Improving Your Technique

  1. Listening to Talented Musicians
  2. Vibrato
  3. Little by Little
  4. Alternate Fingerings
  5. Celtic Ornamentation
  6. Adapting Songs to Fit the Ocarina Range
  7. Playing by Ear
  8. Polishing the Airway
  9. A Repertoire Notebook
  10. TV
  11. Playing in Tune with Other Instrumentalists
  12. Double Tonguing
  13. Playing the G Ocarina as a Non-transposing Instrument

1) Listening to Talented Musicians -Besides practicing regularly, one of the best ways to grow as a musician is by listening to talented musicians perform the kind of music that you want to play. Of course, it takes time, effort, and (gulp!) money to find, acquire, and listen to good music, but it can make an immense difference in your musicianship. Time and again, I have found new skills showing up in my own playing after listening to skilled musicians do the same; other times I haven’t known how to approach a tune until hearing it artfully performed. For this reason, I have frequently used work, exercise, or driving time to enjoy listening to music that I can learn from. Ultimately, the music that you carry in your head is what will flow from your instrument.

2) Vibrato - Vibrato is that wavering sound that you hear when a singer or instrumentalist holds a long note on a slow song. Though not hard to learn, vibrato can add a wonderful richness to your tone on certain songs, especially slow ones. While there are different ways of producing vibrato, the method that I employ is diaphragmatic vibrato. The diaphragm is a muscle that is used for breathing and that separates the thoracic cavity, where the heart and lungs (etc.) are located, from the abdominal cavity, where the stomach and intestines (etc.) are located. When your diaphragm contracts, it flattens downwards, thereby increasing the volume of your chest cavity and causing your lungs to take in air to fill the resulting vacuum. When your diaphragm relaxes, it moves up, forcing air out of your lungs. While it frequently functions with no conscious input from you (such as when you sleep), here are some steps you can take to gain control over your diaphragm to produce a nice vibrato. First, place your hand on your stomach and try laughing, "Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha," in a whisper, i.e., without using your vocal cords. Can you feel your stomach pulsing? That was your diaphragm propelling air out of your lungs. Now, play a long G note on your ocarina while expelling air in slow rhythmic pulsations with your diaphragm as you did when laughing. After practicing this for a time, eventually begin speeding up your vibrato by tightening your stomach muscles slightly. Don’t expect spectacular results the first or second time you try this. Learning to produce a pleasing, controlled vibrato is not complicated, but it usually requires small amounts of practice over an extended period of time.

3) Little by Little - Even though you progress much more quickly on the ocarina than on a typical band instrument, remember that you must crawl before you can walk, and walk before you can run. As do other investments, music provides the greatest returns over the long haul; almost anyone who sticks with it long enough can become an accomplished musician. Since I began playing the ocarina, I have always been able to look back and realize that I was noticeably better than I had been only one year before. On many occasions I have rejected a song as unappealing only to return to it a year or so later and find that it was a gem. I simply didn’t have the skills to make it sparkle the first time around. On other songs and techniques that are a little over my head, I just keep chipping away, remembering to run through them now and again when I take short ocarina breaks. A few months or a year later, the seemingly impossible song has been transformed into a near-virtuoso performance.

How do I find the time to practice? There is no doubt but that I experience periods of real growth as a musician whenever I can sit down for an hour or two on a daily basis and play–oh, that I could play that much year round! Nevertheless, for me and many others, taking the ocarina along through daily life and enjoying frequent two to ten minute ocarina breaks has made it possible to keep up with a musical instrument even amidst the awesome responsibilities of adulthood. For example, this morning I serenaded my boys for a few minutes while overseeing them go through their morning routine. A couple days ago I wiped mud off my hands and played a few songs for some friends deep inside a wet cave. The fact that my ocarina is always by my side (in a sheath) is what has kept me practicing even in the busiest of times... and practice means progress.

