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.

Playing the ocarina requires quite a few skills to come together at once, and can easily become overwhelming. The method that I have 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 makes playing an instrument much easier.

Rhythm

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.

After this point, you can start introducing rhythms that hold notes for multiple beats, clapping them to a metronome. Its also a good opportunity to show how these patterns are represented in sheet music by varying the note shapes.

Introduce how a note sounds when early or late in a rhythm, as this will let children learn how to self-correct mistakes.

The Maori stick game is another practical rhythm game, and video games are another great option for learning rhythm intuitively.

Pitch

A melody is a series of pitches played to a rhythm, and for a lot of children, an intuition for pitch can be taught via 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.

Hearing pitch may or may not come naturally, but that should not be a problem as pitch can be easily visualised. The idea of discrete notes can be introduced by showing how to use a chromatic tuner, or a pitch graph for instance.

For children who don't get a long 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 play it on xylophone.

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.

Timbre

The other fundamental is timbre, or 'tone colour', and can be demonstrated easily by showing the same note, and simple melodies in the same pitch, played on multiple instruments.

Introducing children to the ocarina

At this point the children should be able to:

  • Sing some basic melodies
  • clap their rhythm.

With those fundamentals in place, introducing the ocarina should be quite easy.

But before any music can be played, the children need to learn how to hold the ocarina, and how the instrument behaves. Start by introducing how to hold the instrument, and be especially conscious to correct mistakes. Holding the ocarina wrong easily leads to hand pain.

You can also introduce how to finger a few notes. Intuition may suggest teaching the ocarina's low notes first, but there are notable advantages to teaching playing 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 introducing how to support the instrument with the right pinky.

This point was raised by Nicolas Miranda during one of the American ocarina festivals, who has taught the ocarina in schools and achieved impressive results in terms of student progress and skill.

Blowing and making a noise

Now introduce how to breathe from the diaphragm, and how to blow the instrument. 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:

  • Introduce the fingering for a single note on the ocarina, and explore how the instrument sounds when blown at different pressures. Guide the children to hear how the pitch and timbre changes with different pressure, 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.
  • explore the consonances and dissonances that can be created together as a group. Ask them to see how bad a sound they can make. ask them if they can 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 is impossible 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.

If you just show how to finger the melody that you have taught them to sing, it should come naturally as they already know approximately how it should sound.

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.

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. Try to allow the children to play individually.

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:

  • Show the children how to look up sheet music for songs they like.
  • Show then how to adapt it to the ocarina.

The goal of music education should be to develop independence.

Articulation, ornamentation and musicality

To play the ocarina musically, it is very important that the children develop a sense of musicality. 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.

Musicality is what turning a bunch of notes into something that sounds musical. 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:

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. Introduce how to recognise figures and phrases in a performance.