The KISS Principle

The rationale for teaching with Ocarinas can most easily be described by the acronym ‘KISS’. The KISS Principle, or ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’, (Rich, 1995) maintains that most systems work best when kept simple, not complicated.

The principle is exemplified by the story of a team of American design engineers who were given a handful of tools, with a challenge that the jet aircraft they were designing must be repairable by an average mechanic in the field under combat conditions with only these tools. Hence, ‘stupid’ describes how things can go wrong, and the level of sophistication needed in fixing them.

In the primary classroom under ‘combat conditions’, the complexity of many instruments means they can easily ‘go wrong’ or require costly maintenance. Getting musical instruments out of their cases, tuning them, replacing strings, reeds and other removable parts, all complicate and delay the teaching process. As a result, instrumental teaching often seems to be out of the reach of many class teachers, remaining the sole preserve of highly trained visiting music specialists. The fact that Ocarinas have none of these complications makes them popular with primary school teachers.

Playing tuned musical instruments is usually a complex process for the learner because of the need to read music and develop fine breath- and motor-control. Even playing a Recorder needs subtle breath-control: over-blowing produces unwanted notes, harsh overtones and squeaks. The English 4-hole Ocarina produces a single, clear, tuned note for each unique fingering. When too strong a breath is used, the Ocarina cuts out. So less controlled players participate silently until they have the self-control needed to make a pleasant sound. A one-year-old can produce a clear sound on an Ocarina with nothing more than a natural breath.

Another complication with Recorders and most wind instruments is the need to use the third finger of the non-dominant hand at an early stage. And confusion occurs as to which hand should be at the top: “There is no logical reason for playing with the left hand uppermost” (Bolton, 2014). The Ocarina’s four holes are side-by-side, so correct fingers are instinctively used. These first two fingers on each hand are coordinated in a baby from ten months. A two-year-old child normally has the coordination and breath control required to potentially play an Ocarina. The size of holes on the plastic Oc® determines the pitch; these can be fully covered, comfortably, by fingers of any size.

By the age of three, some children read Ocarina notation and play full-octave tunes. However, in referring to child development and pre-school attainment, it should be noted that the optimum age for starting whole-class Ocarina lessons is between six and twelve years. All-age resources make Ocarina playing suitable for teenagers and adults (Thacker, 2013). Rates of progress depend on the amount of time allocated, material tackled, starting age of the group and the expectations of the teacher. When playing English Ocarinas, Primary School children typically play nine or ten notes (an octave plus semitones) and full-octave tunes in the first few months. Public performances and playing in harmony are possible, and to be expected, at an early stage.

When comparing this with an average of just five notes played after a year of whole-class tuition on orchestral instruments, it is not surprising that Ocarina players are highly motivated. The keenness of boys towards the Ocarina is welcome, especially when many school musical instruments are known to be more appealing to girls. As Liz Thomas, at the time a Deputy Head and Ocarina teacher in Hackney, observed: “The adult approach to playing means boys want to play Ocarinas. They need ‘proper’ material and quick results…” (2013). Ocarinas are equally attractive to all.

Interest in ocarina playing with Brownies and Guides is matched by the achievements in Scouting of Beavers, who have gained their Musician 1 Badge (The Scout Association, 2014) through playing Ocarinas and talking about them (England, 2014).

Thomas goes on to point out the musical confidence gained through playing Ocarinas:

My children believe they can play an instrument and play it well. They know it’s accessible, so therefore any other instrument is accessible too. …One mother came in to school to say that since playing the Ocarina, her daughter’s violin playing had improved enormously. (2013)

Rapid progress and early success motivate Ocarina players to play other instruments as well. Transferable skills acquired through playing the Ocarina include: reading different forms of music, concentrating, counting, listening, breath-control, slurring, tonguing, double- and triple- tonguing, flutter-tonguing, caring for an instrument, using alternate- and trill-fingerings, playing in harmony, performing in public, playing solo, performing in ensembles including mixed instrumental groups, musicianship, and discovering that playing a musical instrument is, in a child’s words, ‘easy’.

Whilst specialist music teachers may be best positioned to develop the more advanced of these transferable skills, general class teachers can do much of the groundwork. Thomas also believes that these teachers should have no fear of teaching with Ocarinas:

Teachers who are not expert in something (e.g. music) understand how difficult it is to learn – they have greater empathy with the children and greater understanding of the building blocks needed to get from ‘A to Z’ than someone who themselves can’t remember life before ‘Q’. (Thomas, 2013)

The ‘Keep It Simple’ rationale also relates to Ocarina teaching materials. The simplicity of the English 4-hole fingering system and its visual representation (Liggins, 1992) means that anyone can read and play music, regardless of ability or previous musical experience. According to Early Years specialists, Ocarina tablature promotes reading-readiness; and Special Needs teachers

report children and teenagers with moderate learning difficulties or emotional and behavioral disorders playing successfully by following Ocarina finger-charts.

