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Ocarinas on a roll

A vessel flute with a long history is attracting a dedicated following in many schools. Gerald Haigh reports

If you've ever heard (and who hasn't?) those restless toodle-oodle-oo notes that open the theme music to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, then you've heard the ocarina. Composer Ennio Morricone liked the instrument very much, and used it many times. In fact, right across the musical world, it's always been there (historians trace it back for 12,000 years) adding a gentle sound you could never quite identify.

For schools wanting to introduce large numbers of children to instrumental music-making, the ocarina is ideal. The plastic four-hole alto, as used in many schools, is cheap, sits easily in tiny hands and doesn't, unlike some instruments, punish faulty technique by emitting fearsome squeaks (blow it too hard and it just clams up).

Its user-friendly qualities were confirmed by the two classes of six-year-olds at Coundon Primary who eagerly played Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star half-way through their second 30-minute lesson.

The ocarina is a "vessel flute"; this means that, rather than being a tube like the recorder or orchestral flute, it's a sort of air container - a vessel. In keeping with that, it's traditionally made of ceramic material, though plastic school instruments are perfectly up to the job.

The plastic ocarina used at Coundon is small and round, a bit like a little turtle. It comes in a choice of bright colours, and has four finger holes which can be covered in various combinations to produce a chromatic one-octave scale, D to D. (There's also a six-hole version - four holes on top, two thumb holes underneath - that widens the range. Some teachers introduce it later, some prefer to teach it from the start).

Coundon's music co-ordinator, Dawn Neil, ran an ocarina group last year as an after-school activity. Now, with ocarinas bought by the local authority's performing arts service, she is teaching the instrument to all 60 children in Year 2.

Two weeks into term, the Coundon children were some way from passing Ennio Morricone's audition, but they were playing, the tune was recognisable, they weren't in the least afraid, and they were practically rolling on the floor with the delight of it all. Dawn Neil had diagrams up on the wall, showing the holes to be covered, and she herself was playing the much bigger bass ocarina, so that the children could see what she was doing.

Just watching and listening was to be convinced that if you believe music should be accessible to everyone, then the ocarina's for you. "They were excited right at the start about having a musical instrument," says Dawn Neil. "And they loved having a choice of colours."

Lynette Bennett, music co-ordinator at Sudley Junior School in Liverpool, has taught ocarina for many years, some of the time as an advanced skills teacher. She sees it as a way to get lots of children performing to a high standard in a reasonable amount of time. "The QCA wants all children to have the opportunity to perform and this is one of the most successful ways of involving the greatest number of children. They get good results very quickly." (Lynette has taken advanced groups to music festivals and won wind-ensemble awards competing against much older children.) One reason for the ocarina's popularity, she says, is the shape of the instrument. "There's no stretching to reach the holes, they all lie within a tiny hand shape. You can move the children on quickly and there's lots of material for them to play."

The majority of young ocarina learners use the instruments, books and CDs from David and Christa Liggins's Ocarina Workshop. The books are cleverly graded and very accessible, so that children are reading and playing music right from the start. David and Christa have done wonders for the ocarina over the past 20 years, not only supplying a full range of instruments in traditional ceramic materials, but introducing cheap, good-quality plastic instruments, supported by a full range of books, CDs and other resources.

That some 2,000 schools have ocarinas integrated into the music curriculum is largely down to their dedication and enthusiasm.


Ocarina basics

Vessel flutes of various shapes and sizes have turned up in virtually every civilisation from the most ancient onwards. Giuseppe Donati was making beautiful ocarinas in Bologna in the 1870s. In 1964, John Taylor of London discovered that, by carefully varying the sizes of the holes, a four-hole instrument could produce a tuned scale.

Ocarinas come in a range of sizes, from the tiny micro to the pizza-sized mega bass; as with most instruments, the bigger the size, the lower the notes it plays. The four-hole plastic alto is the right size for small hands. Most schools start children at Years 2 or 3, though some individuals start much earlier, and there is, of course, no upper age limit.

The ocarina is easier to start than the recorder having fewer holes.

There's also a "duet ocarina", which is two instruments in one - so a solo player can play a two-part piece.

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