the high notes flat relative to the low notes, for instance. Because ocarinas are loud, they are not forgiving of this, especially when playing with other musicians.

Ocarinas lack a reliable pitch reference

While ocarinas have unstable pitch, they also lack a built-in way of teaching you how to control it. I think the most intuitive way of developing this skill is to play with a stable reference pitch. When multiple notes sound together, it is pretty obvious when a note is in tune, as it sounds clean and pure. Some instruments provide a reliable reference—the violin, for example, as the pitches of its open strings are stable. A player can make use of this by playing a fingered note with an open string, listening for the cleanest sound. On the ocarina, this can only be done using external accompaniment, in absence of which it is easy to be completely oblivious to tuning errors.

Ocarinas have two thumb holes

In order to maximise the available range, single chambered ocarinas have two thumb holes. This is a technical challenge because the right thumb hole is also the primary support point. There are ways of opening this hole without dropping the ocarina, but it is a technical challenge, and one that doesn't exist in any other instrument I'm aware of. As they produce range in a different way, multichambers generally don't have a right thumb hole, so don't have this issue.

Ocarinas are monophonic

The ocarina is monophonic, meaning that it only sounds one note at a time, thus you cannot develop an understanding of harmony playing it alone. If you only wish to play melodies, it may not be apparent why this is an issue. The thing is, melodies and harmony are closely related, and understanding harmony gives you a much deeper appreciation for the music you are playing. It is also a prerequisite for improvisation, as you must develop an intuition for how notes sound together. Harmony ocarinas do little to help as they are so technically limited.

The ocarina cannot teach you to use volume dynamics

The most common way of creating emphasis in music is by changing volume, such as to emphasise the key words of a song. It is also used on a larger scale, and I'm sure you've observed pieces of music which start softly, then ramp up for the big finale. Many instruments can vary the volume of each of their notes separately, but ocarinas cannot naturally do this. Each fingering only sounds in tune at one volume, and ocarinas have an innate volume dynamic where the high notes are louder than the low. Because of this limitation, you cannot learn to use volume dynamics by playing the ocarina.

Ocarinas have a limited sounding range

In music, 'range' refers to the highest and lowest note an instrument can play and ocarinas, especially single chambers, don't play many notes. Having fewer notes can be easier to understand initially, but will block your progress long term. A lot of music is written for instruments with a larger range, and there is no guarantee that anything you want to play will actually be playable. This can be especially confusing when playing by ear, as you will often encounter notes that don't exist on your instrument. Whether a note is high or low also creates different musical effects, and it is difficult to appreciate this when your instrument can't play them.

In closing

It is important to note that I'm not trying to put you off. You certainly can learn the ocarina as a first instrument if you are inspired to do so. None of the issues raised above are fundamentally unsolvable:

  • You can find a remote location to practise without bothering others.
  • Breath control and intonation can be developed by playing with accompaniment.
  • Emphasis can be created with ornamentation instead of volume.
  • You can learn harmony by messing around with a piano or keyboard.
  • The range and ergonomic issues can be addressed by playing multichambers.

One's initial experience of playing an instrument is analogous to speaking a foreign language using a phrase book. The basics will be there but many details will be missing, details critical to creating an interesting performance. Learning these deeper elements is going to take a long time on any instrument, so the most important thing is to choose one that you will stick with.

However, I do feel that other instruments make the initial learning process less painful. Learning an instrument is hard because you are actually developing two skills, learning to understand music and learning the how to reproduce what you know on an instrument. Doing that on the ocarina can be challenging, as there are many skills you must learn before you can sound good. These include fingerings, breath control, and articulation.

Some instruments simplify this initial task, such as xylophone (and related instruments), keyboard, and melodica. All of these have stable pitch and all of them can be played without complex technique. The xylophone is obvious as you just bash the right bar with a stick, and the same end can be reached on keyboard and melodica if you play with one finger. While this is technically 'poor technique', I don't consider that a problem. It lets you get started easily and the limitations of that approach rapidly become apparent.

The point here is to enable you to start developing an intuitive understanding of music, and get the desire to 'just play something' out of your system. Playing most instruments requires technique and developing it requires repetitive practice and a focus on accuracy. The initial urge to rush ahead doesn't help, and tends to lead to sloppy playing. Thus, once you've got this desire out of your system, can bash out a few tunes and understand some of the basic concepts of music, you will be in a good position to approach any instrument.

While keyboard and xylophone may appear more complex than a single chambered ocarina as they have more notes, they are far simpler than they look. The notes repeat in a simple structure called octaves, and once you understand this, you understand the basis of all Western melody and harmony instruments. Playing one of these instruments is also a useful tool to aid your ocarina playing, as you can use them to understand harmony and volume dynamics. Instruments can be approached as learning tools and, as such, you don't have to play them well to get valuable insights.

An instrument's limitations can prevent you from learning certain aspects of music; however, in a performance situation, these limitations give an instrument its characteristic sound. They can usually be worked around in other ways, and no instrument is better than any other, as this depends on the effect that is desired in the music. For example, the tin whistle is technically more limited than the ocarina in some regards, but there is a lot of great music featuring it.

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