Clay is an extremely versatile medium. It is strong, durable, and will last a very long time. It is used in cars, for dishes, as decoration, smelting, on tools, and so much more. I knew we could make drums out of clay – throwing an open cylinder, cutting out holes in the rim, then stretching and tying a piece of tanned animal hide over the top through the holes to make a great percussion. But I was amazed to learn clay can be used to make more complicated kinds of instruments! I read the book “From Mud to Music” and grabbed a project I wanted to try out.
For this exploration in making practical and out of the ordinary ceramic pieces, I chose to make an Ocarina. I think they’re beautiful, sound so pretty, and have a nice shape that fits right in the hand. This instrument also has a cultural niche, being a primary instrument in a very popular video game series. I am playing with the technique, but if I make a few really successful ocarinas I might be able to sell them!
I did more research on the production of the ocarina to have a well rounded understanding of the process I’ll be undergoing. There are all these necessary relations between air flow and positioning, the neatness of the cuts and bevels, and the clay itself will warp and shrink.There are many small adjustments that change the result, so just keep in mind this is only one way to construct a ceramic ocarina.
I started with a closed pinch pot and pinched up a small rectangular mouth piece. I’m using recycled high fire red stoneware.
Shove a popsicle stick down the center of the mouth piece, creating a small opening. Keep the stick in there.
With a popsicle stick that’s been sanded to a beveled tip, make a square right on top of the other stick just before the rounded part starts to curve out. Go into the bottom of the square at a 45 degree angle and scrape the clay down toward the bottom stick to create the fipple edge. The wall in the mouth piece facing the fipple needs to be at the same level vertically and needs to rest exactly between the top and bottom of the mouth piece opening. This is the hardest part and because there are so many tiny details that can have a make or break effect on the sound coming out, it takes a lot – A LOT – SO MUCH – trial and error. The mouth piece edges could be perfectly flush, but the fipple might not be thin enough, at the right angle, or distorted by moisture. Your fipple could be perfect, but if there are small scraps of clay anywhere in there, the air flow will be disrupted and you’ll just be breathing into a ball of clay. I’ve found that even if it looks the same as a working one, if the technique is right, if you’ve been fiddling with one for 6 hours straight, it could still end up sounding like you’re blowing into a bottle.
I haven’t found the perfect ratio of straightness and fipple-ness to consistently make a tone that’s not breathy and quiet, but I totally made 3 that sound great!!! I need to let them dry slowly to reduce the possibility of warping, then fire them twice in my kilns to make them hard like rock and last through the ages!
I like to think that when our civilization is long gone, space archaeologists from the future will dig up our pottery and learn about how we lived and played.