Problems with markiting the ocarina

While the ocarina is a capable instrument in skilled hands, some aspects of the instrument itself, as well as other things like naming conventions, make the ocarina difficult to market as a serious instrument. These are covered below.

The name is ambiguous

The term 'ocarina' is often used as a catch all for vessel flutes, instruments based on a hollow chamber. It can refer to things made purely as novelty items, to serious musical instruments and other things that straddle the line. There are variations of other instruments which share a name, 'flute' for instance can refer to Boehm flute, simple system flute and native American flute. In this context, it isn't that much of an issue, as the Boehm flute is the default archetype.

There isn't really an equivalent with the ocarina, and large groups of people use the term to refer to different things. Consequently, when the term is used alone, it often isn't clear what someone is talking about, or what someone will envisage when they read it. And while classifiers do exist, they are rarely used. Different people consider different types the 'true' ocarina, and this tends to cause a lot of pointless arguments.

From the point of view of the general public I can see this being very confusing. A newcomer who wants to learn the instrument may not realise that only some types are playable. There is also a good chance of it having a negative impact on the instruments reputation. People tend to develop fixed connections between names and what they represent. If most people are exposed to the 'ocarina' as a novelty item, they won't look any deeper.

I have nothing against these different types in principle, as novelty items and serious instruments both have a place. People are naturally interested in different things and form different communities around those interests. But, in other contexts, the distinction between these things is usually clear from naming, which allows people to find what they want. The distinction with ocarinas is much more blurry.

There seems to be a decided lack of imagination among those creating variations on this instrument, as similar instruments in other families often have unique names. Guitars, ukuleles and mandolins are technically based on the same idea for instance. The situation that exists with naming of the ocarina would be like using 'guitar' to refer to all of these, and it should be obvious why this would be confusing.

For these reasons, I consider the ocarina to be a collection of different instruments which happen to have the same name. I would recommend anyone innovating on this instrument to be more creative with naming choices, and am grateful that the Xun and Hucca (pronounced shoon and wakka) actually have their own names.

They look simpler than they are

Because the ocarina is visually simple, people not fully familiar with music might think that it doesn't require deliberate practice or technique like more visually complicated instruments.

In reality playing the ocarina is relatively technically involved. The instruments pitch is unstable, and needs fine breath control to maintain, plus the shape of this breath curve varies with temperature. The best-tuned fingerings for accidentals vary between ocarinas due to differences in chamber acoustics, and wind instruments in general are more complex than initially apparent, as many techniques happen out of sight inside the body.

Many of these factors may be difficult to notice without tuition, as they are only apparent when looked at in a very specific way, and thus I feel that practise methodology and technique are just as important with the ocarina as they are on any other instrument. However the possibility for this interpretation still exists, and unless it is offset by publicly visible skilled performance, is liable to negativity affect the instruments reputation.

This can be seen in the recorder and the tin whistle. Both are tubular wind instruments and by that nature capable of smiler playing styles. The tin whistle is widely played in Irish traditional music. It is treated as a serious part of the tradition, and is played to a very high standard. The recorder by comparison, is often considered a child's instrument. They can be played to an equally high standard, but very few people are actually aware of this.

As was noted in the previous section, people develop fixed ideas about things. They take things at face value, and rarely question things for themselves. Thus, if an instrument has a reputation of being incapable, most people disregard it and don't even bother to try and play it well. Once such stigmas become ingrained in a wide population they are VERY difficult to shift.

I have nothing against playing an instrument in a non-serious way for personal enjoyment, but I do feel that other instruments can cater to this need better than the ocarina. Some instruments automate certain things for the player, keyboard for instance has stable pitch. In doing this, the player can ignore them and still get a good sound.

It would be entirely possible to create an ocarina-like electronic instrument, witch stable pitch and consistent fingerings. Due to the issue noted in the previous section I strongly recommend calling such an instrument something else.

Melody instruments are 'weird'

I think melody instruments are culturally weird in the current world. Mainstream pop music is often based on digital synthesisers, and is vocal focused. Within this framework, melody instruments have little space to occupy besides interludes, and are pretty rare overall. Because of this I suspect that many people lack a personal connection to these instruments, or have little intuitive sense of what they are good for.

