Are Ocarinas too simple?

On the Royal Festival Hall stage, the children in the Montagu School Ocarina Group listened eagerly to the adjudicators as they prefaced their comments with “we don’t know how difficult it is to play an ocarina, so it hasn’t been easy to assess this performance”.

This is an ongoing issue with Ocarinas. Are Ocarinas too simple? Do children learn music ‘properly’ with these four-hole wind instruments? Is reading from tablature as acceptable as reading from staff notation? People get hung up on the instrument and its teaching methods, overlooking the quality of music performed – the very thing that should mark a child’s musical progress.

Actually the performance was brilliant and recognised by adjudicators and television viewers alike – children performing at a young age to professional standards – ordinary children playing musically in up to five part harmony – on Ocarinas.

So why did I, a music teacher, give up a secure living at the age of 30 to work solely with these ‘too-simple’ instruments, developing English 4-hole Ocarinas for whole-class music in school?

First of all, Ocarinas are inclusive – everyone can play them. Secondly, Ocarinas sound fabulous – a sound so special that rulers of ancient dynasties were buried with Ocarinas close to their royal heads. Thirdly, the whole world of music can be played in miniature very effectively with just the first two fingers of each hand. Mozart – no problem! Rock and Roll in E Major – a piece of cake! Beethoven – bring him on!

And when infants play a full-octave of notes plus tunes-to-match in their first few lessons, then progress isn’t about “this week we’ll learn a new note C sharp” because they already know the notes. It’s more about “let’s try tonguing and slurring this passage to give a more interesting performance”. Yes Ocarinas are about performing fluently from the start and making a great sound; the notes look after themselves and music reading just happens.

So when you next see a group of primary children playing “Yellow bird” or “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” in effortless harmony on their ocarinas, don’t ask how difficult it is to play, just sit back and enjoy the music…

It couldn’t happen with any other instrument!

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