Why does my ocarina have airy high notes?

Ocarinas can have airy high notes for a number of reasons, commonly dirt in the windway and not blowing hard enough. It's also a symptom of badly made ocarinas.

You may not be blowing hard enough

A very common reason that an ocarina will have airy high notes is because you are not blowing hard enough. As holes are opened, air can escape the chamber. To compensate for this, you must blow harder or the tone will become more and more airy.

This mistake is easily identified as if you are under-blowing the high notes, they will also be flat. You can use a chromatic tuner to check that the note you are fingering is sounding at the correct pitch. This is covered in more detail on the page 'Playing the ocarina in tune'.

The windway may be blocked

If your ocarina has suddenly become airy, this may be due to dirt in the windway; dirt can build up over time, and insects may also crawl into the windway. Any obstruction in the windway is a problem as it will create turbulence and increase airiness.

You can clean the windway by folding a strip of paper and pushing it through. Note that wind-ways are normally much larger at the mouthpiece end than the voicing. If your paper gets stuck, reduce the number of folds—don't force it through. For larger obstructions, you would be better off pushing the paper through from the voicing end.

You may be blowing into the windway at the wrong angle

How you blow an ocarina has a significant impact on the tone you get from the high notes. It's important to hold the ocarina so the air flows directly into the windway without a 'kink' at the lips as this creates turbulence.

  • Keep your head up and hold the ocarina straight in front of you.
  • Use a mirror to see what you are doing.

Ocarina being blown correctly, creating a smooth air passage from the mouth into the instrument. The ocarina is held parallel with the ground, with the head in a normal upright position

A diagram showing an ocarina being blown at a poor angle, with the ocarina angled sharply down. This will increase turbulence and result in a worse tone

You may have a bad ocarina

If your ocarina still sounds airy after checking the three things mentioned above, there is a very good change you have a badly made ocarina.

Unfortunately ocarinas are often made as decorations / novelty items which are not designed to play well. The page 'Evaluating ocarina quality' will tell you what you need to identify ocarinas designed as serious instruments.

It really is not worth skimping, as a bad instrument makes your job as a player much more difficult. In relation to other instruments good ocarinas are not expensive.

Side Note

You may have run across the 'acute bend' from other sources, a technique which purportedly improves the sound of an ocarina's high notes by shading the ocarina's voicing against your chest.

I believe this is an acoustic effect that increases the perceived loudness to the player by bouncing sound off their chest into their ears.

From what I've observed of others doing this in person, it makes little difference to an observer's perspective. It can actually sound worse as the sound coming from the voicing is directed downwards, away from the audience.

I do not recommend using this technique as it is ergonomically awkward and looks silly in a performance. Any ocarina marketed as 'needing' this technique is a bad instrument.

You may be shading the finger holes

Even if a finger hole is open, there is a notable distance where the presence of a finger will 'shade' the hole, causing the ocarina to play flatter than it should. If you blow harder to compensate, the increased airflow makes the ocarina sound more airy.

Watch yourself playing in a mirror and make sure you are not doing this. To check how the high note sounds under optimal conditions, play it it while holding the ocarina by its ends so no fingers are close to the holes.

The right ring finger is close to, and shading the right ring finger hole of an ocarina. The pitch of an ocarina's hole will be affected whenever there is an object in close proximity to it, and having a finger close (a few mm) above a hole will somewhat reduce its pitch. This is generally a problem as it requires more pressure to be used to sound the fingered note in tune, and the note will sound more airy

Your palm may be in the airstream

As you play higher notes, you blow harder. If this fast-moving air hits your left palm, it makes a noise. Consequently, you should keep your hand out of the air-stream when playing the high notes.

If you're playing using the 3 point grip, an easy way to do this is to open the pinky hole by rotating the left hand from the wrist, pivoting on the index finger.

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

You may be creating turbulence with your tongue position

The position of your tongue has a large impact on tone clarity: raising the back of your tongue, or positioning its tip too close to your teeth results in a noisy tone.

  • Keep the rear of your tongue at the base of the mouth at all times.
  • The tip of your tongue should also rest at the base of the mouth, inline with the lip and covering the teeth, unless you are tonguing a note.
Rear of tongue raised (bad)

A demonstration of a poor mouth posture for blowing an ocarina. The rear of the tongue is raised, resulting in turbulence, which will create a noisy tone

Tongue too close to teeth (bad)

A diagram demonstrating a poor ocarina blowing technique. The tongue is too close to  the teeth, resulting in turbulence and a noisy tone

There is another valve in the thought called the glottis, which is the 'lid' that closes if you hold your breath with your mouth open. When playing the ocarina, the glottis should be fully open at all times as restricting this will also harm the high notes.

The ocarina may be fine, but...

Your perception of the instrument is not the same as your audience's

How an ocarina sounds to you differs from how it sounds to an audience. The high notes will sound more airy to you because the ocarina is only inches from your ears. Also, ocarinas have irregular sound projection, and most volume goes directly forwards away from the voicing—and you by extension.

This isn't a problem from the perspective of an audience. Wind noise is much less audible to someone listening from a distance.

Whe you play an ocarina, the majority of the instrument's sound goes directly away from the voicing, and you by extension. The sound you hear as a player is a combination of sound diffracted around the instrument, plus environmentally reflected sound. What you hear is not the same thing listeners hear, and I advise getting someone else to blow your ocarina so you can hear it from a listener's perspective

Because of this, I strongly recommend finding out how your instrument sounds as an observer. Get someone else to blow it—preferably using good technique—and have a walk around. You may be surprised by how different it sounds.

The sound you hear is affected by room acoustics

The ocarina's pure timbre is quite susceptible to an acoustic effect called comb filtering. The sound reflections inside a room may make certain notes sound stronger or weaker than they actually are. Try playing outside in a wide open space to get a true sense of how your instrument sounds.

Psychology is also a factor

If the ocarina is your first instrument and you suddenly notice the airiness, it may be a psychological effect. It is easy to miss how your instrument sounds due to 'selective awareness'.

When you first play an instrument, everything is a conscious effort: your attention is saturated with multiple things like fingerings and breath control. As your attention is there, you don't notice the sound of your instrument.

As you spend more time playing music, these things become subconscious and, as this happens, you can pay more notice to what you actually sound like. Thus, you may suddenly notice things that were always there but you were not aware of. This is a good thing as it means that you are making progress.

The ocarina is airy by design

Some ocarinas are airy by design, such as those made by Fabio Menaglio.

These ocarinas were designed to fill large music halls and have a large voicing to achieve a high volume. A side effect of this is it makes the sound more airy. This isn't a problem from the perspective of an audience as wind noise is much less audible to someone listening from a distance.

Also, an airy timbre isn't bad in and of itself, and can be very effective for some types of music. The problem is rather an ocarina which is imbalanced, with a clean low end and airy high end.

More holes equals more airy high notes

The more holes an ocarina has, the more airy sounding its high notes will tend to be. This is a side effect of the instrument's lossy physics.

A 10 hole ocarina will generally have a cleaner sounding high end than a 12 hole, but this does depend on instrument quality. Multichambers are even better as the individual chambers only provide a small portion of the total range.

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