by Lori D. Dalrymple
The name ocarina, meaning “little goose,” was coined in the late 19th century by Italian musician and baker Guiseppi Donati who modified the instrument to play a diatonic scale and popularized it in the west. However, the instruments’ origins probably go back 12,000 years. Versions of this vessel flute, in differing shapes and sizes, were found in many cultures including Mayan, Aztec, Inca, Indian, and Chinese. During World War I and II servicemen were given ocarinas to carry in their pockets to improve morale. In the 1990s, there was a surge in the instrument’s popularity thanks to the video game “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.”
Ocarinas are great beginner instruments because they are pre-tuned, and can be played straight out the box. They have an enchanting, melodic sound, and are also fun for practiced musicians to unique tone to contemporary music, or an authentic edge to folk pieces. Before you go out and buy your own, here are some points to consider.
All Shapes and Sizes
The instruments come in all shapes and sizes, but be wary of purchasing the one that you find most aesthetically beautiful. Some of the most attractive models are less playable, and have lower sound quality. For example, many Peruvian ocarinas, while beautifully decorated, are meant more as tourist collectibles and don’t resonate sound well.
Another consideration is which style of ocarina will be most comfortable for playing. There are three main styles of ocarina: transverse (also called a sweet potato), pendants (English or Peruvian), and inline.
If you are a flautist, you may like the transverse or sweet potato design because these are held to the side of the mouth horizontally and played with two hands. They typically have 10 or 12 holes. The subholes—smaller holes above the main holes that extend the instrument’s diatonic range—come in two different styles: Japanese and Taiwanese. Japanese subholes are above the right hand’s middle and index finger, while Taiwanese subholes are over both the left and right hand’s middle fingers, which tend to be more comfortable for people with longer middle fingers.
Pendant ocarinas are small and have fewer holes, making them light and portable. Also, because of their smaller range, they can be mastered quickly. So if you travel a lot and want something you can play on the go, a pendant might be a great option for you. English pendants typically have four to six holes, while Peruvian fingering allows eight to 10 holes.
Oboists or clarinetists may find an inline ocarina’s design more familiar and comfortable as it is played vertically, similar to those instruments, but on a much smaller scale.
Also consider how the ocarina will be used. Are you looking for a fun, portable conversation piece to play around with, or do you want to play impressive tunes? If you are just looking for a fun diversion, a regular ocarina with eight to 13 diatonic notes should suit you fine. If you are an experienced musician, or you wish to eventually play advanced music, you might want a double or triple ocarina with an extended range. These multi-chambered ocarinas (often double or triple) exist within the other categories of ocarina to allow a wider range of notes. For example, a transverse double would play two octaves plus two notes, while a triple may play two octaves plus seven notes
Materials and Glazes
Ocarinas are made from wood, polycarbonate plastics, or clay. Wooden ocarinas, while having a beautiful, rich sound are also rather expensive; it is unlikely you’ll find a quality one for less than $100. Polycarbonate or plastic ocarinas are the cheapest of the three options, generally running about $25. They are great for beginners or children, but they tend to get an airy sound on the higher notes.
Ocarinas are traditionally made of clay, and the methods of making clay ocarinas are well established and generally produce exceptional sound. They average around $65 to $75 for ocarinas from well-known makers. However, as these instruments are more fragile, pay attention to the clay glaze. The shinier the glaze, the more slippery the ocarina will become over extended periods of play.
Finally, listen to sound samples. As ocarinas are “stuck” in the range they are made in. Listen to samples of common ranges, such as C or G, to decide which range is best for the type of music you wish to play. US maker St. Louis Ocarina (www.stlocarina.com) has an online blog for ocarina enthusiasts where you can get advice about which type of instrument to buy, as well as hints and tips on playing, and free ocarina sheet music.
Finally, if you are unsure if you actually want to purchase an ocarina, Smule has a 99-cent ocarina app that mimics the style of an English pendent ocarina. Check out Smule’s ocarina website for their ocarina forums and tab-style songs to play.
But as with must musical endeavors, the important things to keep in mind are to practice and have as much fun possible. No matter what kind of ocarina you pick, as long as you are enjoying yourself, you have already become a master.