by Howard Fosdick © FolkFluteWorld.com.
Ocarinas are among the easiest instruments to get started with. You can play tunes in only a few days, even if you have no prior experience with a musical instrument.
And how they sound! Bright and happy, haunting and soulful, and everything between.
They're also portable, durable, and very inexpensive. You can buy a high-quality "oc" that will last a lifetime for only $30 or $40.
But which ocarina do you buy? Unfortunately, this choice isn't easy for a beginner. The variety available can be overwhelming, and ocarinas are notoriously un-standardized. It's not unusual to make a bad first purchase.
Here are few tips buying your first ocarina.
Pick Your Shape and Material
Ocarinas come in three main shapes:
- Transverse, also called submarine or sweet potato
- Pendant, also called seedpod
They're made of several different materials:
- Ceramic, also known as clay, baked clay, or porcelain
This photo shows a few of the possibilities:
To the left are two transverse oc's. The yellow one is plastic, while the white one below it is ceramic.
In the middle, shaped like TV remotes, are two plastic inlines. You play them extended straight out from your mouth.
To the right are two pendants or seedpods. Both are ceramic. As you can see, their shapes vary. One fun feature of small pendants is that you can wear them around your neck. They typically come with a lanyard (necklace) for wear.
Some pendants come in cute shapes, and many folks enjoy collecting them. Check out the dolphin, dragon's egg, turtle, and tea cup you can both play tunes on and drink from:
Photos courtesy of Ebay and STL Ocarinas
All the oc's in these photos play beautifully. But beware! Some eye-catching specimens do not. You can tell whether an oc is playable by inspecting its fingering holes. If all the holes are the same size, it's strictly for your display shelf. Playable ocarinas have differently-sized top holes.
Look closely, and you can see that these pendants are cute, but they're not playable musical instruments:
Photos courtesy of various vendors
Here are some key facts about ocarinas:
Key: You can buy an oc in almost any key. Most are either soprano, alto, tenor, or bass.
Altos and basses are in the key of C major, that is, their lowest note is C. The bass sounds one octave lower than the alto. Similarly, the soprano and tenor are typically in the key of G. The tenor sounds one octave lower than the soprano.
Size: Smaller instruments are usually louder and cost less. Larger oc's are usually softer-spoken and cost more.
Transverses and Inlines versus Pendants: Transverse and inlines finger much like any simple flute: you ascend the scale by progressively removing your fingers from the holes. That's pretty simple.
Pendants finger differently. They don't follow such a simple pattern, so you must memorize the notes. For this reason, most consider transverses and inlines easier to learn than pendants.
6- and 4- hole Seedpods: Pendants or seedpods come in 6-hole and 4-hole varieties. 4-holers have just four holes on top, while 6-holers add two thumb holes on the underside of the instrument. 6-holers play a couple more notes than 4-holers, and are therefore much more popular.
Ceramic versus Plastic: Ceramic is traditional, so some purists favor it. Others dispute that, and note that if you drop a plastic oc it probably won't break, whereas dropping a ceramic one can be disastrous.
Learning to Play
To learn to play the ocarina, you need not buy anything. All the resources you need are free:
Click here for our list of free self-taught online courses and other community resources.
Click here to find lots of free instructional material over at Youtube.
Click here to find a ton of freely downloadable sheet music.
A Caution on TerminologyOcarinas are famously un-standardized, and that extends to their terminology.
For example, most people call the most common size of ocarina the Alto C. Its lowest note is the same C as the soprano recorder (C5).
But a few call this instrument a Tenor, most notably the major US vendor STL Ocarinas.
Probably the best way to keep this straight is to see if the oc is labeled a "C major" ocarina. If so, it's an Alto C, even if someone occasionally calls it a Tenor.
(Bass ocarinas are also in C major, but you won't get confused by them. They're bigger and are always labeled "bass".)
The big advantage to ocarinas is that they're so easy to learn to play. Plus, they're portable, durable, and inexpensive.
On the downside, they play a limited range of notes:
|Number of Holes:
|12 hole transverse
|10 hole transverse or inline
|6 hole seedpod
|4 hole seedpod
The range includes all sharps and flats. It's enough to play any tune you like, but sometimes you'll have to play a tune in a key your ocarina can handle.
Multi-chamber ocarinas overcome these range limitations. They have either two or three different enclosed chambers, each set to a different pitch range. (You pick the range you want by blowing into one of the different mouthpiece slits, and also moving your fingers to the appropriate set of finger holes.) So they can play from two to three full octaves.
