Growing up, I used to love watching the film “Our Neighbor Totoro” by Miyazaki Hayao. The magic that’s hidden and becoming alive to children suddenly in the sleepy countryside is as surprising as it seems most appropriate. The magic lifts the children up, and the various magical creatures, including Totoro, are downright adorable. In the movie, one night, the little sister Mei hears music and wanders out- and Satsuki (the older sister) follows her out. The sound Mei hears is the sound of an ocarina – Totoro and his forest spirit friends are playing it. The roundness of instrument, its heartwarming size, which is not unlike a small melon that gently presses on your hands if you were to hold it – all add to the romance of its sound.
I own one store-bought ocarina (a pretty common submarine-shaped one) but haven’t really mastered to play it. Even I finger all the right holes for notes, the success rate is… variable. My actual skill in the instrument aside, I still wanted to create one myself – something similar to the one in Totoro. The way that one will have to hold it like a weighty melon in both hands captured my heart.
With a fluttering heart, I set out to learn how to make ocarina. It turned out that I couldn’t even make a small, simple whistle (that would be “ocarina” without any holes for notes – just airway and voicing hole) work. So I kept making the tiny ones, just trying to get it to work. After watching/reading several tutorials and frustration at failures, I honed down on an essential technique, and from there on, I could make the ocarinas work right away. The type of ocarina I made is English pendant ocarina (But I haven’t made the one in shape like in Totoro- that’s for later…)
So, before you start, remember the below image. When I finally succeeded in making it sound (whew), I cut it in half to prove the diagrams of “making the ocarina work” I’ve seen. This is THE essential: the beveled edge (highlighted green) has to split the incoming air (highlighted pink). You have to make the bevel sharp. Shape it to slope down and carve it a bit from inside of the bevel to make a “wedge.” When the air is split, part of it goes into the chamber, travels, and makes the sound.
- firing or air-dry clay
- wire clay cutter
- water & sponge (for cleaning tools and smoothing clay)
- two DIY tools made with popsicle sticks (use sandpaper to shape – see images below) for making airway and voicing hole
- a shaping tool for cleaning up seals and shape
- needle tool for making tone holes
- carving or loop tool
Beveled end popsicle stick
Pointy end popsicle stick
Roll a lump of clay into a ball (I made it a little bigger than a golf ball).
Cut the ball in half by clay wire cutter. Scoop out both halves with a clay tool (carving or loop tool will work) as a bowl, with the wall thickness of about 1/4″.
Score the cut surface of the bowls with a needle tool. Wet one of the cut surfaces with water.
Press two halves together. Seal the seams with water and fingers (or shaping tool) until smooth. Flatten the ball a little.
Using a little of clay that was carved out, make a cube-shaped piece for a mouthpiece. Score the body of the ocarina at a spot, and also score the bottom of the mouthpiece.
Wet the scored surfaces, and press them together. Seal the seam with little water and a shaping tool.
With a flat-edged end of the popsicle stick, cut a square hole right at the bottom of where the mouthpiece and the body of ocarina meet. With a bevel end of the popsicle stick, push down the bottom side of the hole to slope down approximately 45 degrees.
This is your voicing hole.
With a pointy ended popsicle stick, start poking a flat hole through the mouthpiece. Aim the stick in a way so the resulting airway will point at the edge of the bevel of voice hole (so the incoming air can be split by that bevel).
STEP 7 cont.
Hope yours look something like this. If it doesn’t sound, check if the airway is not clogged with clay, or carve the inside of the bevel little thinner (remember it needs to be like a wedge so it can split the air!).
Hold the ocarina with both hands (with the blank side facing out), and with two fingers from both hands mark the clay with nails. This will be your natural fingering position.
Before you start making the holes, find out which key your ocarina is in, by testing with a tuner (if you have one) or tuning app on your phone.
Blow into the ocarina and see which key comes up in the tuner.
C is the most popular key, along with D, F, and G. Mine was in B – I probably could have shifted it up to C by manipulating the shape of the body a little but I was too scared of totally messing it up… so I kept it as it was.
Start working in the finger holes one at a time, starting with the smallest one. Test the notes as you make the holes one at a time. When a hole gets bigger, the tune goes up. Start small, it’s easier to carve away than trying to fill up the hole that is too big 🙂
See the fingering chart below for the order of making holes and to test the notes.
And last but not least, check this video out. Although I had to improvise to make it work for me, I learned most of the ocarina making from the video. I love his style! Maybe I can be more organic like that if I keep practicing.