INTRODUCTION TO THE NATIVE AMERICAN STYLE FLUTE
The Healing Medicine of the Love Flute
By David Osborn
The Origin Myth of the Native American Love Flute
There was once a young Indian brave, an outstanding young man who was an accomplished and valued member of his tribe in everything he did. But in spite of all his accomplishments, there was one thing that was giving him grief, and a painful longing in his heart: He couldn’t win the heart, or even the passing attention, of the young maiden he loved. Every time he approached her, his tongue got all tied, and he just fell to pieces. She was the most beautiful young woman he had ever laid eyes on, but he doubted that she knew that he even existed. Let’s face it – this young brave didn’t have the Medicine of the Elk, which would have made him irresistible to women. There are many local variations on this origin myth for the Native American Flute, but in one way or another, they all start with a protagonist who, for one reason or another, is overcome by sadness and grief.
The next phase of the origin myth involves a transformational vision quest. Overcome by heart-break and grief, the hero wanders off deeper and deeper into the forest, not caring whether he lives or dies. Here again, the exact story varies from tribe to tribe, but one way or another the young brave gets lost, usually due to an extended hunting expedition that takes him way further than he ever intended to go. He reaches the end of his road, and, overcome by fatigue, falls into a deep sleep. In the middle of the night, he is awakened by a strange, beautiful whistling music as the wind blows through the cedar grove. He sees a woodpecker hammering away at an old, dead, hollowed out cedar branch, and sees the wind whistling through it, creating the beautiful music that filled his dreams. From this, he gets the idea to make the first Native American Flute, whittling away at another cedar branch, in imitation of the woodpecker, his power animal.
As the sun rises, he starts to play a beautiful melody on his flute, and begins to wander through the forest. In some versions of this origin myth, he is guided back to his camp through the assistance of supernatural beings in the form of handsome young men. The young brave finally returns back to camp, no longer grief stricken, but with joy in his heart. And of course, he wins the heart of the woman he seeks, who is enchanted by his flute playing. The moral of this story: Never lose heart – and always keep a tune in your heart. And this is how the Native American Flute came to be called the Love Flute. White anthropologists and ethnographers of Native American culture and traditions in the nineteenth century duly noted that the Native American Flute was used as a courting instrument. And, once the courting had been successful, it was a common custom for the new wife to break her husband’s flute in half, so it could never be used for that purpose again.
The Love Flute: An Easy Flute That You Will Love to Play
Of all the world flutes that I have known and played, I firmly believe that the Native American style flute, or Love Flute, is the easiest flute in the world to play. But perhaps toy whistles from India that you can get at your local import store might be easier to play – but they don’t have the tonal beauty and power of enchantment that the Love Flute does. Many other world flutes are quite demanding when it comes to tone and embouchure control, but not the Love Flute – just put the opening up to your lips, blow into it, and voila – the most beautiful sound you’ve ever heard! And the Love Flute, whether it has five holes or six holes, is geared towards playing a minor pentatonic scale – like playing only the black keys on the piano – so whatever you play sounds great, and there are no dissonant notes. This Native American style flute, this Love Flute, is easy enough for a rank beginner to enjoy and impress their friends with, but it also offers expressive and artistic challenges for even the most dedicated professional musician. It can warble, it can sing, it can sigh, it can cry, as powered by the player’s breath. What’s there not to love about the Love Flute – and who can be against the power of Love?
The Anatomy of the Love Flute
Like the European Recorder, the Love Flute is classified as a fipple flute or a duct flute, in which the air that is blown into the instrument is funneled through a narrow channel and over a blowing edge, which splits the air stream in two. The resulting turbulence then sets an enclosed air column into vibration, creating the musical sound. But unlike the Recorder, the Love Flute has two air chambers instead of just one; in the Love Flute, there is an initial antechamber for the air that is blown into the instrument, which is called the SAC, or Slow Air Chamber. The air then escapes from this initial Slow Air Chamber and is funneled over a narrow duct and across the Cutting Edge, on the far side of the Tone Hole, which sends turbulent air into the second part of the flute – the Sound Chamber, where the music is created. Inwardly, the two chambers are separated by a cork, barrier or partition. Outwardly, the roof or lid of the narrow duct that sends a focused air stream at the Cutting Edge is formed by the Fetish, which is also known as the Totem or the Bird. The Fetish is often artistically carved or elaborated into the shapes of various power animals, and is tied tightly to the body of the flute with a buckskin cord.
