1. A Preliminary Word to Parents
  2. Practical Tips on Helping Kids to Persevere
  3. How Much Should a Child Practice?
  4. Do I Need to Learn to Play the Ocarina Along with My Children?
  5. Covering the Holes
  6. Do They Have to Start Learning to Read Music In Unit One?
  7. Introducing Real Music
  8. How Long Should a Unit Last?
  9. Activities that Teach Children to Read Music
  10. Flashcards
  11. Playing High Notes
  12. Should You Take the Summer Off?
  13. Polishing the Airway
  14. Which Ocarina Should a Child Start On?
  15. Be positive!

1) A Preliminary Word to Parents It is developmentally normal for kids to flit like hummingbirds from interest to interest, hovering briefly to taste of each one before darting off to the next. Parents must accept that kids will be kids. Too often have I heard a frustrated parent scold their eager little would-be musician with the words, "I’m not getting you another musical instrument; I already bought you a recorder (guitar, etc.), but you didn’t stick with it." Well, the reality is that most children will stick with music only if the parent does. (Yes, I have spoken with several parents who just gave the ocarina and curriculum to their kids, and the kids are running with it on their own, but they are rare exceptions to the rule.) When I was a little shaver, I almost never practiced my saxophone unless Mom or Dad prompted me, i.e., made me. Obviously, it wasn’t that I had no true interest in music. My "problem" was that I was still a child. Like most kids, I just naturally gravitated to activities that were easier, more fun, or more relevant in the very short term. Consequently, parents, it is your job to provide the structure, discipline, and encouragement that your children need to receive not only the gift of music but also that of perseverance–a quality that will benefit them throughout life.

2) Practical Tips on Helping Kids to Persevere Something useful to a lot of parents in helping their kids persevere is some type of clear, measurable, written plan. Personally, I was never consistent about giving my son Danny ocarina lessons until we started to use a checklist. As home schoolers, we came up with a Minimum Weekly Requirements Checklist in keeping with our educational goals. In other words, if nothing else gets done in a week, at least the things on the checklist should. At the time of writing this paragraph, Danny and I have to get in at least five ocarina sessions at some time during a seven-day week. (Presently, because of his special needs, I always do it with him, whereas many children can practice on their own.) Now, instead of skipping a lesson when we get home late from swimming or bike riding, we have a quick one anyway because we have committed to it.

Another way of motivating children is to require them to earn certain special privileges, activities, or their allowance by successfully completing weekly tasks, which may include practicing the ocarina, doing chores, reading books, exercising, or whatever your family deems important. Younger children may respond best to more immediate rewards, i.e., making a snack or computer time or swimming (usually an activity that you would have done anyway) contingent upon completing the ocarina lesson. Just placing a star on a chart can be very reinforcing to some children, not to mention some adults. In our family, we love to read together before bed. Knowing this gains me rapid compliance when I state that we have to have an ocarina lesson before we can read together. Rather than constituting bribery, I believe that these methods teach a child that responsibility precedes play and that hard work is required to reach one’s goals.

3) How Much Should a Child Practice? Practice time can vary dramatically depending on several factors such as age, maturity, interest level, and family priorities. One possible scenario is to teach your child once a week in a longer session and have them practice five to ten minutes (or whatever you decide) a day during the rest of the week. Because you don’t have to put the ocarina together beforehand, or wet a reed, or clean up, or take it apart afterwards, a ten-minute practice session can be very productive, although a half-hour might be more appropriate for older children. It also isn’t mandatory to practice everyday; one can progress rapidly by practicing from three to five times a week. If they are so inclined, encourage your children to carry their ocarina with them in a pocket or sheath and play it whenever they feel the urge. While most people who play traditional band instruments don’t continue as adults, the ocarina is easy to keep playing all throughout life if you carry it with you. In conclusion, whatever the number of minutes or practice sessions per week, the key to progress is consistency.

4) Do I Need to Learn to Play the Ocarina Along with My Children? Well, that depends. Older children may just need help getting started: someone to read with them through the first unit, and then someone to help them stick with it. (Please see "Practical Tips on Helping Kids to Persevere" above.) Generally speaking, however, the younger the child, the more involved a parent or teacher needs to be. In the case of smaller children or those with certain special needs, I highly recommend that at least one parent learn along with the child or children. Obviously, your own first hand experience with the ocarina will dramatically improve your ability to teach it. If this sounds overwhelming, consider that the ocarina is much easier to learn than most instruments, and it doesn’t take years of practice before you sound good enough to play in public. I speak from experience when I say that sharing an activity like this is very rewarding to both you and your child. Just think of the possibilities of using your music to serve others together as your child matures.

