whistle while you wait

I started off in my “studioette” making a head with a nice chunk of white clay, but it was too wet – both the day and the clay. The rain was pouring and the room is unheated so I set the partly formed head aside to dry someday. While looking for better clay I was distracted by an unfinished but abandoned whistle in the “junk” pile. I have a special place in my heart for whistles because of a sweet story about my daughter taking a small handmade whistle to camp when she was very young.

A couple of years ago I was intrigued by the process of making whistles and made a bunch of them. I used several different methods, but whistles take a lot of fiddling to make them sound good. Really it took me a long time to get any sound at all. After a while, I started to understand what angles and elements are essential for sound and then sometimes I got it right. Here are a couple that I kept.



I tried putting more than 1 hole in some of them to be able to change the sound which inevitably led me to ocarinas. I ordered Clay Whistles, by Janet Moniot . The instructions are clear and simple. She starts with a pinch pot – pinching out a mouthpiece first and squeezing up and then closing the pot. I often start pinching and then coil till I get the shape I want and then play with the “balloon”. Here is a California Quail ocarina.


This morning I made a couple of hollow birds, and now I have to wait till the clay is drier before I can cut in the mouthpiece and holes. It is still raining so they came inside with me so there is some hope of them drying before next week.

When I returned this evening they were just right for slicing in the mouthpiece and pushing in the holes. The first one whistled as soon as I cut in the sound hole and I was feeling pretty competent, but the next one had more clay on top and I needed to carve off some clay and reshape the split angle before the sound was clear.

The tricky part to ocarinas is tuning them, which might be easier if I had a better ear, but I use drill bits to size the holes, and they seem to play a pretty accurate scale. I’ve read that even if you tune them just right they can still get a little sharp after firing. It’s all beyond me. Twinkle twinkle Little Star sounds good on them.


I’m not sure whether I like the holes on the top or the side so I tried one style on each bird. I was surprised to hear that the one with all the holes on the top, which has a slightly bigger interior space, had a higher pitch than the smaller one. Usually, the bigger the cavity, the deeper the sound. My guess is that having the holes on the top gives the air inside a shorter distance to travel after it splits, rather than moving around inside the cavity. But now that I’ve tried to explain it, I realize I’m really just makin’ stuff up – I have no idea . . .


7 responses to “whistle while you wait

  1. I love the quail, I have had quail on the brain every since I went to the post office and saw the tax booklet with the California quail on the front. I made one ceramic flute in a workshop and it played pretty well, but I dropped it on a concrete floor at a show in December. Perhaps I will try these another time. I had a terrible time getting them to produce a sound, never mind about the tuning. Perhaps one day. Yours are lovely.

  2. Linda, The first time I got one of my whistles to whistle, I hooted much louder than the thin, raspy sound that came from the clay. I have never tried a flute.

  3. Is the ocarina the same as a musical instrument pronounced “whaca”? At a recent party, I heard the instrument played live.

  4. Georgia, When I pronounce “whaca” it sounds like someone might have been saying Oxacaca (waHAHca) quickly. Any possibility of that? It could have been some type of ocarina. They can be made as serious instruments, and have from 4 to 12 holes.

  5. Barbara, I think it was a ocarina based on photos on Wikipedia. The musician plays on the Green Music Fetival circuit and said his particular form of the instrument was invented in Berkeley (Bay Area).

  6. Every time I have another hole in my head, I whistle higher!

    I still covet that dog but am the proud owner of a whistling blue whale!! Thanks for making it Barbara Ann. mjb

  7. I have a bird pinch pot project in school and I was wondering if you could send me some more photos of your California Quail pot. I love what you did, and i would like to try and attempt that.

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