Most modern Native American style flutes have a full six finger holes, although only five of them need to be opened to produce the traditional minor pentatonic scale. The finger hole that is kept closed to produce this minor pentatonic scale is the fourth finger hole up from the bottom. Keep this hole closed and open all the other holes in sequential fashion from the bottom upwards and you will get a minor pentatonic scale. In the key of A, for example, this would be A (all holes closed); C (bottom hole open); D (bottom 2 holes open); E (bottom 3 holes open); G (bottom three holes plus fifth hole open); and the high A (bottom three holes plus holes five and six open). Because the fourth hole is so often closed, some makers make Love Flutes with just five holes, having no hole where the fourth hole would ordinarily be; others adopt a compromise solution by tying a buckskin band tightly over the fourth hole, which the player, after he or she has progressed beyond the beginner or novice stage, can then move or remove if so desired. Remaining in the same key of A as the fundamental note, there would be the following progression of notes on a well tuned Love Flute if all six holes were to be opened sequentially, from bottom to top: A, C, D, E, F#, G#, and A#/B flat. Leaving the fourth or F# hole closed flattens G# and A# to a G and A natural, producing the traditional minor pentatonic scale.
If your new Love Flute is squeaking or not sounding or playing right, this is usually not a cause for alarm. Most commonly, the Fetish just needs to be adjusted, to align it correctly with the sound hole. The Fetish needs to be aligned and centered right over the air duct, and aligned straight with the Tone Hole, and swerving neither to the right nor to the left. Also, the distal end or edge of the Fetish needs to be right over the proximal or player’s side of the Tone Hole or window, and neither too far down nor too far up. Too far down towards the Cutting Edge and the sound will be too pinched and the fundamental difficult to obtain. Too far up from the proximal edge of the Tone Hole or window, and the sound will be too hissy and breathy. The Fetish is usually not glued on permanently because “squeeze out” from the glue could clog or obstruct the narrow duct, which would totally ruin the sound. Of all the parts of the Love Flute, the sound mechanism of the duct or flue, the Fetish or Totem, and the Tone Hole or Sound Window is the most sensitive and delicate, and the most crucial to the overall sound and playability of the flute. Even minor changes to the sound mechanism can have major effects.
Love Flute Materials and the Fine Art of Flute Building
The whole question of what exactly furnished the material for the first Love Flute is a matter of speculation and debate, since Native Americans had a largely pre-literate culture, and there is a dearth of historical records and documentation. But many musical historians now believe that various species of river cane probably furnished the materials for the first Love Flutes, or their immediate predecessors. The Papago Indians of southern Arizona, for example, are divided into two sub-tribes: the Tohono O’odham, or the Desert People, and the Akimel O’odham, or the River People. Since the Papago Indians are frequently cited as originating the first Native American duct flutes, they probably fashioned them from the locally available river cane. River cane, of the species Arundinarea gigantea, formed gigantic cane breaks, or cane forests, which traditionally dominated a lot of the American southeast and heartland, and can be made into Love Flutes of considerable quality.
But perhaps the one wood that has most come to be associated with the Love Flute, as our origin myth shows, is aromatic Red Cedar. The great advantage of using Red Cedar is that its aromatic essential oils have an antiseptic property that protects against infection and rot. The greatest drawback of Red Cedar is its many knots and grain irregularities, which can impede or hinder the material’s workability, even though it is basically a soft, coniferous wood, and otherwise quite workable. In the same vein, other species of Cedar, like Alaskan Yellow Cedar or Spanish Cedar, as well as other soft coniferous woods like Pine have been used, with the softer woods producing a softer, more mellow sound. Desiring a more brilliant, sonorous tone, makers have been using, in recent years, a great variety of acoustical hardwoods like Walnut, Cherry or Rosewood, which, in addition to being sonorous, often have great aesthetic beauty as well.
