Some years ago, while I was waiting to teach a Wider Opportunities lesson in a tiny village school, I heard a pleasant and musical warbling sound coming from the infant classroom next to the hall. The door was open, so I took a quick look, and discovered about twenty children, from reception to year 2, all playing ocarinas.
What a revelation!
Since then I have incorporated ocarina as a class instrument for year 1 and 2 alongside all the other activities we do in the lesson. I am still experimenting with different approaches to how I go about teaching it, but the ocarina is, in my mind, infinitely preferable to the recorder.
Here are three main reasons why:
Firstly, there is the gentle consensus of sound produced by the class. It is relatively hard to make the horrible shrieks and squeaks that gives the recorder such a bad name. What is more, even when all the children are playing different notes, the sound is still fairly pleasant for the listener, compared the shrill cacophony of beginner recorders all playing different wrong notes at the same time.
Secondly, the size and shape of the instrument is perfect for little fingers. I find that children with quite small hands can just about cover the four holes on the ocarina, while many year 3 children struggle to get their fingers to find the holes on recorders.
Thirdly, the children LOVE their ocarinas!
In the first few years of teaching, I carefully taught the first three or four notes; D, E and F sharp, and we played a number of simple three-note tunes. The main problem is handed-ness; the children need to use the fingers of their right hands to play E and Fsharp, and not all the children are quite sure which hand is which. It is not helpful that when I stand in front of them, my left hand is opposite their right hands and vice-versa, adding to the confusion.
Now, using the story of Jack and the Beanstalk, I concentrate on teaching the notes low D (all holes covered), A (the two holes nearest your mouth covered), and high D (no holes covered). This works much better, as these fingerings are completely symmetrical, avoiding the whole left/right business.
The children very quickly learn to read and play quaver and crotchet rhythms using their ocarinas. Even the children who are not keen on reading and writing words in class take great delight in reading and writing each other’s music. Because the ocarina makes such a gentle sound, it is perfectly possible to have twenty or more children working in small groups all composing and playing their pieces at the same time; something that is intolerable with a recorder group.
The only downside is the relative cost of ocarinas compared to recorders. The website www.ocarina.co.uk sells 4-hole ocarinas for £8.16, or £11.28 including the tutor book. They also sell school packs with 12 or more ocarinas which brings the price down.
I have also bought an ocarina from “Tiny Tutors”, published by www.musicsales.com but available from a variety of suppliers. I wasn’t sure what to expect for £5.99 and feared it might be a mini-ocarina, but it turned out to be a nice little tutor book, and a 4-hole ocarina which is similar to the one I bought for £8.50 from a local music shop, and all a sturdy box.
(prices and links correct at the time of publishing)