Whilst ‘Keep It Simple’ encourages inclusivity, it also promotes progress. Thus children play 80% of notes fluently on an Ocarina in the first few months and 100% of notes after a few years. They are soon free to explore the world of performing and composing, with a ready-to-go tool in their hands. In mastering the Ocarina, children quickly gain the whole view of the learning process. With other instruments, this process can take years – the ‘means’ of making music becoming their continual focus, rather than the ‘goals’ of performing, understanding, composing and playing.

Musical terms and notation become accessible to even the youngest of children (Liggins, 2014), using ocarina-specific teaching materials and books, as shown in this Ofsted Infant School report:

All the pupils in Year 2 learn to play the ocarina and are encouraged to perform in assemblies. This has a positive influence on the pupils’ attainment and means that, by the end of Year 2, they all read musical notation. At a lunchtime ocarina club Year 2 pupils were skilful, competent and confident performers. For example, after a short period of rehearsal they practised the tune, harmony and descant of the song ‘Kumbaya’ and then, divided into three groups, played these parts together. Pupils are given good opportunities to perform publicly through concerts and festivals. For example, a group of pupils participated in an ocarina festival in Kettering. (Ofsted, 2004: 24)

All the comments in this report refer to Ocarinas being taught using Ocarina Workshop teaching materials and methods. The 30-year development of UK-made English Ocarinas has been matched by 30 years of Ocarina music publishing and teacher training, so that every school can benefit from this simplest-of-all tuned musical instrument.

From September 2014, the English National Curriculum for Music expects all children aged 5 to 14 to play tuned musical instruments as part of normal whole-class lessons – “musically” and “with increasing accuracy, fluency, control and expression.” Children are also required to “use and understand staff and other musical notations” and “experiment with, create, select and combine sounds… improvise and compose” (Department for Education, 2013).

Experienced Primary teachers have said that the Ocarina is ‘made for’ the new music curriculum.

The evidence and examples presented show that high quality class music can be made with Ocarinas and also that Ocarina-playing is inclusive for children and for their teachers, many of whom would normally be reticent to teach instrumental lessons; that Ocarina-instruments are accessible as children play well, with minimal co-ordination – the finger-holes are easy to locate and cover fully due to raised rims, and a gentle breath produces a pleasing sound which blends well, in tune with other players, even in groups of beginners; that Ocarina-resources introduce children to a wide range of musical styles to listen to, play musically, and use as a launch for composition.

Excellent teachers produce excellent results; informed primary music specialist teachers produce some of the best examples of children’s Ocarina playing and this can be mirrored by general class teachers. The task of successful music partnerships is to “augment and support, rather than replace, the classroom music curriculum.” (Ofsted, 2012:1), and Ocarinas are listed as a “main instrument” for music hubs in England (Sharp and Sims. 2014: 21). Since Ocarinas are welcomed in so many schools, expert support and continuous professional development should be increasingly available to equip class teachers. Other countries are also encouraging active music making in lessons. For example, Creative Scotland (2014) states the aim: “To ensure that all school children have access to one year’s free music tuition by the time they reach Primary 6.” Instrumental playing is being given a vitally important place alongside singing in Primary classrooms worldwide.

The Creative Scotland Youth Music Initiative is supporting primary music specialists in modelling Ocarina lessons alongside class teachers, with a view to class teachers gradually taking over, thus providing ongoing sustainable instrumental teaching in each school. Ocarina Workshop supports this approach by equipping schools and providing teaching methods suitable for both specialist and general teachers. To this end, Ocarina Workshop is a National Champion for the BBC ‘Ten Pieces’ (BBC, 2014) preparing composing projects in support of all primary music curriculums.

There is some discussion over progress in the context of curriculum music. One teacher perceived progress: “in terms of complexity of the instrument learned; progression from one instrument to another, starting on ocarina, moving to recorder then clarinet.” (Todd, 2012: 25). Such misunderstandings of musical progress are common.

As has been shown in this report, the simpler the instrument (in the Ocarina’s case at least) the greater the complexity of music that may be played and composed. Examples have been reported of children playing orchestral instruments in Year 4 and ‘graduating’ to Ocarinas in Year 6, in order to explore a wider world of music and a higher level of performance. It should be noted that small-size versions of orchestral and other instruments retain the levels of complexity of their full-size counterparts, and that recent plastic versions offered to children are still innately complex when compared with the Ocarina and, due to their moving parts, less robust.

Many modern orchestral instruments acquired for playing ‘classical music’ in class would not be recognisable to the great Classical composers themselves, as wind instruments changed radically during the 19th century. However, the sound of 3,081 Ocarinas and the Grand Organ in the Royal Albert Hall expressed all the grandeur of Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’ and gave the children a real sense of playing in a great orchestra. This experience is replicated daily in classrooms around the world, an experience uniquely offered with Ocarinas.


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