Practising the ocarina effectively

Perhaps the best place to start answering the question of practising the ocarina effectively, is to ask 'Why do you need to practice playing the ocarina at all?'

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, everything feels arduous; you have to think about every little detail.

That arises because the mind has two parts: conscious and subconscious.

Many things that you do day to day are handled by your subconscious mind, such as talking to a friend while walking. You only need to think about your conversation, and walking just happens.

Practice is how we achieve this automation, and good practice is based on two fundamentals, Repetition and Breaking things down.


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.

This is often called 'muscle memory', but that term can be misleading. You can train your subconscious to hear sheet music in your head. The fundamental process by which that is learned is the same, yet does not involve one's muscles.

Breaking things down

You have two kinds of memory:

  • Short term, or 'working memory', which stores the things that you are thinking about right now.
  • Long term memory, the things that you have been doing for years and instinctively know.

When you first learn something new, it starts out in your short-term memory. This is problematic as short term memory can only store a very limited amount of information. It varies between people, but is generally somewhere between 2 and 8 things.

Breaking complex tasks into smaller chunks brings the task within the limits of your short term memory. It makes it easier to remember and practice them.

Putting it into practice

1: Choose ONE ocarina and stick with it

A complexity with learning to play the ocarina is that instruments from different makers differ hugely in their playing characteristics and ergonomics.

Its much easier to learn if you just choose one ocarina and stick with it. Your practice can then internalise the breath curve, finger hole locations, and unique ergonomics of supporting the instrument on the high and low notes.

2: Know the things that produce good sounds

Secondly in practising the ocarina effectively is understanding 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!

For the ocarina, the things needed to play well include the following points. These link to articles discussing the topics in detail:

It is really important to be aware of good technique, and common mistakes to avoid as your subconscious is not smart. It can be trained by any repetitive practice, and will automate bad practices just as readily as good ones.

3: 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 essential to practising effectively.

The learning process goes roughly like this:

  • Choose one thing that you want to work on
  • Practice it for a few minutes.
  • Move on to the next thing.

If you want to learn how to play a song, you may want to learn the unique rhythms in the song, then break it into fragments a few notes long and them practice them individually. This is discussed 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 how ornamentation is being used.

The cool thing is, when 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.

4: Practising slowly

When you start it can be tempting to want to play everything as fast as possible, but this won't help you learn. As noted, the goal of practice is to train your subconscious mind to do the thing for you.

Practising slowly is the best way of making fast progress as it allows you to focus on the details of what you are doing. And then after a few days, you'll find that you can suddenly do whatever you've been practising at a higher tempo without making mistakes.

Such detailed focus provides a good 'signal' for your subconscious mind to learn from. Fast, sloppy practice by comparison means that you can't focus on anything, and you'll make a lot of mistakes.

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. But 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

There is a lot of information available online about how to organise practice sessions, ans generally it will be something like: warm ups such as scales / intervals, learning new music, practising known music. Other things like rhythm exercises or ear training can be added as you wish.

The most important thing is to practice regularly, preferably every day due to a phenomenon called the spacing effect. It is more effective to do short, frequent practice sessions spaced out in time, versus large infrequent ones.

Exactly what you practice is going to change over time, as a beginner may spend more time working on the fundamentals, and with experience that may shift more towards learning more songs, or developing playing style.

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.

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.

Subconscious training can be changed by consciously taking back control. You return to slow and deliberate practice, incorporating the new technique.

It may seem perverse, but as you do this, 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.

It also helps to use tools like a mirror, a drone or tuner, and your other hand to limit your finger movements. All of these help to bring mistakes to your attention.

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

Further considerations

Nobody becomes an awesome player straight away, and it is perfectly fine to work at whatever level you are at, don't compare yourself to others. One day, you'll wake up and it'll magically become easy.

I'd recommend reading the book How We Learn, a great resource on effective learning, as well as paying attention to your own practice and results.

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