Seven common ocarina mistakes to avoid

This page details seven of common mistakes made on the ocarina. All of these are easy to correct, and doing so will hugely 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 unstable, and it is very easy to play a collection of notes that don't even fit in one scale. 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.

Intonation can be developed intuitively by playing 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 following tool simulates what you will hear; try dragging the pitch slider right or left and observe how the sound changes.

Do be aware that you may not notice intonation errors until your fingerings become subconscious. It helps to record yourself. 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.

Articulation is especially important on the ocarina as the instrument cannot easily vary its volume. Instead, varied articulation creates emphasis, and makes your music sound musical.

The two common mistakes are to:

  • Articulate notes using a bad technique.
  • Use too many articulations.

Often, the most intuitive way to separate notes on a wind instrument is to 'puff' like blowing out a candle. 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.

What you actually want is notes to start and end crisply, and to do so you need to use your tongue to control the air, which is discussed in 'Blowing an ocarina correctly'.

Bad blowing

An intuitive way of articulating sounds on the ocarina is to pulse your breath, similar to blowing out a candle, however this results in the pitch ramping up and rolling off, never staying at a single pitch. Playing like this sounds very indefinite

Good blowing

To articulate notes on the ocarina, it's best to use your tongue to control your airflow by touching the tip of the tongue to the roof of your mouth. By doing this notes start and finish cleanly, and the duration of the note stays at a single pitch. Other blowing techniques can be used to create ornamentation, but this should be your basis

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.

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 create phrasing you vary your articulations, 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: Poor hand posture

Right hand holding an ocarina, with awkward hand posture and all fingers resting at odd angles. This is not a good idea and will probably cause hand pain. Fingers should lie along a similar path, with a gentle curve along their length

Poor hand posture may cause hand pain, or make playing needlessly difficult. A clear sign of poor hand posture is sharply bent fingers, which can be seen in the picture above.

Avoiding these issues 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.

The posture of the right hand while holding an ocarina. The hand is relaxed, and the fingers are gently curved

When holding an ocarina, the right hand should be slightly angled in relation to the body of the ocarina, with relaxed fingers gently curved along their length

Problems with hand posture are usually the result of thumb placement. The right thumb especially should rest straight, with the pad covering the hole.

In particular, don't:

  • Cover the right thumb hole with the tip of the thumb.
  • Bend your thumb backwards, so-called 'hitchhiker's thumb'.
Never bend the right thumb backwards in resting position

If you can bend your right thumb backwards, 'hitchhikers thumb', never, NEVER! do so while holding an ocarina. Doing that means that the thumb cannot properly support the instrument, which makes it feel less stable, and makes it impossible to roll the thumb off the hole. Doing this also tends to make all of the other fingers tense and lie at strange angles, as it puts the hand out of alignment

Never cover holes with the tip of the finger

Never cover an ocarina's right thumb hole with the tip of the thumb

Doing either of these will tend to force your fingers into a scrunched position, and bending the thumb backwards may cause joint pain if done for a number of months or years.

Ergonomics is a complex topic with no 'one size fits all' solution, and the root issues may be that the ocarina you have is poorly suited to your hands. See Ocarina Ergonomics for some guidance.

4: Lifting fingers too high

A demonstration of playing the ocarina with the fingers lifted needlessly high. This achieves nothing, and makes it more difficult to play the ocarina at high tempo

Lifting your fingers too high can harm your playing. In particular, holding you back from playing at higher tempos, and increasing the risk of miscovering a hole.

Lifting fingers too high gets in the way of playing at higher tempos as if your fingers are farther away, they 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

Excessive, uncontrolled finger movement on the ocarina. The fingers are a long way from the hole, and would need to move a large distance to close it again. This is poor technique and makes playing quickly needlessly difficult

Controlled finger movement

A controlled finger movement on the ocarina, the finger is kept close to the hole, so that it only needs to move a small distance to close it again

How to control your finger movements is discussed in Controlling your finger movements. In summary, practise lifting and replacing your fingers slowly in a mirror. Aim to keep them close to the holes. Doing this can feel awkward for a few days, but becomes automatic once it enters your muscle memory.

You may find that it helps to practise with one hand at a time, using your other hand to block excess movement. See the pictures below.

Using the fingers of your other hand to learn to avoid excessive finger movements in the opposite hand. The fingers are placed above, waiting to block excessive movement

Using the fingers of your other hand to learn to avoid excessive finger movements in the opposite hand. The lower fingers are raised, and the opposite hand blocks excessive movement

5: Poor overall posture

It is important to note that hand posture is not everything, the posture of your whole body is important. Getting your posture right maximises the volume of your chest and means that you have far more air available. With the ocarina, that really matters. The high notes especially need a great deal of air to sound cleanly.

It is easiest to get a feel for good posture while standing. Give this a try:

  • Stand with your back to a wall.
  • Your heels, back and head should all touch the wall.
  • Adjust yourself if you need and remember what this feels like.

Building upon this basic posture, while playing the ocarina:

  • Turn your head slightly to the left, as it allows your wrists to lie more naturally.
  • Your arms should follow the line of the wrists, generally relatively tight to the sides of your torso.

It is worth checking your posture in a mirror. Common problems to look out for include folding your wrists back, and any fingers resting at odd angles. Try to adjust your posture and observe how it changes your hand positions, and also how your body feels.

When viewed from the front while holding an ocarina, your arms should be kept relatively close to your torso. Stand as straight as you can

A good general posture when holding an ocarina. Keep your head up and look straight but slightly left. Also, keep the ocarina up. Fingers should be relaxed and gently curved, and wrists should be repetitively straight

This does several things for you: it maximises the volume of your chest and the amount of air you can provide. If you do have to sit, sitting on a rolled up towel or block can help as it allows your chest to open.

6: Curling fingers back

A demonstration of a bad ocarina technique curling fingers when lifting them. This is bad as it moves the fingers a long way from the holes

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.

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 notice yourself making a mistake.

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.

7: Rolling off the left pinky

A demonstration of rolling the left pinky off an ocarina to play the high notes. This is a bad idea as it leaves the finger too close to the hole. Use the 3 point grip instead

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. It reduces the air-noise caused by the air striking the palm and provides a cleaner sounding high note.

Air leaving the voicing of an ocarina can impact the left hand and make a noise. This can be avoided if the hand is rotated from the wrist to move it out of the airstream