4) Alternate Fingerings -After becoming confident with the fingerings on the chart that came with your ocarina, be open to alternate fingerings when the need arises. As with many woodwinds, the chromatic notes on the ocarina can usually be fingered in different ways to suit the demands of a particular passage of music. (Alternate fingerings are not provided on the fingering chart because many beginners are overwhelmed by this concept.) For example, I often finger the Bb by covering only the two thumb holes and the left middle finger instead of following the fingering chart. In many instances, this fingering is smoother. An alternate low Eb fingering is to cover all the tone holes except the right index finger hole. Using this Eb fingering in conjunction with the one suggested on the fingering chart makes playing "Greensleeves" much easier. Alternate fingerings for the high Eb are to cover only the right thumb hole or to half cover only the left thumb hole. Both the F# and the G# can use the right middle finger when played in rapid succession. Though only appropriate for certain songs, I occasionally play a staccato high F by blowing harder to raise the pitch of the high E by half a step. Because the note is high-pitched and hard-blown, you don’t want to sustain it, but it works in a pinch. On certain very fast songs, I play the low C sharp by fingering a low D and partially covering the fipple window with the right index finger just as when playing the low B. With practice, shading the fipple window becomes very easy. (Of course, you can’t do this on the big C ocarina.) There are other potential fingerings, but these are the ones that I have used. If the idea of alternate fingerings sound confusing, don’t fret. Just be aware of the possibilities and come back to it when you feel ready.

Speaking of fingerings, there are two reasons why you should use the right pinky finger to support the end of the ocarina on high notes. In the first place, your left fingers will need to move freely as you get into more complex ornamentation. Their movement is somewhat restricted if the left pinky is anchored down. The only time I use the left pinky to support the ocarina is when dropping directly from a high C, D, or E down to a low C or B. In the second place, supporting with the right pinky is important because your other playing fingers should always stay positioned above or nearby their corresponding tone holes. Holding the ocarina on fast, highly ornamented pieces is like gripping a wet bar of soap if your fingers stray too far out of position.

5) Celtic Ornamentation -For those interested in Celtic ornamentation, cuts and rolls are often easier on the ocarina than on the flute, pennywhistle, or bagpipes because ocarinas work on different physical principles than do most wind instruments. For example, a cut can be made by uncovering any tone hole, including a thumb hole, that is covered when the primary note is sounded. This means that crans, double rolls, and other grace notes have a wider number of cutting fingers to choose from. Similarly, a tap (or strike)–a tap being defined as the second half of a roll, i.e., "a roll consists of a cut and a tap"–can usually be performed with more than just the one finger directly below the primary note. For example, on B, Bb, A, or Ab rolls, you can tap with the right index finger or any other finger on the right hand instead of executing the entire roll with the left hand. Thus, a B roll may be performed–in addition to cutting with the left index and tapping with the left middle finger–by cutting with the left index finger and tapping with the right index or right middle finger. By the same token, the high C and D are easily rolled by cutting with the left thumb and striking with right index finger. With the exception of the low B and C (which can be nicely cranned) and the highest note, all notes, including sharps and flats, can be easily rolled. (In the future, I hope to produce a step-by-step video/CD package to teach Celtic ornamentation on the ocarina, and there will be some demonstration of this style of ocarina playing on my upcoming CD, "Mountain Myst." Your feedback helps me to set priorities as to which of my backlogged projects I will attempt to complete first; also, perhaps I can point you to some program that teaches these skills on other woodwind instruments. But wait until you are fairly proficient on the ocarina–running will make more sense after you have learned to walk.)

6) Adapting Songs to Fit the Ocarina Range -There is more beautiful music within the ocarina range than you or I could ever get to in a lifetime. Nevertheless, here are some suggestions for adapting songs that are slightly outside its range. Often, an entire song is playable as written except for maybe a low A (two lines below the staff) at the beginning of a musical phrase. Try playing the low A an octave higher. Also, if a note is out of range in the middle of a song, try replacing it with a note from the same chord or slightly rearranging the passage. Many times it sounds just fine. Certain songs that I play have entire sections that are too high or too low to play on the ocarina. I just drop or raise that particular passage an octave with very pleasing results. When accompanying other musicians on, say, a reel that covers two octaves, frequently you can play half the song just as written and either sit out the other half or play some type of accompaniment instead of the melody. An understanding of harmony and accompaniment can be very helpful. In a nutshell, be willing to experiment.

