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Saturday, December 10, 2016

Why Native American Flutes Are a Gift to Yourself and Others

Native American flute player and storyteller, Loren Russell, of Phoenix, AZ ...
I've a "petting zoo" of musical instruments and sometimes say this is what happens when you give a Girl Scout the Dabbler badge.  While I enjoy "enriching" my programs with music, I will never call myself a musician. . . when I make a mistake my comment is "Now you know why I'm a storyteller!"

Music has many benefits, especially for storytellers, and the Native American flute is probably one of the most approachable instruments.  Unlike guitars, ukeleles, or dulcimers, it doesn't need tuning -- although you may want more than one with you if it starts to become too wet from playing.  (More on the disease of Flute Envy, which justifies having many flutes, later.)  After years of being chained to notation on the piano or even voice, it is a great instrument to play improvisationally -- although it is possible to play by notes if you really can't stop yourself.  At the same time, it also has its own notation or tablature that lets you return to a song you want to repeat.  While only one note at a time is played, harmony is possible in playing with other flute players.  Added to all of this, it's great for breath control.  Ages ago I heard the reason Frank Sinatra, even though he smoked heavily, had such good breath control (and musical phrasing) was because he played trumpet.  That convinces me playing a wind instrument is worthwhile, especially entering the cold and flu season.

For storytellers, a flute introduction and closing can be an excellent way to transport your audience into the spirit of a tale.  I'm certainly not an expert and there are still a few traditionalists who might not only question playing by non-Native Americans, but especially by a woman.  The Plains tradition of the flute as a courting instrument is not its only background, but an important part of the Native American flute heritage. 

Mary Youngblood has been called the "First Lady of the Flute" yet she, too, has faced resistance.  It's not easy to find on her website, but she has three articles and the earliest, a 1998 interview article, is in her press kit.  It mentions that resistance, even though she has been widely recognized and awarded many professional honors, including Grammies.  That early article says she is self-taught, but before we reassure -- or possibly berate ourselves -- her musicianship is firmly rooted in over twenty years of violin, piano, and, yes, classical flute.

German 10 DM coin
Is it any wonder the middle article, from 2003, quotes her person most admired as Hildegard von Bingen?  "She was a visionary, a spiritual artist and a scholar.  She was a true Renaissance woman - and very powerful!"  Read just the smallest bit about this 12th century German Benedictine abbess, writer, composer, philosopher, Christian mystic, visionary, and polymath and you can see what an excellent role model she is for today when her medieval music has gained popularity.

I want to give you some resources for this instrument.  I recommend it as an instrument that is highly approachable without a great deal of investment in time or money -- although you may find it addictive and inclined to take more of both if you wish.

Of course a good overview is the Wikipedia article about the Native American flute.   Jump down to the segment on construction as I will need to talk a bit about it.
I find "Heart Rate Variability" interesting.  Essentially it tells you this flute is soothing.  "Fingering" shows how simple the tablature or notation can be.  I mentioned "Tuning" earlier.  It doesn't change, but players tend to get "Flute Envy" trying to have flutes in several keys.  That simple bit of practicality leads to owning more and more flutes.  Good keys to start in are A or G.  Beyond that you need to listen to as much flute music as possible.  I presume you're familiar with Pandora and YouTube.  YouTube will have straight music and instructional videos for a beginners lesson along with the usual sidebar of other videos to check. Today's section will be long enough I'm leaving actual playing suggestions for the next article here.  Be sure to go to the end of the Wikipedia article, below "References", for "External Links", especially Flutopedia, also Flute Tree with its own page of links, and World Flute Society.  They are your online networking resources.  Beyond that, if you can find a flute circle, by all means go.  Those links of groups plus the later link may help you find one.  You may feel incredibly out of place, but they tend to have all levels of players and be generous in helping beginners.  Another excellent resource can be actual flute festivals as there will be workshops and flutes for sale.  (That link says 2015, but gives an idea of what exists.)

O.k. maybe I've convinced you.  It's always best to try a flute before buying it, but I've a source to recommend. (No, they definitely don't pay for my recommendation.)  One of the beauties of the Native American flute is its wood, BUT you need to take care of that.  Also the bird or, in the illustration above, the block takes some getting used to adjusting its position.  You may also wonder if you should have a 5 or 6 hole?  While there are instructions online to make a flute from PVC, I don't recommend it. Northern Spirit Flutes offers plastic beginner flutes with no messing with the bird, nor worries about wood and moisture.  They even offer kits for 25 or more students.  Their flute also would be an inexpensive instrument to take on a flight.  Theoretically it's not a problem because of this U.S. Department of Transportation ruling BUT, aside from carrying that with you, it won't work in another country.  I know.  I swear some places use their authority to keep items the inspector wants.  Many U.S. armed service members read this blog and this would be a great way to take music along.  It's simple enough, once the bird and wood aren't a factor, for a child to play -- better than a recorder!  Storytellers, you've heard my sales pitch.  I play other instruments, too, but the simplicity, portability, creativity, and more all recommend it!

Last week I gave a flute story.  Next week I will give ideas for ways to play your new flute that other players have shared with me.  Since this is such a perfect gift, for yourself, your audience, or to give to others, I find turning this into a multi-part series for December is appropriate.  I didn't plan it that way.  I improvised.  Native American flutes are great that way.
Returning to Mary Youngblood, I love her website opening by quoting her, "I am simply a vessel between Creator and this sacred instrument, the Native American Flute.  Listen with an open heart and you will hear the whispers of the Ancient Ones.  May their timeless voices soothe your soul." 

Listening or playing, you can't miss the soothing quality of the flute.  Deep breathing is a method of calming yourself and the flute can add even more to that, whether anybody hears you or not.

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