5) Covering the Holes It is sometimes helpful with smaller children (or with anyone for whom covering the tone holes is frustrating at first) to put tape over the ocarina’s two bottom holes, or thumb holes, for the first several lessons. Clear packing tape works well. Because the ocarina plays an entire octave using only the holes on its top, the bottom holes are not necessary until a child has been playing for some time. With two less holes to cover, little guys with tiny fingers and budding motor skills have an easier time getting started. Later, simply remove the tape when they reach a point where they need to play the two highest notes. Don’t worry if they have trouble covering the tone holes right at first–this initial struggle is common to learning any woodwind instrument. With a little practice, they will quickly improve. It is, though, easier to cover the holes with the fingers slightly bent rather than with straight fingers. In the beginning, children sometimes make the mistake of gripping the instrument very tightly with straight fingers, making it difficult to cover the tone holes.

6) Do They Have to Start Learning to Read Music In Unit One? Not necessarily. Though I have had good success teaching children as young as six to read music, there is no set age for starting, and the parent or teacher must decide if a child is ready. In the case of children whose young age or special needs would make reading music especially difficult, the songs can be learned by singing together. Be warm, affirming, patient, and have lots of fun singing and clapping, singing slow, singing fast, singing loud, singing soft… After the child can sing or hum the melody, then you can begin to learn to play it, sometimes just a couple notes at a time and sometimes learning to play only part of a song in one sitting. (How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.) The three songs in Unit One of the Learning to Play Mountain Ocarinas® curriculum are a perfect place to start.

Another great activity for teaching a pre-reader of music is what I call Follow the Leader. To play Follow the Leader, the parent or teacher plays a note or short series of notes, and then the child must do the same. At first, use only the notes B, A, and G (the notes introduced in Unit One of the curriculum). Over time, expand the game to include longer strings of notes, then the whole scale, and finally the entire range of the instrument. This game is fun, easy, and great for improving a child’s hole covering, tonal memory, rhythm, confidence, and ability to play by ear. It is also a good way to introduce new songs, piece by piece.

7) Introducing Real Music As mentioned in the list of SUGGESTED MUSIC BOOKS, it is good to introduce "real music," that is, music from sources besides Learning to Play Mountain Ocarinas®, as soon as possible. Although adults or adolescents may complete the entire curriculum before playing from other sources, younger children benefit greatly from playing lots of simpler songs at each level before moving on to more complex rhythms. In general, the younger the child, the more time and practice that is required to acquire new skills. In addition, letting children pick their own songs from outside sources is both fun and motivating. The Wee Sing series, Christmas carols, and easier hymns or folksongs are all good sources of music. If they encounter a new note while attempting a song outside the curriculum, help them to use the fingering chart to figure out how to play it. Don’t be afraid to leave the curriculum for a while in order to pursue your child’s musical interests. For example, maybe your kids only want to learn Christmas carols during the holiday season in preparation for playing at a local nursing home. Enjoy the extended detour and come back to the curriculum when they are ready to move on to the next level.

8) How Long Should a Unit Last? This also depends on several factors. When I teach adults or older children, I often teach a unit in one sitting. They then go home and practice, and we complete another unit the following week. In the case of smaller children, however, you might learn one song or even part of a song in a lesson. Break a unit into as many pieces as you need to.

9) Activities that Teach Children to Read Music It is important to continually reinforce and review concepts that the children have learned in earlier lessons. To do this, I play lots of quick, fun warm up games at the start of a lesson such as the following. "Draw me a whole note on the B line." (Student quickly draws the five lines of the staff and a whole note on the middle line.) "Good job! Now, draw me a quarter note. Wow, you did that fast! Now, how long does a quarter note last?" (If asking questions of a group, be sure to require hand raising–or call on students at random–and wait a bit before taking an answer so that all the students have time to formulate a response. If you merely call on the first person who puts a hand up, the slower students don’t bother to think since they won’t be called on anyway. Try to give everyone an equal opportunity to answer questions.) While looking at the book together, say, "Point to a quarter note," or, "Show me a half note on the B line," or "Point to a repeat sign," etc. These can all be fun ways of repeating concepts and of teaching to different learning styles.

Another playful way to teach them to read music is by doing a lot of singing or chanting of the rhythm patterns while keeping the beat through clapping, marching, or pounding on something such as the plastic top of a coffee can or on different percussion instruments. (Not only boys but especially boys appreciate ACTIVE, movement-filled participation.) In fact, with young chaps, we sometimes do more chanting and singing than ocarina playing. For instance, I usually have them chant a song with me as a rhythm pattern before they play it on the ocarina. This is done by chanting a long or short monotone syllable (bah, bah, bah) that corresponds to each musical note as we keep the beat by clapping or pounding the table. Chanting the song in monotone isolates and necessitates the reading of rhythm because students cannot use a familiar melody as a crutch to avoid reading the duration of the notes. Furthermore, after chanting a song in monotone, students are more able to concentrate on where the notes lie on the staff since they have already grasped the rhythm.

