- Karl Thunemann
Flutes and Drums: Twin Founts of Meditation
by Dick Kite
Let me first outline my credentials, so that I can claim some credibility on the subject: My schooling included:
Undergraduate work at Lewis and Clark College
Graduate work at San Francisco Theological Seminary
Post graduate work at Westminster Choir College, Lewis and Clark College, and the Royal School of Church music in England
I spent almost fifty years working in three of the mainline denominations with four years of public school teaching mixed into my early career.
During those later years I began to move toward Celtic Spirituality. That led me to an appreciation of Native American Spirituality with its parallel emphasis on creation and our responsibility for its nurturing. My DNA does not include any Native American blood; it is mostly English/UK, some Eastern European, and a minuscule amount of Bantu. Having said that, let's get to the subject at hand, Meditation: the Native American Flute and Drumming—its relaxing qualities.
In New Hampshire, on Lake Eastman, one summer evening, I was playing down on the shore when a Loon began to talk back to me. The conversation went on for 5 or 10 minutes.
Before the Pandemic, I facilitated a Native American Flute Circle. The fourth Tuesday of each month, between 8 and 28 NAF/NASF players gathered to share their stories, through their words and their music. They were usually stories that included how their music had touched someone, or something else’s life; birds, people, animals, and even Orcas. (In New Hampshire, on Lake Eastman, one summer evening, I was playing down on the shore when a Loon began to talk back to me. The conversation went on for 5 or 10 minutes. On another occasion, on Swan Lake in Redmond, WA, while playing on our deck, a gaggle of geese began to gather in front of our deck. As noted before, at Silver Glen in Bellevue, WA, while walking on the path that circles the property, we chanced upon a rabbit. I began to play my flute and the rabbit “settled” down in front of us, and closed his eyes. One of my flute-playing friends takes her flutes down to Puget Sound when she knows they are in the area, and plays. The Orca often respond to her playing by “frolicking” and swimming near her location.) After two hours of sharing stories and discussing our various flutes, they’ve all packed up to go home, Some of us always stayed to share other stories, and, often comment on how much better we/they felt at the end of each “Circle.” I, for one, can go into these sessions utterly exhausted, or even feeling a bit “punky,” but at the end, when each flute player has provided us with moments of relaxation and meditation, and when we do finally head for the doors, I, feel rejuvenated and refreshed. How is that possible? From a “spiritual” standpoint, perhaps these words will give the reader some inkling of what has been happening in our circle.
For a number of years Washington Flute Circle planned and hosted an annual event in August. That event was called Flute Quest and lasted for three days; Friday through Sunday. Invitations were sent out to flute makers throughout the country, as well as other Native American crafters; jewelry makers, beading specialists, drum makers, makers of flute bags/carriers, leather workers, makers of dream catchers and other Native American objects. Classes on most of these subjects, as well as “How to Make/Play the Native American Flute, were taught by the vendors. Nationally know flute players, such as Rona Yellowrobe, pictured here in 2012, were invited to perform at special evening concerts. Also, throughout the day the performance stage was open to local flute players, as well as our national performers. The result was that there were flute/dance/didgeridoo performances throughout the day. There was also a teepee set up as the focal point for late evening drum circles.
Those moments were then incorporated into our Sunday Services on a regular basis. We were then invited to other congregations to bring that element of meditation into their services. So, we had moved from just flute, to just drums, to drums and flute.
“The Native American style flute is often compared to the Shakuhachi – a meditation flute used by monks of Zen Buddhism. Indeed, the NAF can be used as a powerful meditative tool. By listening to, and/or playing the flute, we can increase our possibility of reaching the alpha state of mind – which is a basic meditative state. The more we play with calm breath and the more we focus on playing, the deeper meditative states we can achieve. This is a great way of calming down your mind and emotions. By doing so, you can also open yourself to intuition, or spiritual guidance, or help yourself release emotions that are hidden within your subconscious mind.” 1
As a further example, the United Methodist Church, as a body, selects one Sunday per year to focus on the needs of the Native Americans by taking a special offering to support scholarships for their young people. It was here that I began to develop the desire and skills necessary to make and play Native American Style Flutes. I inserted my newfound instrument and ability to play into the next Native American Awareness Sunday service. The congregation was very receptive to my offering, so the next year I added my wife to the offering by inviting her to accompany me on a frame drum. We played for regular Sunday Services, and many special liturgical services.
From those experiences I began to look into the subject of Meditational Drumming. Soon, with the help of a couple from Wallingford UMC, we developed a meditational drumming group. After weeks of practice, we were written into a number of services during the serving of Communion and other appropriate portions of the services where meditation was encouraged. From there we added my flute playing to the drumming. A number of the members of the congregation, as well as the drummers and myself, began to comment of how what we were doing was helping them/us focus on the service and to escape, for a few moments, all of the extraneous things that were pulling at their minds. Those moments were then incorporated into our Sunday Services on a regular basis. We were then invited to other congregations to bring that element of meditation into their services. So, we had moved from just flute, to just drums, to drums and flute. That was the mix that seemed to produce the best results.
We found ourselves providing a focal point for those in attendance, a focal point that allowed our minds to divest all extraneous thoughts. In doing so, the body could relax and the mind could release emotions that were hidden to the point that their whole being could begin to rejuvenate on a more positive plane. A renewal of the spirit was taking place.
To further illustrate, my friend, Vince Redhouse of the Puget Sound area in Washington State, on his website, 2 has this to say: “I am an American Indian (Navajo)… I think of music as a spiritual event that we participate in—the musician as well as the listener …my family through generations was known for its medicine men. My grandfather Hosteen Redhouse was greatly respected in Indian Country. I believe those gifts continue to be passed to us just as physical characteristics are, except these are spiritual. My music carries the Spirit of my dad and his fathers and I am keenly aware of this especially when I play the Native Flute and when I compose music. Music for me is one of the greatest expressions of spirit and heart and healing and it is the gift I am blessed to share.”"
Now, if you are looking for scientific proof of the effects of music upon the listener, the following chart gives us some concept as to how it affects the neurological systems of the human body.
As seen here,
music helps the brain emit dopamine, which helps with “good feelings”
slows beats slow the brain waves which lead to hypnotic and/or meditative state,
detracts us away from negative feelings
music can alter breathing and heart beat
improve state of mind
it can help reduce the perception of pain.3
(During my cardiac surgery in 2002, the operating room sound system was playing my album, “Songs of the Heart.”) It must have affected one of the doctors in a positive way because he asked to keep the disc.
As we proceed, here is something more to remember: The instruments do not do anything by themselves. But in the hands of skilled musicians, they can transform the space into a once-in-a-lifetime experience. A musician performing live is like someone speaking, at that existential moment, from the heart…one heart to other hearts and spirits. And from there, where? Perhaps we will move to calmer, more peaceful exchanges with our families, friends and neighbors…and, a healthier body.
Cummings, D., Native American Flute Meditation: Musical Instrument Design, Construction and Playing as Contemplative Practice. University of Rhode Island, 2008.
Goss, C.F., Miller, E.B., An exploration of Physiological Responses to the Native American Flute. 2014. 3.