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Aimee Taylor; Ocarinas

(June 01, 2013)

Created with earth and water, sealed with fire and played by air

Ocarinas are a beautiful type of vessel flute. Not generally well known, most people I know who have heard of the instrument are either musicians themselves, or have stumbled across it by chance. During the time I have known about ocarinas, I rarely saw them around and had never met another ocarina player … until I discovered Robert Hickman, who lives in Chepstow.


Ocarina Collection
Ocarina collection: Clockwise from the Totoro Ocarina (the large grey creature at the back), Terry Riley alto-D (which I hand painted), Robert Hickman soprano F Jellyfish design (which I helped make and hand paint), Terry Riley soprano-G, Focalink long mouth hand painted soprano-C, Terry Riley B-flat tenor. Most ocarinas here are 6-holes, except for Totoro which is 5-holes and the Jellyfish ocarina, 11-hole

Vessel flutes have been used for over 12,000 years. Developing separately around the world, they seem to have been an important part of their cultures; the ancient Chinese, Maya and Aztec cultures, in particular. Europe's own form of vessel flute was in use around the 15th century, the Gemshorn; a vessel flute made from the horns of animals such as goats or a horn shape made out of clay. Mesoamerican vessel flutes were introduced to Europe by the Spanish conquistadores during the 16th century, and used as toys (with only a few notes).

It wasn't until 1853 that a maker by the name of Giuseppe Donati produced a vessel flute in their modern form, in Budrio, Italy. He named it 'ocarina' (meaning little goose in Italian), referring to the shape of the instrument. Donati made ocarinas with ten holes, and the fingering system developed to allow a full chromatic scale and three additional notes to be played. This system is still used in today's ten hole ocarinas, with various other systems appearing with different numbers of holes and chambers available, including: in-line ocarinas; 11 and 12-hole ocarinas; as well as multi-chambered - with doubles, triples and quadruple ocarinas being available, which allows the chromatic range of the instrument to be extended.

Donati OcarinaOld ocarina by Giuseppe Donati, from Franco Ferri collection, Budrio
Photograph by Krešimir Cindrić, used with permission

Another type of ocarina is a pendant. Some consider this a different type of vessel flute altogether, due to its differences from the original ocarina created by Donati (it neither reflects the 'little goose' shape nor the ten hole fingering system). The most modern form of the pendant available is with four or six holes, which uses the fingering system invented by John Taylor in 1960s London; where a scale can be achieved with just four holes. The pendant can also be found available as twin chambers. Depending on the ocarina, it either extends the instrument's range or both chambers can be played simultaneously in harmony with each other.

There is also the Peruvian pendant. These are typically brightly painted with beautiful patterns and can have from four to ten holes. The only issue with the Peruvian type is that the finger holes are often all the same size, meaning the instrument is not tuned and has very limited capabilities, which could be off-putting for a beginner.

Peruvian pendantPeruvian pendant

Creating vessel flutes and ocarinas is an art within itself, as they are individually hand crafted. Though traditionally made out of clay, some are made out of wood, plastic or even other materials, like cardboard, glass bottles and even vegetables!

I had the pleasure of spending a day or two with ocarina maker Robert Hickman, who showed me the two methods of creating ceramic ocarinas; either from a plaster mould, or by 'form and cut'.

To create a moulded ocarina, clay is rolled to a specific size and gently folded into the mould. Once the clay has been carefully pushed in to completely fill the mould, the excess clay is cut away and the ocarina half is removed. This process is repeated for the other half. Voicing is created using a slot stick and the two pieces are joined together. After this, follows the basic hole creation and, once it has dried, the ocarina is tuned and fired.

Ocarina mould process, Robert Hickman
Ocarina mould process, Robert Hickman
Joining ocarina halves (part of the mould process), Robert Hickman
Joining ocarina halves (part of the mould process), Robert Hickman

For the form and cut method, a basic shape is made from clay, cut in half and hollowed out. Voicing is added, and the holes made after the two halves have been joined together.

The ocarina's potential as a piece of art is what has truly intrigued me and drew me closer to the instrument. You can not only paint and sculpt onto an ocarina, but you can create unique shapes, allowing the instrument to be a sculpture within its own right. Ultimately, the ocarina's aesthetics are only limited by your imagination. Few other musical instruments can be considered as works of practical art.

Alto D 11-hole ocarina - Robert HickmanAlto D 11-hole ocarina - Robert Hickman

I first discovered the ocarina as a young child. I was around ten or eleven when I met Terry Riley at a craft fair in Plymouth and purchased my first pendant. I have bought a few more pendants from him since then, but have only recently discovered there is an ocarina community, including other makers. Ocarina and vessel flute makers are found throughout the world; almost anywhere … if you know where to look! These past six months, I have been truly blessed to not only have my interest in the ocarina rekindled, but to discover such a wonderful community and meet some incredibly talented people. My wish is to share one of my most favourite instruments with you all.

Twin chamber ocarina, Terry Riley
Harmony twin chamber ocarina, Terry Riley
Sculptural twin chamber ocarina, Terry Riley
Sculptural twin chamber ocarina, Terry Riley

An ocarina festival is held each year, where ocarina makers and players gather. Every two years the festival is held in a different city around the world. Each other year, it returns to Budrio; home town of the ocarina. This year in April 2013, the festival was back in Budrio. Next year's festival has not yet been announced, it is rumoured to possibly be in China but when the information is known it will be posted on the forums linked below. If you are interested in the ocarina and would like to discover more, feel free to visit:

These are two ocarina communities, both with different aspects and characteristics. Essentially, both have a variety of information available and wonderful members who will answer any questions you may have. Little Geese is a serious music forum with some of the most knowledgeable ocarina players I know. The Ocarina Network is a community, holding occasional events such as contests and fun events run by members, such as the Secret Santa or Penpal Exchange. Both communities are a pleasure to be a part of.

Only a few ocarina makers work in the UK. Here are some links that are well worth a look:

Jade Everett: Handcrafts 11-hole ocarinas in Kent, England - Facebook/EverettOcarinas

Sculptural ivy leaf ocarina, Jade Everett
Sculptural ivy leaf ocarina, Jade Everett
Alto C 11-hole ocarina nebula glaze, Jade Everett
Alto C 11-hole ocarina nebula glaze, Jade Everett

Robert Hickman: Handcrafts a variety of ocarinas in Chepstow, Wales -

Terry Riley: Handcrafts a variety of 4, 6-hole and twin chambered ocarinas in London, England - flickr/terryrileyvesselflutes

Aimee Taylor, 1 June 2013

If you enjoyed this, you'll also enjoy:

     Legend of the Dragon, March 2013
     Welsh Mythology: the Tylwyth Teg and water myths, December 2012
Cardiff Drawing Group; With reference to ..., September 2012


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