Language Acquisition and the Ocarina Code

We invited Christa Liggins, modern language teacher and director of Ocarina Workshop, to explain how her teaching work inspired her learning model…

My modern foreign language classes buzz with the sound of spoken German. Children confidently handle inflexion and vocabulary, ready to converse with a ‘sympathetic native speaker’ as required for GCSE oral. Visual stimuli – pictures, objects, actions – elicit words, questions, phrases, and even new grammatical structures; inhibitions are lost as students are immersed in an increasingly-familiar language.

Children are keen to learn language; they are also keen to play musical instruments. They want to make sounds, play tunes and discover the world of music. The English National Curriculum requires music-making with tuned musical instruments from the age of five upwards. What musical ‘conversations’ should we expect of children who learn to play instruments in these formative years?


Our solution at Ocarina Workshop is the English four-hole ocarina. Since 1984, many thousands of 5- to 11-year-olds have learned to play a full octave and recognisable tunes, giving public performances from the start. How is this demonstration of innate musicianship made possible?

The instrument, specifically designed for young musicians and now in its new fourth generation, is known as the Oc®. Developed and manufactured in the UK by Ocarina Workshop, it is tuned for chromatic, musical playing. The 16 different ways of covering the Ocarina’s four finger-holes can be pictured in code, allowing even pre-readers to recognise each finger-pattern and play accurately-tuned notes. Staff notation, the written ‘target language’, gives musical direction whilst the ocarina charts facilitate fluent playing. Boys particularly enjoy cracking the Ocarina code. In 15 minutes, they play a full octave by covering combinations of the four holes. Cracking this visual code means that, when faced with a C sharp, G sharp or A sharp, they just cover the correct holes and play without further tuition. Observe a whole class performing chromatically in harmony within the first year.

Cracking the visual code means that, when faced with a C sharp, G sharp or A sharp, students just cover the correct holes and play without further tuition


And, when children are ready to know the names of the notes, count the rhythms and play solely from the stave, the new 1-2-3 Ocarina book teaches music-reading and ocarina-playing with a note-at-a-time approach. This method is being used with children aged 5 to 14, side-by-side with the established Play your Ocarina series. The ocarina’s unique fingering system makes playing in the keys of D, G and E major and B, A and E minor instantly attainable, along with pentatonic, modal, chromatic and whole-tone scales for composing and improvising.


In 2004, children from several junior schools were invited to play in an ‘Ocarina Solo – Own Choice’ music festival class. They chose to play: Mexican Hat Dance, Now is the Month of Maying, Cradle Song, Gypsy Rover, Parsons’ Farewell, Flor de Santa Cruz, Can Can,

Greensleeves, In Dulci Jubilo and an extensive range of other pieces, all from our Play your Ocarina music books. Of these junior-age ocarina players, three went on to study at Music Conservatoires (violin, trumpet, french horn) and one is now principal trumpet with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Ocarina technique is open-ended and musical. Motivation gained through playing ‘real’ music to live audiences is key to children’s rapid progress and success.

In equipping pupils with an Ocarina and an immediate octave of notes, we are giving children a voice and something to say. Playing and teaching with English 4-hole Ocarinas is too simple for words, so music can be the dominant language in the classroom. And when English is already a second language for many pupils, this is welcome. After all, as the 2013 National Curriculum states, ‘Music is a universal language’.

First published in Music Teacher Magazine, February 2015

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