Another helpful activity is to have them silently finger the notes of a song before playing it. In this activity, they put the ocarina up to their mouth and finger the notes as usual, but without blowing. This forces the reluctant reader of music to actually read the notes instead of playing strictly by ear.

10) Flashcards Hopefully at some point, we will be offering an excellent set of flashcards for use with the curriculum. Flashcards can be a fun, quick, and motivating way of isolating and reinforcing skills. Moms or Dads can ask their child(ren) to practice five minutes on the flashcards as they drive to the grocery store together. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to leave a set on the dashboard of the car to practice a bit during each car ride. Our family frequently uses everyday car trips for this type of thing with wonderful results. As a bilingual person, I can attest to the tremendous learning that I experienced during my university days when I would take out my language vocabulary cards for five minute study sessions as I walked to class or rode the bus to the other side of campus.

What should be on the flashcards? Well, whatever area needs reinforcing. For example, on the front of a card, you could draw a whole note and write the questions 1) What is this note called? and 2) How many beats does it last? On the other side of the card you write the answers, i.e., 1) A whole note, and 2) 4 beats. You could copy a rhythm pattern from the book onto a card and write 1) Chant the rhythm pattern 4 times through while clapping, 2) Play the rhythm pattern 4 times on the ocarina, and 3) State the name and duration of each note in the rhythm pattern. You could draw a staff with a half note on the B line, asking them to silently finger the note on the ocarina and to state how long the note lasts. If they are able to and you want to take the time to show them how, the kids could periodically make their own flashcards to deal with any hard-to-remember concepts.

11) Playing High Notes After playing the instrument for a time, your brain unconsciously determines the correct airspeed for playing controlled high notes, but in the beginning be sure to blow hard enough so that high notes will not squeak. On rare occasions, beginners can get caught up in a vicious circle. They play a high note shyly or timidly and, of course, the note squeaks. Out of shame, they proceed to blow even more timidly with equally disastrous results, thereupon concluding, "High notes are too hard!" All they need to do is blow more forcefully. (On the other hand, if the instrument produces a very high-pitched, irritating blast instead of the desired note, they are blowing too hard. Remember that blast, though, if you ever need to sound an SOS when lost or stranded in the mountains.)

Another reason why beginners sometimes play ragged high notes is that they don’t keep their airway clear by sucking out condensed moisture. Novices in general and little ones in particular tend to slobber into the airway much more at first than they will after becoming more proficient.

12) Should You Take the Summer Off? You can if you want, but I wouldn’t. If you do, be prepared to do a whole lot of review when you start up again. Band teachers know the frustration of kids returning to school who seem to have contracted musical amnesia sometime between June and September. This is especially true of younger children.

13) Polishing the Airway Because a clear airway is vital to good tone, kids should rinse their mouth with water if playing the ocarina right after eating. Although the ocarina requires almost no care and upkeep, small bits of junk or lint can sometimes accumulate in the airway over time. Therefore, every once in a while, you should polish the airway to keep it in tiptop playing condition. To do this, fold a piece of white paper several times to the proper width and thickness, and repeatedly slide the paper in and out of the airway. Be sure not to leave any tiny paper fragments in the airway when you are finished. If family members are sharing an ocarina (something that I don’t suggest) and there is concern about germs, you can put a drop of rubbing alcohol in the airway as you polish it. Make sure that all the alcohol has evaporated before playing the instrument.

14) Which Ocarina Should a Child Start On? There are differing opinions, but I suggest that kids start on the G instrument because the smaller tone holes are easier to cover at first. Also, the G ocarina is what you hear recorded on the 3 CDs that accompany Learning to Play Mountain Ocarinas®.

15) Be positive! Instead of pouring water on your child’s interest in music, try to fan it into flame. Certainly we must teach our children the joy of being others-centered, to be considerate of those around them; I never let kids march around making loud, annoying blasts on the ocarina. At the same time, I think parents need to go out of their way to celebrate and encourage any little triumph of their fledgling musician. Occasionally I hear a mom say something such as, "I don’t let Johnny practice his ocarina in the house any more; he was just always playing that thing!" Another mother in a similar situation will say, "It has been such a blessing having Billy playing hymns around the house all the time." Which child do you think is more likely to continue with music? If we hold our applause until we hear our child perform beautifully, we may never get the chance.


Mountain Ocarinas Inc., 71 Hoskins Rd., Bloomfield, CT 06002, (860) 242-6626

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