With decorative and artistic tropical hardwoods increasingly being used by makers of Native American style flutes, there is a definite market trend towards creating flutes that are as much beautiful works of art or sculpture as they are musical instruments. So – what are you going to do – play the flute, or hang it on your wall as a beautiful work of art? These two options don’t have to be mutually exclusive, as the Native American style flute can also be a functional piece of art that you can play. In the Native American style flute, we can definitely see two contrary market trends developing: On the one hand, we have the increasing gentrification of the Native American style flute, with flutes being snapped up by wealthy collectors as art objects, and makers catering to their extravagant tastes and demands; on the other hand, we have the democratization of the Love Flute and the use of humble and readily available materials like cane and bamboo to make it – after all, even poor people need to make music, and a little love, too! So – are we going to denude all the tropical rain forests just to make high end flutes out of decorative tropical hardwoods? That may very well be contrary to the Native American Spirit – Chief Seattle would be rolling in his grave!
Exploring the Musical Possibilities of Your Native American Style Flute
The Native American Style Flute is a great instrument to unwind with and doodle around on for passive musical meditation and relaxation; as I said earlier, it’s one of the easiest flutes in the world to play. And however you doodle around on it, as long as you keep the fourth hole closed and stick to the basic minor pentatonic scale, you can’t go wrong, or hit a sour note. But what can you do if your musical ambitions and creative vision want to break through these natural reflex reactions and achieve something more? It’s time to hit YouTube and start watching videos on playing the Native American style flute, and learning a thing or two – or buying a copy of some Native American Flute method, like the one by Carlos Nakai, and going through it page by page, lesson by lesson, to pick up more advanced secrets and tricks of the trade – and a repertoire of Native tunes to boot. Time to start going to your fingering charts, practicing your scales, and blowing long tones for tone and breath control. The Love Flute can warble if you master the art of “flipping” the holes, of quickly opening and closing them. The Love Flute can also moan, cry or sigh if you modulate the intensity and flow of your breath into the instrument.
The greatest limitation of the Love Flute, as it exists today, is its limited range – just one octave, perhaps a few notes more – notes that have been called “gift notes” by some makers. One way to judge the quality of a Love Flute is by the presence and quality of the “gift notes” that lie above the bottom octave. It’s not what you have, but how you use it – and the art of the Native American Style Flute can be measured by how effectively you use the notes and other musical resources you have at your disposal within that limited range. Listen to recordings of music by great artists like Carlos Nakai to get inspiration. One dimension to explore, and one that can offer a great deal of subtlety and wonder to you as you expand your playing, is that of cross-fingerings. Cross-fingerings can be broadly defined as fingering patterns in which one or more holes below the top open hole is/are closed. By this definition, the top two notes of the minor pentatonic scale played on the Love Flute are cross-fingered notes, as are most, if not all, of the special “gift notes” above the bottom octave.
You can get systematic about it and explore, in a thorough and rigorous fashion, all the possible combinations and permutations of closed and open holes on your six holed Love Flute – there are 64 of them, by the way – and what kinds of sounds, however strange or wonderful, they produce on your particular flute. As you continue to explore your Native American style flute, you may be surprised at what you find. Your new Love Flute is virgin territory, just waiting to be explored and mapped. Innovative cross-fingerings that lie off the beaten path offer subtle differences and shadings of tone, pitch and dynamics – and you just might discover some strange or exotic bird calls along the way. Trilling various finger holes on these innovative cross-fingerings offers yet another area to explore. And cross fingerings can fill in the gaps between the main pentatonic notes of your Love Flute and provide the various sharps and flats, or chromatic notes. The sky’s the limit, and your new Love Flute, as an individually crafted musical instrument, is also a unique individual, with its own individual quirks and proclivities.
