Seven common ocarina mistakes to avoid

While ocarinas look simple, there are a number of easy mistakes to make which harm your playing. This page details seven of these 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 ocarina's 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 sounds off but not know why.

I think that 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 changing your breath pressure and listening for a clean sound. Over time, this becomes automatic.

The conscious mind can only think about one thing at a time. This is a problem as you may not hear what your pitch is doing until your fingerings become subconscious. To develop that skill, work on your intonation by itself; playing long tones against a drone is a good starting point and, from there, slowly playing in unison with a teacher. You can also play over a recording you know is in tune.

Recording yourself also helps. When you listen back, you can give it your full attention, and you'll hear errors you were not aware of.

2: Making poor use of articulations

Another common mistake in those new to the ocarina is using articulations poorly. Articulation refers to how notes are separated, or the gaps between the notes. It is especially important on the ocarina as the instrument cannot easily vary its volume. Articulation also serves to create emphasis and phrasing.

People new to the ocarina often do two things: use too many articulations, or don't use any at all. Often, the most intuitive way to separate notes on a wind instrument is to 'puff'. It can be a useful technique for effects, but is poor in general as it causes the volume and pitch to ramp up, then roll off. To solve that issue, a technique called tonguing is used, whereby notes are started using the tongue. You can think of the syllable 'Thhh...'. See Blowing an ocarina correctly.

Bad blowing

Good blowing

The second mistake that is often made is, upon learning this technique, someone will articulate every note identically. This results in a piece of music sounding like a long string of notes with no emphasis whatsoever. I believe this is a large part of the 'beginner' sound.

The key to using articulations effectively is to understand phrasing. A phrase in music is somewhat like a sentence: it is a complete musical idea. Phrases are easily identified in in vocal music, as a phrase is usually a sentence, or a fragment separated by punctuation such as commas.

To make this come across in your playing, you vary your articulations, done by changing how long the tongue stops the air. A basic application of this idea is to use short articulations between notes within a phrase, and longer gaps between phrases. A lot more is possible as ocarinas can articulate notes in many ways. See Articulating notes on the ocarina and Articulation and ornamentation applied.

3: Lifting fingers too high

It is common for new players to lift their 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, as your fingers must move faster to cover the holes in time. Reducing excessive finger movement allows you to play to the limit of what your current skill allows.

Excessive finger movement
Controlled finger movement

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

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 centimetres or an inch above the holes but does vary.

It is easy to check your ocarina using a chromatic tuner. Start by playing 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.

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

In any regard, as you will see from another point made below, you should always know what you are doing with your fingers.

4: Poor hand posture

Due to the flexibility of the hand, it is possible to hold an ocarina in many ways, and not all of these are good. A clear sign that this is a problem is sharply bent fingers, which can be seen in the picture above. Poor hand posture like this can make the ocarina painful to hold and may hinder your playing. It is something that should be avoided.

This is covered on the page How to hold an ocarina, but to summarise: aim to hold the ocarina so that your fingers are parallel and gently curved along their length, with the possible exception of the pinky fingers.

Ending up with a scrunched hand posture can result from several things. One is holding the instrument too tightly, a so called 'death grip'. Often, this is done out of fear of dropping the instrument, but it won't help you play well, as tension results in jerky finger movements. If you hold the instrument well, you needn't worry about dropping it. Ocarinas are designed to balance on the right thumb, so you aren't going to drop the instrument.

Another thing that causes this is poor placement of the right thumb. You should never cover the right thumb hole with the tip of the thumb, rather the thumb should rest with the pad flat against the hole. Additionally, if you are able to bend the thumb backwards, so-called 'hitchhikers thumb', never do so. Doing either of these forces your fingers into a scrunched position, and bending the thumb backwards may cause joint pain if done for a number of months or years.

Never bend the right thumb backwards in resting position

Never cover holes with the tip of the finger

Because everyone's hands are different, hole placement also matters. 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. Hole placement is not standardised, so if you play a range of different ocarinas, you will find some of them more comfortable to play than others.

5: Poor overall posture

It is important to note that hand posture is not the whole issue. While playing any wind instrument, it is important to maximise the volume of your chest. Getting your posture right means you have far more air available, and with the ocarina, that really matters. The high notes especially need a great deal of air to sound cleanly.

It is easiest to maintain good posture while standing, so don't sit unless you have to. Hold your head up and keep your back straight while playing; don't hunch. This does several things for you: it maximises the volume of your chest and the amount of air you can provide. Most ocarinas are also balanced such that they will rest between the right thumb and pinky when parallel to the ground. Keeping your head up keeps the instrument's weight on your thumb, instead of the left pinky.

Your arms should follow the line of the wrists, generally relatively tight to the sides. It us useful to check your posture in a mirror. In particular, avoid folding the wrists back, and look for any fingers resting at odd angles. If you do have to sit, sitting on a rolled up towel or block is a good idea. This allows the pelvis to tilt forwards and chest to open.

Due to a number of factors including chair design and a lack of awareness, you may have a slouched posture without being aware. As long as you do not have chronic back problems, it can be improved with practice. A search for 'good standing posture' or 'tadasana' will show you how to do so. Please seek advice from a doctor if you have any doubts.

Under normal circumstances, your posture is maintained by your subconscious and a one-off correction will not be effective; as soon as your focus shifts, you will return to your old way, normally without your awareness. Consequently, correcting postural issues requires regular work over multiple weeks. Unless you fix the root cause of the issue, like eliminating chairs that lean back too far and raising computer monitors to eye level, you are unlikely to see any improvement.

6: 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 their 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, a kind of ornament. Even then, the curling should be kept to a minimum.

If you notice that you are doing this, it is quite easy to correct. Practise lifting and replacing fingers without curling them. This becomes automatic after a few days, so just make a point to correct yourself whenever you make a mistake. Keep your fingers in a good playing position whenever possible; see point 3 above.

7: 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 ocarina's cappello, then roll the right thumb 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.

Cons of the ocarina as a first instrument and what they cannot teach you Want to play well? Stop using ocarina tabs!

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