Learning the harp - how to take the first steps
The ocarina is a small, one-piece wind instrument, also known as a spherical flute or vessel flute. The rounded shape is particularly characteristic for the ocarina, and provides a unique look. The ocarina takes its name from Italian. There, the word "ocarina" means something like "little goose", which fits the shape of the instrument quite well. But how exactly can the ocarina be played? And what do you have to pay attention to, for example, when buying the instrument? That's exactly what we'll show you here on the mukken blog.
The tradition and history of the ocarina goes back a long way. Thus, the first vessel flute is said to come from the ceramist Giuseppe Donati from Budrio in Italy. He made the first ocarina out of clay with a playing range of 1.5 octaves: the first 10-hole ocarina. After that, various smaller and larger versions followed. In 1863 the first concert with an ocarina took place. This success was quickly followed by other designs and styles.
Just two years later, the first 12-hole ocarina was developed on the basis of the 10-hole ocarina, which had been very popular until then. To this day, this form is the most common worldwide and is used most often. Smaller adaptations made the ocarina a popular instrument in alpine music over time. New materials such as aluminum or other precious woods are constantly being tried out in order to get one step closer to the perfect sound.
Like the original, the classic ocarina is made of glazed or air-dried clay. There are also variants made of wood, metal or porcelain, but these aren't nearly as common. The distinguishing feature of the ocarina is mainly its shape: its distinct spherical structure bears resemblance to an egg. It is also possible to make the ocarina in concrete animal shapes, but this alternation incurs a noticeably different sound. One must have a relatively good musical sense in order to correctly hear the sometimes small nuances.
As previously mentioned, the ocarina has been able to spread to many regions around the world. Similar to other instruments, however, the differences between the versions are usually very large, which has allowed their own regional offshoots to develop. For example, Austrian vessel flutes are usually made of clay and have ten or twelve holes. Inca variations have four holes on the front side and two holes on the back side. China also has its own ocarinas, known there as "Xun," which inspire in an egg-shaped structure.
A very important feature for subdividing the ocarina is the availability of a core gap. Should the ocarina have a core gap, the instrument is usually recorder-like in design and has its own mouthpiece. Without a core gap, on the other hand, the ocarina remains compact and rather round. Other ways to differentiate among variations are the arrangement and number of holes, as well as the different handle systems. This helps to determine which shape is most suitable.
While playing the mostly compact vessel flutes may look quite simple at first glance, the whole thing is more complex than many think. The more holes are covered when playing, the deeper the tone becomes. You can quickly produce impressive tones with the ocarina using both notes and the fingering chart. You should always keep the following tips in mind:
In order to produce the appropriate tones, you should pay attention to a slightly curved position of your fingers. To do this, close the holes of the ocarina with the fingertips. At the same time, avoid stretching out your fingers too much. A tense posture is also not conducive to successful playing, which is why you should let your shoulders hang back. For regulated breathing, it is worth controlling the air via the diaphragm.
Compared to other instruments, tuning the ocarina is not quite as important in many genres. This is the case, for example, when it is used in folk music. Since the vessel flutes only have a fixed determined tonal range, large deviations are usually not a problem. In other segments, the ocarina has a separate tuning device. Here, too, however, the tuning of the instrument is rather incidental, since the tonal range remains the same.
With wind instruments, the separation between the respective notes plays an important role. For example, before the first notes are played, the tongue is still on the palate. By removing your tongue from the palate, the tone is created, which is terminated again after retracting the tongue. The faster you repeat these movements, the faster you will succeed in changing the tone. As is so often the case, hitting the right tone is a matter of practice.
Since the ocarina is very different from other wind instruments (and is certainly not one of the most common), finding the latest sheet music is also not always easy either. Nevertheless, there are many places on the internet with good free tips and variations for you to learn new melodies and sequences of notes. If you haven't found any suitable sheet music yet, you can also use our personals for musicians here at mukken. This makes it easy for you to get in touch with like-minded people directly and have new sheet music recommended to you.
The music store Thomann currently offers an in-house brand for ocarina flutes, which is recommended and also very inexpensive. Ocarinas can be played similar to recorders and are available in different price ranges. Here is a selection:
In order to learn the ocarina as an instrument quickly and easily, it is important to choose the right hole system. Not every system is suitable for every type of learner. If you are looking for an instrument for children who have no knowledge of notes, you will be on the safe side with the 4-hole system and its total of six notes. Thanks to the clearly defined semitone steps, learning the different tones is possible with a less of a time investment.
Of course, those who can already read music have a much larger selection. In this case, the variants with up to twelve holes are also suitable, whereby a few good and beginner-friendly variants can also be found. If you already have more musical expertise and experience, a double or triple system with multiple octaves is probably no challenge for you. Of course, the decisive factor here is what style of music you are interested in for your ocarina, what pitches you want to play, and what is important to you.
Compared to many other wind instruments, the ocarina is extremely affordable. There are models starting at prices of around ten euros, but caution is advised. For beginners, a classic, simple model can be found for around 20 euros—no problem. Advanced users, however, should pay attention to quality and spend a bit more. Pay attention to material, workmanship and sound, for example. From about 30 euros there are already quite valuable (mostly 12-hole) ocarinas. The higher-priced versions can cost more than 100 euros. When buying, pay particular attention to the following points:
Before buying, it's also best to check for yourself which features are crucial for you. If you opt for a rather large model with large holes, you should also have correspondingly large hands for playing. For small hands, though, we recommend the more manageable soprano ocarina.
The ocarina is an exciting wind instrument that has spread throughout the world after more than 150 years. The more holes the vessel flute has, the more diverse the many sounds can be produced with the instrument. So you can look forward to an exciting instrument for everyday life. If you are also interested in many other exotic instruments, please have a relevant article here.
Originally published on February 6, 2023, updated on February 6, 2023
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