7) Playing by Ear - Not infrequently, you will find songs that are playable on the ocarina but that are written outside the ocarina’s range. Sometimes you can play those same songs as written if you also know how to play your ocarina as a G instrument. (Please see "Playing the G Ocarina as a Non-transposing Instrument" that appears later in this section of the web site.) If not, you can either transpose the song or play it by ear. Transposition, which is not difficult to learn, is taught in simple books of theory, such as Mel Bay’s Students Guide to Music Theory on my SUGGESTED MUSIC BOOKS list. In many situations, however, playing a song by ear is quicker and less tedious than transposing: if you can hum a song by memory, then you can play it by ear. Contrary to what many people I talk to seem to think (and to what I thought a few years ago), playing by ear is not a mysterious innate ability reserved for a gifted few. Rather, it is a skill that improves dramatically with practice, and the ocarina is an ideal instrument on which to develop it. As you carry your ocarina along with you, try playing–without looking at a sheet of music–any melody that comes to mind. Experiment a little to find the best note to start the song. If you find yourself in an awkward key full of sharps or flats, try starting the song on the note above or the note below. I used to play a game with my wife when we were getting our little guys ready for bed: she would say the name of a tune and I would have to play it by ear. The more you do this kind of thing the more natural it becomes. In turn, the more you can play by ear, the easier it is to play with other musicians and the more you feel like a real musician.

If you play strictly by ear, I encourage you to use the Learning to Play Mountain Ocarinas® curriculum to learn to read music. Deciphering those little notes is probably much simpler than you think, and it opens up a whole world of music to you. A majority of the songs that I play, I have never heard performed by anyone–all those tunes would be unavailable to me had I not learned to read music.

8) Polishing the Airway - A smooth airway is vital to good tone. Although the ocarina requires almost no special care or upkeep, small bits of junk or lint can sometimes accumulate in the airway over time–especially if your cracker-chewing, juice-swigging munchkin has honked on it a few times. Therefore, every once in a great while, you might want to polish the airway to keep it in tiptop playing condition. To do this, fold a piece of white paper several times to the proper width and thickness, and repeatedly slide the paper in and out of the airway. Be sure not to leave any tiny paper fragments in the airway when you are finished.

9) A Repertoire Notebook - This is a short but important paragraph. Little by little, build a repertoire notebook. After buying the books (it is stealing when we photocopy copyrighted materials in order to avoid buying them), assemble a notebook with your favorite songs in it. Having ready access to all your favorites in one book instead of scattered among dozens of others really helps to focus your efforts.

10) TV - If TV viewing plays an important role in your life, consider kicking the habit. This may sound irrelevant (or deranged), but those who ask, "Where do you find the time to play music?" might be amazed at the time freed up when you cancel the nightly TV appointment. We haven’t had TV service in our home for many years, and not only do we not miss it, but also the quality of our family life has benefited greatly. (We do watch videos together, but my experience has been that deliberate recreation is very different from unchecked habit.) When all is said and done, music can be a wise investment of your time–if you look, there are so many ways to serve others with your music. Can you say the same of your TV habit? (That was actually a rhetorical question. You were supposed to say "No.")

11) Playing in Tune with Other Instrumentalists - Whether you are playing an instrument or singing, being in tune with others requires active listening. Usually other instruments can tune to you, but you can raise or lower the pitch of your ocarina by blowing harder or softer. With practice, this becomes more and more intuitive.

12) Double Tonguing - Double tonguing will allow you to tongue certain rapid combinations of notes much faster than is possible using regular tonguing. Try double tonguing four quick G notes on your ocarina using the syllables tuh, kuh, tuh, kuh (or dugga, dugga). Then try playing the first two measures of "Johnny on the Woodpile" in Unit 17 of Learning to Play Mountain Ocarinas® like this: tukka, tukka, tuh, tuh, tukka, tukka, tuh. Using this method of tonguing, the first measure of "The Drunken Sailor" in Unit 20 is articulated as tuh, tukka, tuh, tukka, tuh, tuh, tuh, tuh and a tongued triplet as tuh, kuh, tuh. Once your tongue gets used to this, your blazing tonguing speed may amaze you.

13) Playing the G Ocarina as a Non-transposing Instrument - After–and only after–learning to play the ocarina as a C instrument (the way it is taught in the Learning to Play Mountain Ocarinas® curriculum and on the fingering/tips sheet), learn to play the ocarina as a G non-transposing instrument.

What is the difference between a transposing instrument and a non-transposing instrument? The ocarinas that I presently sell are fully chromatic instruments in the keys of C and G. (Other keys will follow as time permits.) C ocarinas and pianos are both considered non-transposing instruments. In other words, when you read and finger a C note, the instrument plays a C note. On the other hand, trumpets (usually Bb instruments), saxophones (usually Bb or Eb instruments), Clarinets (A or Bb instruments), French horns, cornets, mellophones, etc., and G ocarinas are all considered transposing instruments. A Bb trumpet is called a transposing instrument because when a trumpet player reads and fingers a C note, the trumpet actually sounds a Bb; likewise, when a G ocarina player reads a C, the ocarina actually sounds a G.

