Five common ocarina mistakes to avoid

These are five common mistakes made on the ocarina, all of these are easy to correct and will improve the sound of your music.

1: Playing out of tune

Playing out of tune is perhaps the most common mistake among new ocarina players. The ocarinas pitch is really unstable: playing in tune requires fine breath control and a trained ear. Unfortunately until you learn what to listen for you won't be able to correct these errors. You may notice that something sound's off but not know why.

The most intuitive way to develop your intonation is to play with accompaniment. When two sounds that are not in tune interact an audible warble is created. This enables you to home in on the correct pitch by raising or lowering your breath pressure. Over time this becomes automatic.

The conscious mind can only think about one thing at a time. Until your fingerings become subconscious you won't hear what your pitch is doing. To develop that skill work on your intonation by itself, playing long tones against a drone is a good starting point. You can also record yourself, when you listen back you'll hear errors that you had no awareness of.

2: Lifting fingers too high

It is common for new players to lift there fingers much higher than needed. Lifting your fingers too high achieves nothing and may actively harm your playing. In particular it will hold you back when you try to play faster. Reducing excessive finger movement is an easy way to improve your playing.

It is important to note that you can have your fingers too close to the holes. A finger just above a hole will cause it to sound flatter than it should. There is a point where the finger no longer notably affects the pitch, which is where you should aim to keep them. This is around two centimeters/ an inch above the holes but does vary.

It is easy to check using a chromatic tuner: play a long tone on a note in the middle of the range, on an alto C G is good. Slowly lower the finger for the note below towards its hole and notice where the pitch starts to change. You must not change your blowing pressure while doing this. Once you have found where the fingers no longer affect the pitch aim to keep them just above this point.

Excessive finger movement
Controlled finger movement

Controlling your finger movements can feel awkward for a few days, but becomes automatic once it enters your muscle memory. To learn to control your finger movements practice lifting and replacing your fingers slowly in a mirror. Aim to keep them close to the holes. If you practice with one hand at a time you can use the other hand to block excess movement. How to do so is shown in the pictures below.

This should be your standard playing position but there are occasions where you may want to lift your fingers higher. It can be useful to raise a finger higher in preparation for playing a strike, a finger articulation. The run up helps the finger to bounce off, creating the brief sound essential to a good strike.

3: Poor hand posture

Notice in the above picture that several fingers are sharply bent. Poor hand posture like this can make the ocarina painful to hold and may hinder your playing. It is something that should be avoided.

You should hold the ocarina so that your fingers are gently curved along their length. Arms should follow the line of the wrists, generally relatively tight to the sides. Look at how you hold the ocarina in a mirror, look for any fingers resting at odd angles and see if you can correct them.

Ending up with a scrunched hand posture is frequently the result of poor thumb placement. The thumb should rest flat against it's hole. You should never cover the right thumb hole with the tip of the thumb. Additionally if you are able to bend the thumb backwards, 'hitch hikers thumb', never do so. Doing either of these forces your fingers into a scrunched position. Bending the thumb backwards may cause joint pain if done for a number of months/years.

This can come from an instrument which is poorly suited to your hands. Everyones hands are different and it is impossible to design an single instrument optimal for everyone. Short of having an ocarina custom made for you, there are ways of working around this. It is OK for fingers to hang over holes, covering the hole towards the last joint of the finger. Also you should try other ocarinas. If you can work out a hole position that works better for you and are able to communicate it, a maker may be able to make a custom instrument to accommodate this.

4: Curling fingers back

Another poor technique is curling fingers back when lifting them. In typical playing this is not a good idea. Curling moves the fingers far from there respective holes, making it much more time consuming to cover them again. This will limit you as you try to play more complex music. The only good reason to curl your fingers is to play a slide. Even then then the curling should be kept to a minimum.

If you notice that you are doing this it is quite easy to correct. Practice lifting and replacing fingers without curling them. This becomes automatic after a few days, just make a point to correct whenever you make a mistake. Keep your fingers in a good playing position whenever possible.

5: Rolling off the left pinky

I've seen a number of players handle the highest note by rolling back the left pinky, supporting the ocarina along its secondary plane of balance. While this may be useful in some circumstances, on the whole I don't think it's a good idea. Rolling off the pinky leaves the finger very close to the hole. Unless the ocarina was tuned to accommodate this it causes the note to sound flatter than it should. Compensating by blowing harder results in a harsher and more airy tone.

Instead of doing this I advise learning to play using the 3 point grip. Place the left index finger on the ocarinas cappello, roll the right thumb and and lift the pinky off the hole. This allows the pinky to move clear of the hole allowing the note to sound as intended. Rolling off the right thumb does not cause a problem as the design of most ocarinas moves the finger a good distance from the hole.

This technique also provides a second advantage, by rotating the left wrist the palm can be moved clear of the air stream leaving the voicing. This reduces the air-noise caused by the air striking the palm and provides a cleaner sounding high note.


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