Handmade Ocarinas

by Madeline Masters
Ocarinas are similar to flutes but more compact.

Ocarinas are similar to flutes but more compact.

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Ocarinas are small, portable wind instruments that can be easily made, and carry with them a lot of charm, as well as history. Most ocarinas are handmade of clay, which can be purchased, or you can make them yourself. Handmade ocarinas vary greatly in size, shape, materials and sound and are popular around the globe.

Materials Used

Most ocarinas are handmade, and have been a tradition in many cultures for thousands of years, especially in the Americas. Ocarinas found in South America are estimated to have been made 12,000 years ago. They were popular in the ancient Mayan, Aztec and Incan cultures. Ocarinas from Africa are called the "globe flute," and are spherical rather than tapered. Asian xun flutes are more egg-shaped, and the player blows across the surface of the instrument, rather than into a duct. Handmade ocarinas are most often made of clay, but can also be carved out of wood or other objects, such as fruits and vegetables. The art of making clay ocarinas is widespread and allows the creator to make the ocarina according to her specifications, as well as in a variety of unusual shapes and designs. Clay ocarinas also afford plenty of opportunity for decoration.

Creative Shapes

The traditional ocarina shape is like that of a sweet potato: rounded in the middle and tapering to points at each end, with a stubby, tubular mouthpiece or "duct" protruding from one end. This is called the "transverse" style. They are held in the same position as a modern flute. For some creative designs, the "in-line" style works best. These ocarinas are held perpendicular to the mouth, and often have one large hole at the end, rather than the duct, for playing. Ocarinas can be made into many shapes within these two styles, such as animals, plants and other natural objects; the ocarina maker is only limited by his imagination when it comes to instrument styles.

Native to Many Cultures

Ocarinas have been made by hand in traditional cultures around the world. Handmade ocarinas can be found in the cultural archives on nearly every continent. They are especially popular in North and South American tribes, as well as in Africa and Asia. In the 1800s, they became popular in Italy after Giuseppe Donati began making them at his workshop in Budrio. The popularity of this instrument spread throughout Europe and led to a revival of interest in the instrument.

Sounds Produced

The size of the handmade ocarina, as well as the placement, number and size of its holes, determines the music it generates. Ocarinas produce musical sounds when air blown into the chamber vibrates against its walls. The way the air escapes from this chamber, through its holes, determines the pitch generated. The player controls the air's escape with fingering patterns over the holes. A larger ocarina will produce deeper tones, while a small ocarina will produce lighter, chirping tones. Ocarinas can vary in the number of holes depending on their maker, but generally four is the minimum number. Twelve holes are common for well-made ocarinas. A four-holed instrument is more difficult to play accurately. A handmade ocarina can be tuned with an electric tuner so it can be used precisely for musical accompaniment.

About the Author

Madeline Masters works as a dog walker and professional writer. In the past she has worked as a fitness columnist, fundraising copywriter and news reporter. Masters won two Pennsylvania Newspaper Association Awards in 2009. She graduated from Elizabethtown College with a Bachelor of Arts in English.

Photo Credits

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