May 13, 2013

Secret to Great Sound in Small Ocarinas

When I studied ceramics with Native Americans, I learned that most of their tools were simple, non-commercial common objects. These would include rags, tin cans, sticks and yucca leaves to name a few. This may have in part sprung from a need to economize - in decades past Native American ceramics was grossly undervalued. It could also be the pragmatism of using what is readily and cheaply available, finding it just as efficient, and often more so, than a mass produced tool.

I still used plenty of commercial tools when making my ceramic vessels and musical instruments, but my brush with Native American tool autonomy keeps me on the lookout for the common object that might be just the right tool.

The right tool for making the narrow slit in the mouthpiece of an ocarina and punching it through to the sound hole would be a fettling knife. A cheaper, but still commonly used commercial tool is the simple popsicle stick. Both had disadvantages for me. The popsicle stick I found to be too thick - making an opening so wide that too much air is expended blowing into it, making extended long notes or arpeggios difficult if not impossible. A commercial fettling knife has some advantages here for making a narrow air passage, but is too large for very small ocarinas and whistles. The solution to the perfect fipple maker (mouthpiece of the ocarina) turned out not to be in a store but in my lowly kitchen. Just as my Native American friends told me, I didn’t have to look very far for an answer to my creative needs. It turned out that the plastic tie that hooks around the covering of a loaf of bread to keep it shut was just the right length and width or making finishing off the mouthpiece of the ocarina. They were soft enough to cut any size any shape from moderate size ocarinas to very small whistles. The mouthpieces of the ocarinas I’ve featured above and and right were finished with custom plastic fettling knives shaped from these pieces of plastic - the two-inch pieces work the best. The small ocarina pictured at right is quite little at just two and a half inches high but plays a full octave with a large sound.

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