What are the advantages and disadvantages to learning a G ocarina as if it were a C instrument? There are some excellent reasons why music educators have traditionally taught non-C instruments as if they were C instruments. Doing so puts the musical notes in a reader-friendly place on the musical staff, allows one to play a whole family of instruments with only one set of fingerings, and greatly facilitates the learning of other instruments, whatever their particular key. In the case of the ocarina, the comfortable vocal range (the C range) is by far the easiest place to find music, for it is the range of hymnbooks and most books of folksongs. Nevertheless, a complication arises if a guitarist and a G ocarina player (or a Bb trumpet player, for that matter) want to play together while reading from the same sheet of music. If they are to produce music and not noise, they must do one of three things. 1) The guitarist can simply pop on a capo to be in the same key as the ocarina player, 2) one of the two musicians must transpose the music to be in the same key as the other, or 3) one of the two must play by ear. (Actually, playing by ear is transposing, but the person doing it need not understand the theory involved.)

While it makes sense to learn to play my ocarinas as C instruments first, there are some impressive advantages to also playing the G ocarina as a non-transposing instrument, i.e., when you read and finger a G, the ocarina sounds a G. For one thing, you can now play your G ocarina off the same sheet of music as other musicians without needing to transpose or play by ear, which is especially helpful when you haven’t heard the songs before. For another, the G ocarina, a very useful key for playing Celtic music, has a great range for picking up a lot of flute, pennywhistle, dulcimer, fiddle, bagpipe, and vocal music that is written outside the reading range of the C ocarina. For example, one book that I enjoy has 70 songs that can be played reading as a C instrument, but you pick up another 43 songs if you know how to read as a G instrument. In practical terms, you now have 113 instead of 70 songs that you can play just as they appear in the book. In fact, playing the ocarina as a G non-transposing instrument is essential if you are interested in playing Celtic dance tunes, i.e., reels, jigs, etc., in keys that you would hear at an Irish music session. (By drawing from different sources, I have found lots of this type of music that is playable on the ocarina.) Thirdly, finding music for playing a G ocarina in harmony with a C becomes much easier if you know how to play the G as a non-transposing instrument.

How do you learn to read music with the ocarina as a G instrument? Before I explain how, you should know that it probably requires less effort to learn than you think–I felt somewhat comfortable with it after one night. When you first started, you learned to play the ocarina with a chromatic reading range of B, C, D, E, F, G, A, B, C, D, E. Now you will learn the reading range of F#, G, A, B, C, D, E, F#, G, A, B (a G major scale has an F# in place of an F). Actually, this new range is twofold. On the one hand, you can start reading on the F# that is three lines below the staff and play up to the middle B, a good range for, say, dulcimer or lower vocal music. Alternately, you can start an octave higher on the first space from the bottom of the staff and play up to the high B, a range where you pick up a lot of fiddle, flute, pennywhistle, bagpipe, etc., tunes. For example, anything that you can play on the highland bagpipes, you can play on the ocarina. (Below is a diagram that illustrates the two G ranges.)



The first step in learning to play your ocarina as a G instrument is to photocopy the diatonic fingerings on the Mountain Ocarinas® fingering chart. (You might want to copy the chart larger than its actual size.) Next, starting at the top, white out the letter C and the note C that is one line below the staff. Then, write a G in place of the letter C and draw a whole note on the second line from the bottom, which is the G line. Repeat this step with all the other notes of the G ocarina. (Please see drawing below.) I suggest that you start by learning the upper range first until you are comfortable with it. Then, move on to the lower range, picking up the sharps and flats as the need arises. As mentioned on the companion CDs to Learning to Play Mountain Ocarinas®, silent fingering is a helpful way to learn new fingerings. This technique is performed by putting the ocarina to your mouth and fingering the notes without blowing. This forces you to concentrate on reading the notes and not just letting your ear guide you. What is great is that you can practice silent fingering on an airplane or practically anywhere without disturbing a soul. Another helpful idea is to make yourself a simple set of flash cards. Some day I hope to produce a nice little program to teach this, but for now, you can do it. I know you can!


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