Ocarinas are even more weird, as many of the things that they can do are remote, even relative to common instrumental music. Single chambered ocarinas have a small range, whereas instrumental music often uses a wide range. On many instruments, volume is used to create emphasis, but this is not the case with the ocarina. Instead, emphasis and phrasing come from articulation and ornamentation.

I don't know how to address this, other than making instrumental music more prominent. An instruments technical limitations often give it it's characteristic sound. It is certainly possible to create interesting music within a limited range, and without volume dynamics. Bagpipe music is a good example, along with much Irish traditional music.

The problem with Ocarina of Time

Ocarinas have been featured in a number of games in the 'legend of zelda' franchise, and probably the most well known of these is 'ocarina of time'. This is a double edged sword, while it has brought awareness of the ocarina to a wider audience, the 'ocarina' in the game is a poor depiction of the real instrument.

In order to appeal to a mass audience the game presents a trivialised point of view. A small number of controller buttons sound notes, and pressing one of these produces a stable tone. Short melodies are mapped to actions in the game, having an effect analogous to a keyboard shortcut. However, the fingerings bare no resemblance to the real instrument, and the total number of notes is small. Issues of breath control, articulation and misplaced fingers are completely ignored.

Additionally, the visual representation of the 'ocarina' in the game was obviously designed by someone who does not understand the instrument. It is unergonomic and the placement of the mouthpiece is acoustically poor. The holes were placed to mimic the Nintendo 64 controller and are impractical to cover under the real instruments physics. The rounded shape is also difficult to hold as it offers nowhere for fingers to grip.

Being their first exposure to the instrument, many people assume that this is how an ocarina should look. They seek out examples that follow this design, without being aware of its problems. Consequently they get an example of an ocarina which is harder to play than one designed only as a serious instrument, and are probably not aware of this.

Someone approaching the real instrument from this point of view may not be aware of the hidden details of the real instrument, and it naturally leads into the 'no technique' point of view that I have mentioned above. Such people frequently seem to only be interested in playing music from this one game. They often end up playing from tabs, which themselves have a number of problems.

The game has done a good job presenting the ocarina to a wider audience, but I feel that it has served it's prepose. The ocarina community needs to grow beyond it. I don't think that it is healthy for a newcomer to music to be functioning within such a constrained point of view, as it will limit what they can learn. This music is also very simplistic and isn't representative of what the ocarina can do if pushed.

How ocarina of time presents itself resembles the ocarina-like electronic instrument mentioned above. I don't think that making a simplification is itself a problem, but equating this directly to a real instrument is misleading. As I have mentioned on the page Teaching music with video games I do feel that games of this nature could be done better. Taking a wider view of music, and being inclusive of rhythm and harmony, in addition to melody.

Other problems

There are a number of other problems. Firstly ocarinas are very maker centric. The fingering is basically standardised, but other details like ergonomics are not. Ocarinas are often designed for visuals first, and there is a lack of awareness of how design impacts playability. Thus it comes down to player awareness to pick out the most playable instruments.

Even beyond this issue ocarinas have diverse playing characteristics, and I feel that the terms used to describe these are weak. For instance, the terms 'low breath' and 'high breath' describe blowing pressure, yet carry little meaning as they are subjective. What one maker considers high breath often doesn't align with another maker, and may not align with the players expectation. A lack of awareness of the impact of tuning temperature on the breath curve is also a problem.

It also appears that a lot of terminology was developed with little awareness of other instruments. For example, the naming of pitch ranges. The term 'bass' is used to refer to ocarinas pitched around middle C, which in other instruments is not considered 'bass'. Stating that an ocarina is 'in a key' is also misleading, as they are fully chromatic. What this actually describes is the range of notes available.

With most instruments, there is a clear distinction between makers and teachers, makers make the instruments, and the teaching materials are made by skilled players. This separation doesn't really exist with the ocarina. Most of the teaching materials are provided by makers and there isn't really a widespread awareness of good technique. Additionally, many of the skilled players are affiliated with a given maker, creating a skewed perspective.

Closing

While I don't think that any of these problems are unsolvable, it is important to be aware of, and make an effort to counter them. It feels to me that things like technique are still in early development, despite the modern ocarina being a 19th century instrument.

Thoughts on...

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