Multi-chambered ocarinas are both harder to play and more expensive, so stick with the common single-chamber oc for your initial purchase. I only mention these advanced oc's here so that you're aware of the possibilities.
Verify The Tuning
Ocarinas are folk instruments. When it comes to molding and baking a clay instrument, quality control varies from outstanding to abysmal.
Where this particularly matters is in the tuning. Unlike many musical instruments, ocarinas have no separate mouthpiece to move in or out to change the pitch. All you can do is blow either harder or softer. That's not a good way to correct an out-of-tune instrument, so you want to ensure any oc you buy is accurately tuned.
The problem is that a few oc's are not
in tune with standard concert pitch -- a C major oc might not
actually start its scale with an accurate C major.
Other oc's start on an accurate base pitch, but are not in tune with themselves. In other words, some notes don't sound at the proper relative pitches to the base note.
And many oc's are in tune except for one or two notes. The out-of-tune notes are typically the highest or lowest ones, or sometimes the sharps and flats.
How do you know the oc you want to buy is in tune?
One tip is to buy a name brand ocarina from a trusted seller for your first oc. (I'll give recommendations below.) Avoid the home-made oc on Etsy or the cute collectible unless you've verified they're accurately tuned.
Listen to Sound Samples & Read Reviews
Ultimately, the only way to ensure you're buying an ocarina you want is to hear how it sounds. Either play it yourself before purchasing, or listen online to sound samples.When you listen online, keep in mind two things:
- You may not sound as good as the skilled player you listen to
- Studio equipment -- microphones and even post-play editing -- can make a difference in what you hear
You'll want to access whatever reviews you can. Youtube offers video reviews with tunes and sound samples. Just search for the ocarina by name that you want to learn about. David Erick Ramos' Youtube channel has many objective product reviews, as well as free lessons and tutorials on how to play. You'll also find both sound samples and reviews at The Ocarina Network and Amazon.
Go With A Trusted Seller and Brand
I always like to know who makes any item I buy, don't you? Hard to believe, but that's not always easy to figure out with an ocarina! Many of the biggest ocarina sellers -- trusted names like Songbird Ocarina, Thomann Music, STL Ocarina, and Stein Ocarinas -- often don't tell you who makes the oc's they sell. To add to the confusion, they may both import oc's and manufacture their own.
Since sellers don't always label makers, the only way to discover this is to do some googling. By cross-checking websites, you can usually determine an oc's manufacturer.
I've found consistent quality in name brands like Focalink and Night by Noble. OcarinaWind and TNG also produce excellent musical instruments, but avoid their lower-end, lower-priced ceramic offerings.
About lower-priced clay ocarinas... this is where that tuning issue I mentioned sometimes pops up. Inexpensive clay oc's often work fine, but you're taking a chance on quality control. Buy 10 top-rated ceramic oc's from Amazon in the $20 to $40 range, and you'll have a group of good ocarinas. But you might run into one or two that are off-key on a note or two, or have mediocre tonal quality on some notes.
You definitely do not want to face such issues when you're first learning to play! You'll never know whether it's you or the ocarina that is at fault for some shortcomings. This is why I'd recommend a brand-name plastic oc for your first purchase.
So what's the bottom line? Is there a specific oc a beginner should buy? Although any ocarina might work for you, nearly everyone starts with a transverse Alto C. It's a good first purchase because it fingers intuitively, plays the widest range of notes, and plays sheet music written for other C major instruments, such as the soprano recorder. Plus, you can easily find a quality instrument that plays in tune.
For a first Alto C in plastic, the choice is easy. Many in the ocarina community agree that two excellent oc's are the Focalink Bravura and the Night By Noble. Here they are:
Photos from the vendors
These are usually priced in the $30 to $40 range. They can be purchased at Songbird Ocarina, Stein Ocarina, or Amazon. Plastic molding processes ensure you don't face any quality control risks.
Making a recommendation for a ceramic Alto C is more difficult. Many of the ceramic Alto C's in the $20 to $40 range at Amazon boast 4 1/2 reviewer stars. And many of these oc's are excellent. But you always stand a small chance of getting a poor specimen due to uneven quality control.
The way around this issue if you prefer ceramic, is to jump to a higher price range. For example, in the $80 range I feel I can recommend either Focalink's Pastoral or Rose series oc's. Both appear to offer consistently high quality at a reasonable price:
Photos courtesy of the vendors
While ocarinas are among the easiest instruments to learn to play, it can be difficult to make a good first purchase. I hope these tips help.