Practising the ocarina effectively

To practise the ocarina effectively, it helps to understand what you are trying to achieve. Playing the ocarina is ultimately a series of finger movements and breath changes. In fact, if you could exactly copy the actions of another player using the same instrument, you would sound identical. Therefore, a large part of learning an instrument is learning the actions that produce good sounds.

Why do you need to practice playing the ocarina?

When an experienced musician plays an instrument, they do not consciously think about the mechanics of interacting with the instrument, rather they think only about the music.

But a newcomers experience is very different. When you play a new instrument, everything feels arduous; you have to think about every little detail. However, the longer you play, the less you have to think about it.

This happens because your mind has two parts: conscious and subconscious. Many things that you do day to day are handled by your subconscious mind. For example talking to a friend while walking. You only need to think about your conversation, and walking just happens.

Practice is a technique used to move things from your conscious mind to your subconscious, and good practice is based on two fundamentals:

  • Repetition
  • Breaking things down

Repetition works as your subconscious mind loves to automate the things that you do frequently. Repeating the same task highlights it above the other things you do in a day.

When you sleep your mind has chance to sort through all of this information. It notices something that you've been doing a lot, so it starts to automate it. When this happens, playing becomes second nature, like walking or talking.

And breaking things down is extremely useful as the conscious mind is flexible, yet very limited. There's a limit to how much new information it can handle at once, and so breaking things into smaller chunks helps a lot.

Isn't this muscle memory?

The principles I have described here are sometimes called 'muscle memory', but that phrase is misleading as subconscious automation can happen for things that do not involve your muscles. You can train your subconscious to hear sheet music in your head, for example.

The basics of practice

Awareness of good technique

Unfortunately, your subconscious is not smart. It can be trained by any repetitive practice, and will automate bad practices just as readily as good ones.

It is really important to be aware of good technique, and common mistakes to avoid. For the ocarina, the things needed to play well include the following points. These link to articles discussing the topics in detail:

Breaking things down

As was mentioned your conscious mind can only focus on a small number of things at a time, and trying to do everything at once can be overwhelming. Breaking things down is a great way of practising more effectively, and this can happen at a lot of different levels.

Breaking a long piece of music into fragments a few notes long, them practice them individually, is one example of this approach, as was explained in Playing your first music on the ocarina.

And here are a few more options:

  • Practice breath control in isolation by playing long tones.
  • Practice fingering a sequence of notes without blowing. You can even do this without an instrument!
  • Learn a rhythm by listening to a recording and clapping when each note starts.
  • Practice listening to music without playing, noticing how the melody moves, and the ornamentation being used

The cool thing is, even if you practise things separately, your subconscious mind will combine the pieces for you. Once you have practised things in isolation, doing them at the same time becomes easy.

Side Note

Note that how much you need to break things down varies between people, and also past experience. Experimenting and finding out what works best for you is really worthwhile.

Practising slowly

'Slow is fast', is a common phrase among musicians.

Practising slowly is the best way of making fast progress as it allows you to really focus on the details of what you are doing. It may be tempting to want to always play as fast as you can, but it isn't the path to playing well.

Practising slowly allows you to do the things as well as your current ability allows.

And then once they become subconscious you'll find that you can suddenly do whatever you've been practising at a higher tempo without making mistakes. The goal is indirect, to train your subconscious to do the thing, and not to immediately do the thing.

As you play, you will notice things that you find difficult, like part of a rhythm or a single finger transition. Take note of them and practice these slowly in isolation. Perhaps you find that you still struggle, but that's OK.

Sometimes, you have to build a foundation before you can access more advanced skills. Whatever you do, don't avoid things you find difficult, as avoiding something is condemning yourself to be bad at it.

Structuring your practice time

It is more effective to practise in many short sessions over a long period of time than fewer long ones due to the spacing effect. A good practice method will produce great and noticeable progress from only a small amount of time.

A good practice session might look something like this:

  • Warm ups, such as long tones, scales, and intervals.
  • Learning new music
  • Practising music that you know, and developing it expressively

Of coarse, exactly what you practice is going to change over time, a beginner may spend more time working on the fundamentals, and with experience the time spent on them will reduce.

I recommend keeping a record of what you have practised in one session, so that you can revise the same things in your subsequent practice sessions and see how you are improving.

What matters most in practice is consistency, dedicating time to it every day, and working on things so that you progress over time.

Correcting mistakes

Even with your best efforts to avoid doing so, you may end up developing techniques you later discover are a bad practice. This is not a problem and everyone experiences it.

What you have trained your subconscious to do can be changed within a few weeks, but it does require a deliberate effort.

You have to take back control from your subconscious, and this is best done by returning to slow and deliberate practice, incorporating the new technique.

Something that could seem perverse is that the mistake will feel natural, while your new approach will feel wrong and difficult. The new technique feels difficult for the same reason playing a new instrument for the first time feels difficult, its just new to you.

Note that as soon as your focus shifts, you will go back to your old method for a number of days after you start learning a new technique. You may not notice that you are doing so.

Using tools like a mirror to see what you are doing, a drone or tuner for judging your intonation, and your other hand to limit your finger movements, all help to create awareness of what you are doing.

After a while, the new technique will take over and it becomes automatic.

Further considerations

Allow yourself to suck, nobody becomes an awesome player straight away.

It will take time as playing the ocarina is so dependent on the subconscious. One day, you'll wake up and it'll magically become easier. learning can have a delayed response; it may take a few weeks, or even months, for the fruits of your efforts to fully show.

It is perfectly fine to work at whatever level you are at, don't compare yourself to others. Make time to have fun playing your instrument in addition to deliberate practice.

The book How We Learn is an good resource on effective learning, and the ideas I have given here are a mixture of research and experience from self study. I advise that you study your own learning; what works best for you may be different.