Exploring the Many Sides of the Native American Flute
by Dick Kite
I find that experiencing live music is a distinct high! Playing/singing in a live performance in front of an audience is an even greater high! Sharing the bonds of creativity that are developed through rehearsals and social interaction with “fellow” participants are part of the “chemistry” experienced by those who participate in making music.
The next best experience is found when being in the optimum setting, listening to a wonderfully composed piece of music, performed by an exquisitely prepared group of musicians. In 1982 I was in England on a six week course at the Royal School of Church Music. Part of our experience was attending a Three Cathedrals Music Festival. Each day we sat in on rehearsals with the Cathedral Choirs of Winchester, Chichester, and Salisbury. Each day was ended with a service of Evensong sung by one of the featured choirs. The setting: Winchester Cathedral. The choir: Winchester Men and Boys Choir. The music: Allegri’s Miserere. The results: An experience that I could only liken to “heavenly!” Unique? Yes, but an exemplary illustration of the power of being in the presence of live music. (A recorded version is found here).
There are many other personal experiences that I can offer from over 65 years of being involved in preparing and performing music. In that time I determined that there are a few instruments that lend themselves very well to “solo” playing. The voice is one of them, but another must be the Native American Flute. Its solo capability is one of the qualities that attracted me to it; that and the contemporary tuning of it to what is known as a minor pentatonic scale; example- C, Eb, F, G, Bb, C. It is, however possible to play a chromatic scale on the instrument; with the exception of the C#. It is also an “end” blown flute, as opposed to the “side” blown, classical flute.
So, what constitutes the uniqueness of the Native America Flute? It is the only flute that has two chambers; a slow air chamber and a sound chamber! A similar instrument would be a pipe organ if you consider the air chest as the slow air chamber. The Native American Flute can be made out of bone, bamboo, any wood, as well as large Sun Flower stalks (even small, curved branches). I’ve made them out of large pieces of Ivy, Cocobolo, Purple Heart, Zebra Wood, Pink Ivory (wood), Golden Lace, Alaskan Yellow Cedar, Aromatic Cedar, Cedar of Lebanon, Oak, Black Walnut, Teak, Spruce, Pine, Fir, Bubinga, Tiger Maple, Birds Eye Maple, Big Leaf Maple, Osage Orange, Holly, Cherry, Clay, Urban White Pine (PVC) and a few others that I’ve forgotten. Which is my favorite? I can’t give you a definitive answer because each wood provides its own sound and appearance; it depends on what my muse is saying to me as to mood and/or context. Pink Ivory gives a well defined, crisp sound; it is a very dense wood and will give you a very high gloss using a sealant and hard wax finish – Black Walnut produces a nice, bold, round sound – Alaskan Cedar gives a lovely soft, but full sound – Birdseye Maple gives you a beautiful finish and a great round, well defined sound – your choice.
As a maker and player of this type of flute, may I suggest that you investigate the possibilities of making your own flute? The first step, after choosing the wood you need is to begin your journey by honoring the wood that you will be using to craft this “magical” instrument; what are your intentions for making the flute? Is it for personal use, gifting, or commercial? If personal, slight imperfections are acceptable. If gifting, or commercial, your “product” should be as perfect as is possible; all should create a pleasant and authentic sound. Consult a DYI video for the proper steps; YouTube has many to choose from.
The final major step is tuning of the flute; this requires a very good ear and/ or a tuning instrument. Once the tuning has been accomplished, a finishing/sealing coat is applied to the flute and a final tuning is performed. Now, if all the steps are right, you have an instrument that you can learn to play and soon should be performing your own music. Your journey now continues as you respond to the speaking of your heart/mind/soul. Listen, carefully, and your stories will come “singing” forth.
As you, or the new owner of this instrument, take on the role of player, know that your role will be that of breathing “life” back into that which, without your intervention, would have become a stick of firewood, or mulch for the forest floor.
For those who (still) wonder – there is a HUGE difference between listening to a recording and listening to a live flute. And there is also a great difference between listening to a live flute and playing the flute.
You see, when you listen to music, it is the player’s responsibility to help you relax and heal. The player must choose the tune that is meant for you. And often it works. But when you play the flute yourself, you can decide what kind of music you play. And this is when our natural, inborn artistic expression comes into play – we all have the gift of musical skills. Some of us just never awakened it. But when you know how to play an instrument, you can express your emotions, feeling and thoughts through the instrument. For example, through the flute – this way you can help your mind bring order to chaos, put the thoughts and emotions onto right shelves. Or release the emotions through music, let them flow out of you and trouble you no more.
How do you get to this point? By opening yourself to the possibilities - a closed mind will get you nowhere. If you still have doubts, read the following and then search on-line for recordings of Native American Flute music. Your goal is to clear your mind of everything but the present, carve out at least 20 minutes of time to listen to the music of the Native American Flute. (I’ve found that the New Age versions of the NAF or NASF music are not as effective as the pure, solo sound of the flute with perhaps some percussion or sounds of nature, works best for me.)
Releasing Emotional Tension
Finally, a couple of random thoughts: “The greatest healing power of the flute comes with its ability to help us release tensions – both the physical and emotional tensions. And we do this by listening to the flute or by playing it – especially by playing.
For those who wonder – there is a HUGE difference between listening to a recording and listening to a live flute. And there is also a great difference between listening to a live flute and playing the flute.
You see, when you listen to music, it is the player’s responsibility to help you relax and heal. The player must choose the tune that is meant for you. And often it works. But when you play the flute yourself, you can decide what kind of music you play. And this is when our natural, inborn artistic expression comes into play – we all have the gift of musical skills. Some of us just never awakened it. But when you know how to play an instrument, you can express your emotions, feeling and thoughts through the instrument…
Another writer/flute player that I resonate with is Black Hawk - “Being raised on a reservation I was given a flute, rather than a pacifier to teeth upon. The flute is the only thing in this world that keeps me connected to Great Spirit. Being connected to the realm of Spirit brings a sense of harmony and peace in a world of chaos."
Twenty to 40 minutes of playing, or listening to, N/A (Native American) flute music can lower ones stress level, blood pressure, and heart-rate. As mentioned before, I see the results of my playing in myself, my neighbors and with the patients, visitors and staff members at Evergreen Hospital and Evergreen Hospice where I volunteer each week.
It has been said that: “The greatest healing power of the flute comes with its ability to help us release tensions – both the physical and emotional tensions. And we do this by listening to the flute or by playing it – especially by playing.