How to teach the ocarina to children
The ocarina can be a good instrument for children, but that does not mean that any haphazard approach will work. The method outlied here makes teaching the ocarina to children easier by breaking things down into simpler tasks.
But first, it should go without saying that if you want to teach the ocarina, it is important first to learn how to play the instrument to a high standard yourself, as:
- How can you guide anyone without understanding music?
- How can you inspire anyone if you don't know how to make an impressive performance?
- How can you correct mistakes if you don't know what those mistakes are?
The ocarina is not a toy, and it is capable of impressive performance in skilled hands. Being able to practically demonstrate what it can actually do will inspire learners to improve.
Start with music fundamentals
Teaching the ocarina to children is considerably easier if you realise that music can be broken into fundamentals which can be learned separately. Building a strong foundation in these first makes learning to play the ocarina much easier.
Rhythm is the repeating division of time, and is easy to teach to children with practical games. For example:
- Put on a metronome, or otherwise provide a steady beat.
- On one beat, touch the belly
- On the second beat, clap
- On the third beat, touch the head
- On the fourth beat, clap
Practice this repeatedly until it becomes natural for the children, then start introducing rhythms that hold notes for multiple beats.
Once a child can perform some rhythms, its a great point to start introducing the basics of rhythm notation. Use a single line rhythm staff and simple instruments like egg shakers, or clapping. Do not introduce pitch yet!
Show how rhythms of formed from different notes sound. Possibly introduce counting, or make use of words whose phrasing follows the rhythm. For instance, two eighth notes and a quarter note sounds the same as how we pronounce the syllables in the word 'Apple pie'.
The Maori stick game is another practical rhythm game, and rhythm based video games are another great option for learning rhythm intuitively, without approaches such as counting.
Pitch and timbre
With some grounding in the basics of rhythm, its a good time to start introducing the basics of pitch to the children. For example, show that:
- Notes can be high or low pitched, and what that sounds like.
- Demonstrate that notes of the same pitch can have a different timbre, or 'tone colour'. It can be demonstrated easily by showing the same note played on multiple instruments.
There are a few different ways of allowing children to experiment with pitch for themselves, such as:
- Singing For many children pitch can be taught intuitively through singing. So one option is to teach the children how to sing some melodies, which you will later be teaching how to play on the ocarina.
- Xylophone For children who don't get on with singing, the xylophone can also be effective. They are mechanically very simple and have stable pitch. You could for example teach a child how to clap the rhythm of a melody, and then show how to play it on xylophone.
- Improvised instruments. Improvising instruments by cutting plastic tubes to different lengths, and introducing how to make a whistle mouthpiece can be a lot of fun for children.
Hearing pitch may or may not come naturally, but that isn't a problem as pitch can be easily visualised. The idea of discrete notes can be shown with a chromatic tuner, or a pitch graph.
Don't forget that we have a lot of technology now, and yet another option for teaching pitch and melodies is to use a midi sequencer. They completely automate rhythm and have stable pitch. Playing a melody is just a matter of dragging note boxes around on a screen.
Introducing children to the ocarina
At this point the children should be able to:
- Sing some basic melodies.
- Clap their rhythm.
The first step in introducing children to the ocarina is learning how to hold the ocarina, and how the instrument behaves:
- Start by introducing how to hold the instrument, and pay attention to spotting and correcting mistakes. Holding the ocarina wrong, or too tightly easily leads to hand pain.
- Demonstrate a single fingering, and show that sound can be made by blowing into the mouthpiece.
Intuition may suggest teaching the ocarina's low notes first, but there are notable advantages to starting with the higher notes, meaning G to high C (on a C ocarina):
- The high notes require covering fewer holes, which means there is less opportunity to mis-cover the holes.
- The pitch of the higher notes is much more stable, which reduces the need for precise breath control.
- Teaching the high notes first entails supporting the instrument with the right pinky, which is an important skill to develop early.
This point was raised by Nicolas Miranda during one of the American ocarina festivals, who has taught the ocarina in schools. I am impressed by the technical competence his students, despite the education system providing a lacklustre environment for teaching instruments.
Now is a good time to introduce how to breathe from the diaphragm, and how to blow the instrument to create a stable tone.
A great place to start in teaching the ocarina to children is just experimenting with how the the instrument's sound changes at different pressures. For example:
- Using a single fingering explore blowing pressure. Guide the children to hear how the pitch and timbre changes when the ocarina is blown at different pressures, and how the instrument screeches when overblown.
- Explore how notes sound when played together. Have two children, or a teacher and a child, play notes together on the ocarina at varying pressures. Explore and observe how the sound 'beats' when the pitches are in close unison, and sounds clean when the pitches match exactly.
- See what dissonances can be created as a group. Ask them to see how bad a sound they can make. Can they find other pitches that sound clean besides unison? That's a great way of guiding them to discover what intervals and chords are.
Doing this from the start shows how fingering and pressure are equally important. It also highlights the importance of listening to the sound of one's own playing. Intonation can be hard to hear when playing alone, as intonation is essentially defined by how multiple notes sound when played together.
Teaching children to play a melody on the ocarina
With the fundamental skills in place, teaching the children to play a melody on the ocarina should be easy:
- Teach them how to sing a melody and how to clap it's rhythm.
- Demonstrate how to finger the melody, and playing it should come naturally.
Learning how to play it well is then mostly a matter of repetition. Drilling the fingerings and breath pressures until they become automatic. Demonstrate through practical example how playing gets easier with repetitive practice, don't ask them to practice on blind faith.
In a school environment, doing this effectively may require special planning as building muscle memory requires very reliable commitment. Five minutes a day will achieve far more than an hour lesson a week.
If you notice any mistakes do what you can to correct them, as mistakes can easily make things way more difficult than they need to be.
This is a great point to introduce how the vertical position of the note head in sheet music relates to the fingerings on an ocarina. Start out with a small range at first, and then gradually introduce more notes.
Do be aware that if teaching in a group, if all of the students are slightly out of tune with each other, it is physically impossible for anyone to hear their intonation. Allow the children to play individually, or in pairs.
Encourage the children to learn music they enjoy
One of the prevalent issues in music education is the teaching of music that is seems irrelevant or uninteresting from the point of view of the children. Realising 'I'm playing my favourite song' is an awesome feeling.
Thus you also want to be teaching the children the skills that they need to learn and play the music that they are personally interested in on the ocarina:
- Teach the children how scales work.
- Show the children how to look up sheet music for songs they like.
- Show then how to adapt it to the ocarina.
Articulation, ornamentation and musicality
Musicality is what turns a bunch of notes into something that sounds musical. It is pretty easy to 'fake' playing music on any instrument by visually showing someone how to play the notes, but such performances generally aren't very musical.
To play the ocarina musically, it is very important that the children develop a sense of musicality. Physically, it depends on effective use of ornamentation and subtle changes to rhythm. But learning how to use those things effectively is mostly a matter of listening and studying many performances.
Teaching musicality is really two different things:
- Introduce different ways of articulating notes, like tonguing and slurring.
- Teach the children how to listen to music and study it.
Music is a big topic which broadly divides into melody, harmony and rhythm, and a child can be guided to recognise these different aspects while listening.