Internet Resources for the Native American Style Flute
As I said earlier, one of the best places to go if you really want to educate yourself in the art of playing, or even making, the Native American style flute is YouTube. I have picked up a number of valuable tips there, or at the very least, have gotten some valuable food for thought and further research and development. Most of these educational videos contain links to the websites of the various flute makers and players who made them, making YouTube a great starting point or jumping off point for further exploration. At the risk of sounding like I’m playing favorites here, which is not my intention, I would like to introduce some of the YouTube channels that I have happened to gravitate to, which have become my favorites, for various reasons, which I will explain below. This is just where I have happened to gravitate to, and you may very well find yourself going off in a different direction; YouTube is one amazing treasure trove of an internet resource.
I wrote earlier about the “democratization” of the Native American style flute, and about its being made from relatively common or humble materials that are readily available. One of the leaders in this school of thought is Charlie Mato-Toyela at Blue Bear Flutes*. He has a number of educational videos up on YouTube in which he shows his viewers how to make flutes from what he calls Sawgrass, or River Cane – living in the American southeast, he just goes down to the river and cuts down a bunch of it, dragging it up the hill to his workshop. In other videos, he shows his viewers unique and distinctive flutes from his own personal collection, and plays upon them. Many of these flutes are real collector’s items, not in the gentrified, high end sense but in the anthropological and musicological sense, as they seem to connect with the very roots of the instrument. Charlie also gives great tips for do-it-yourselfers and home flute craftsmen.
Another great YouTube channel, and a great online resource for home flute craftsmen, is Scott Jones at Woodwind Flutes*. Based in central Missouri, right in the American heartland, Scott makes flute blanks in his workshop and ships them all over the country – and even abroad, I believe. He will even custom make a flute blank to your specifications, and his prices are very reasonable. Scott makes his flute blanks from the highest, luthier quality woods. When it comes to playing the Native American style flute, there are many different videos to choose from, especially for novices and beginners who have had little musical training or experience. On the wider internet, perhaps the premier educational resource on the Native American style flute is www.flutopedia.com *, which is, as the site’s name suggests, a one stop online encyclopedia about the Native American Flute, and how it relates to other world flutes. The site’s founder, Clint Goss, is a great collector, historian and musicologist of the Native American Flute. This is the one stop site on the web for all resources connected with the Love Flute.
The world wide web, as they say, “ain’t called that for nothin’”, and, no matter what the flute, it has allowed world flute enthusiasts to come together from all over the globe. You may think of the Native American Style Flute as a uniquely American thing, but think again! There are makers and players of the Love Flute from all over the world – even “way down under”, in New Zealand, of all places, there is a flute maker: www.southerncrossflutes.com * If you simply want to feast your eyes on beautiful high end flutes, there are sites that can provide you with the “eye candy” to do just that. A couple of the better ones are Brent Haines’ www.woodsounds.com * and JP Gomez’ www.heartsongflutes.com *, although there may be hundreds of other high end flute makers out there. Time to do a little surfing on the net and see what you can find!
* The individuals, websites and YouTube channels cited above are totally free and spontaneous, and are not paid endorsements in any way, shape or form. The particular reasons for my citations are explained in the text above.
Buying and Choosing Your Native American Style Flute
If you are a rank beginner or novice to the Native American Style Flute, then you should buy or order a flute from a reputable maker – just read the testimonials and endorsements on their website, and see if they speak to you. Or, choosing a maker to order your flute from may just be more of an intuitive, heartfelt thing. Many makers do offer refund policies, within certain limitations and stipulations, if you are not totally satisfied with your new flute. If you have the privilege of being able to visit a flute maker or store in person, by all means, tell the owner or salesperson what you are looking for, what kind of sound you want, and he or she will be glad to assist you. It may also help, if you know such a person and are a rank beginner yourself, to invite a seasoned player to go along with you and help you select a good instrument. How much musical talent, or willingness to learn and apply yourself musically do you have? If you rate yourself on the high end here, you definitely want to place a premium on sound, tone and playability – in short, the musical qualities and virtues of the flute. How important are beauty and aesthetics to you – or do you just want an instrument that sounds good? These are all important factors to consider in selecting an instrument that you can really bond with.