Posted on

The Ocarina: Music for the Trail

Jeff’s Ocarina Epiphany

It was about five years ago that I started looking for a compact, rugged, musical instrument to play outdoors when camping. You can only carve so many spoons around the fire before you look for other interesting things to do. Ever since I watched Survivorman with Les Stroud I was always intrigued that he carried a harmonica into the woods a great many times. I heard that the harmonica was fun and Les looked like he enjoyed using his. Perhaps it was worth investigating,

IMG 2462 1024x683AA

In my exploring of compact folk instruments for playing in the field or at camp I have tried quite a few: the harmonica, the Irish tin whistle, a Native American flute and even the ocarina. The ocarina was the second instrument I explored. It sounds like a high flute but with warmth and spirit greater than its small size would suggest.  I wanted to like the ocarina but could never quite get the hang of it until I managed to get a hold of two Focalink Ocarinas from Benjamin at Baryonyx Knife Co. Sometimes the right gear makes things click, or in this case, sing. I evaluated two Ocarinas. The 12 hole Straw Fire and the plastic soprano 12 hole ‘sweet potato’ model in lime green.

2012-11-06-13.37.09 1024x768c   2012-11-06-13.39.03 1024x768e

The Straw Fire is a ceramic instrument that gets its name from its unique finishing process. The clay ocarina is placed in a container and fired with straw placed in with it. The combustion gives the instrument a rich brown hue and the straw leaves a unique organic design on the surface. No two are exactly alike. The final finished is then polished with an organic based lacquer. It would not look out of place in the wild and is quite esthetically pleasing to the eye. The Straw Fire is a ceramic piece but feels very solid and is definitely not a toy. A cloth padded carrying case is also included as well as a tutorial songbook.

According to their website it is in the key of C from A4 to F6 and can go down to A.  I am not as musically inclined as to understand all that, but luckily my wife and daughter, who are, were able to help me out. They were able to give more technical musical feedback about playing the ocarinas that I could not.

2012-11-06-13.38.27 1024x768d

My initial impression is that it’s a great little instrument. Gone were my previous problems of getting a good sound from an ocarina. I was able to get sharp clear notes from the first breath. My wife noted that there was no need for a special embouchure (adjusting your mouth to play the instrument) as you would need for playing a flute. The fingering was very similar to that of a tin whistle or a recorder.  If you know one of these instruments it will be easy for you to pick up the ocarina.  My testers also noted the smooth surface and tone hole edges which lend themselves to being comfortable to play for long periods. It was very easy for both of them to work out songs they already knew on other instruments and play them quite well on the Straw Fire. Soon we were passing it around playing various tunes ranging from the theme from ‘The Lord of the Rings’ to ‘Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee’.

The other model we evaluated was a small lime green plastic ‘sweet potato’ 12 hole soprano in C. This is lighter in weight and smaller in size compared to the larger ceramic models and includes the tutorial songbook as well as a neck cord. It is in the range key of A5 thru F7 and can go below C down to A. It has slightly different fingering than the Straw Fire but the included songbook has a chart showing the differences. This model does not come with a carrying case.

2012-11-06-13.36.09 1024x768a

The plastic Soprano is a higher pitch than the larger ceramic ocarina. It is comparable to the way a piccolo is higher than a flute. While it is made of bright lime colored plastic it also felt sturdy and would survive being dropped or lost.  This would be a good choice if you were looking for an instrument for kids to use. The higher tone may be very piercing for adult ears however. This factor just makes it all the better to play outdoors or at a campsite and its use as an emergency whistle for children should not go unnoticed. This model played just as easy as the Straw Fire in all respects.

Ocarinas themselves have been around in one form or another for the last 12,000 years or so. They have been used in the various songs from movies (‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’) to popular video games (just Google ‘Ocarina of Time. I’ll wait.) and have been played all over the world. There has even been a big upsurge in their popularity as a pop culture instrument due to their being featured in several video games.

The Straw Fire model sells for about $55.00 and the plastic soprano for about $13 at Baryonyx Knife Co. and are both worth checking out if you’re looking for a portable instrument to take to the woods and trails on your next adventure.

Notes from Rebecca Stelzer

IMG 2459 1024x683f

The ocarina is an ancient flute-like wind instrument. It is over 12,000 years old and is a member of the woodwind family. The ocarina is an enclosed space that can have anywhere from four to twelve finger holes, the mouthpiece comes out from the body. It can be made out of plastic, wood, glass, clay, metal, and even sometimes even vegetables. The ocarinas made out of clay have the cleanest sound.

IMG 2467 1024x683j

The ocarina works when air enters through the wind way (mouthpiece) and bounces off the labium which, in turn, makes a sound. The sound flutters throughout the inside of the ocarina creating different pitches as you cover and uncover different holes.

When comparing the ocarina to the flute and recorder the ocarina is closer to the recorder, but has some similarities to the flute. The recorder and ocarina are pretty much played the same way by covering and uncovering holes. The ocarina is played more like you would hold a hamburger and the recorder is played more like a clarinet, but you’re still blowing directly into the instrument. They both have few pitches that can be played and can have the same amount of holes. Comparing it to the flute is ways different the flute can go 4 octaves, whereas the ocarina is only limited to a 12th. The three have two similarities between them. The recorder, flute, and ocarina are all woodwinds and are all played by covering and uncovering a hole in some way.

IMG 2463 1024x683h   IMG 2472 1024x683l

When my friend’s dad saw my ocarina he shared his experience with the instrument. As a teen he liked to play recorders, kenas (Inca flute), mouth piano, and the ocarina. The ocarina was his favorite because it could fit in a pants or jacket pocket. He purchased a clay ocarina from the native Indians who came to their town. With his experience with other instruments he taught himself how to play the ocarina. It became one of his favorite memories because it was easy to play and very portable. He has replaced his ocarina many times due to the fact that he loved playing it and the uniqueness it has.

Even though the ocarina is over 12,000 years old, it has been featured in some of the present day video games such as Pokémon: The Rise of Dark Rai and a Nintendo 64 game The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Check them out over at Baryonyx Knife Co.

“Like” the Monkey on Facebook while you’re at it too!

Woods Monkey Facebook Link