Duets are about
BLENDING: Two hearts sharing a conversation, a co-creation between two
people. Playing duets has been likened to making love, where the focus
is on pleasuring your partner. It is a collaboration and an adventure,
in that you make it up as you go along and see where it takes you.
There are many ways to play duets (or play with more than two people,
which is sometimes called "ensemble playing"). You will be most
successful in your duets if your main goal is to focus on, and blend
with, the other person(s) you are playing with, rather than
concentrating on your own playing. Playing duets is also a good way to
"push your own envelope," fuel your creativity, and break out of that
rut in which you may occasionally find yourself. Often, when playing
with another person(s), we go into areas we wouldn't otherwise explore
alone, and our playing improves.
duets or ensemble style, the most common ways that players can easily
play flutes together is in the same key, an octave above or below, using
fifth harmonies or third harmonies.
An easy formula
to remember for harmoniously blending third and fifth harmonies is: The
higher flute plays in Mode 1, and does not use the bottom note, or
fundamental; the lower flute plays in Mode 4 and does not use the high
note. There are many sources available for charts of third and fifth
harmonies. Remember, just because you are playing together in fifth or
third harmonies, this does not guarantee that all of the notes will
sound harmonious. To begin, establish together what type of duet you
will be doing, and decide what type of gesture you will use to signal
that it's time to end the duet. One suggestion is called the
"elephant's trunk." When one person wants to close, they will lift
their flute a few inches and then lower it again, signalling the other
person to begin to wind down the duet.
duet/ensemble is where "entrainment" occurs. Entrainment is
multi-faceted and multi-valent. In a nutshell, entrainment is when two
(or more) musicians are playing together and those musicians find, and
enter, the same "zone" together. They intuitively and instinctively know
what the other player is doing, where the other player is going, and the
music blends and flows beautifully, without effort, often with
surprising and exciting results. When two musicians entrain, their
music becomes even more beautiful, and something extraordinary begins to
happen: The energy they feel and build actually begins to feed itself
and grow, and the players are then able to partake in that heightened
energy between themselves. It's like an endless circle: The more
beautiful the music becomes, the more the players get into that "zone,"
which continues to add to the experience and the beauty of the music.
This is often what is happening when we say, "the flute was
playing me," rather than me just playing the flute. Here are
some of the ways to play with two (or more) people:
Conversation: This is much like two people having a verbal
conversation, except that it takes place on the flute. Player #1 sets a
mood, tone, rhythm, etc., and begins a "conversation" on the flute.
Player #2 may wish to occasionally interject short embellishments (which
would constitute the equivalent of "Uh-Huhs, Nods," and "Yesses" in a
conversation), on their flute while Player #1 is playing. When Player
#1 has finished his/her part of the conversation, Player #2 "responds"
by mirroring and amplifying the mood, tone, rhythm, etc., (perhaps even
incorporating an embellishment or two that Player #1 has played), and
then Player #2 adds his/her own part of the "conversation." This goes
back and forth until the conversation is completed. This can also be
done with more than two people, or by going around in a circle: Two
people start, then the first person drops off and the next person in the
circle joins in. Continue around the circle in this way, until you
reach the beginning point again.
Player #2 plays 1/2 to 1 second behind Player #1. The challenge for
Player #2 is to try not to anticipate where Player #1 is going and get
there first! This is difficult at first, and a great way to learn new
Circle Song" (or other set piece): As an example, many flute
circles know Ward Stroud's "Flute Circle Song." Everyone in the circle
plays the same key (usually a Gm) flute and plays the "Flute Circle
Song" in unison, and continuously. Each person around the circle then
takes a turn at playing a short improvised piece while the rest of the
circle continues to play the set melody. As each person finishes their
improv, they move back into the set melody, which is the signal for the
next person in the circle to begin their improvisation. This continues
around the circle until everyone has had a chance to improvise. In the
case of Ward Stroud's "Flute Circle Song," it is most effective if the
improv is done on the higher notes in order to distinguish the improv
from the rest of the circle doing the set piece on the lower notes.
Also, if the set piece is fast and staccato (as in the "Flute Circle
Song"), try doing your improv by holding notes longer for greater
contrast. This method can also be used by passing around a flute which
is an octave above the flute key the circle is playing (e.g., if the
circle is playing a mid-Gm, a hi-Gm is passed around the circle, much
like a talking stick, for the improv).
Upper/Lower Duets: One player "hangs out" on the bottom notes,
while the other player hangs out on the top notes. Then both players
slowly switch from top to bottom and vice-versa. The challenge is to
try to end with a chirp at the same time. It is also helpful if both
players don't "crash" (take a breath at the same time). In order to
blend, each player faces each other, focuses on the other player and
watches for cues.
and Following: One player takes the "lead" and is playing faster
and doing more embellishments; the other player then plays slower/longer
notes with minor embellishments, so as not to compete with the
"leader." Try to think of this particular type of duet in terms of the
"leader" being the birds in the trees chirping merrily, while the
"follower" would be the water flowing beneath the trees; the follower
providing the steady "wind" beneath the leader's "wings." Other
examples would be the leader playing at 78 (using the metaphor of
turntable speeds), while the follower is playing at 33-1/3; or a fast
lead guitar, playing most of the embellishments, with a slow bass
Baroque: Baroque music is characterized by constant motion. Both
people play the flute at the same time, utilizing both the upper and
lower notes. Choose a pulse that is moderate to fast, with 4/4 timing.
In the case of Jamming Baroque, the music will sound more "baroque" if
the fundamental is not used. If you wish to play the fundamental, the
music will sound more like a Medieval Madrigal. Your set will sound
better if only one person is cross-fingering at a time.
Flutes": This can be done with two or more flute players. The
first player starts by playing a short melodic line. The second flute
player (and subsequent flute players) plays the same riff with his/her
own adaptation and embellishments. This goes back and forth in a kind
of a "duel."
This is done in a flute circle or group. One person will start a
musical "story/conversation" with the flute, using mood, tone, rhythm,
pacing, etc. Each successive person in the circle adds to the "story
line" as each individual's turn comes up, until the original starting
point has been reached. It's interesting to see how much the
story/conversation has changed by the time it has returned to its
original starting point!
Storytelling (Verbal and Flute): One person reads a story (e.g., a
Native American Creation Story), while each person in the circle
successively provides the "sound effects" with the flute that go with
the story. This is not so much about "music" or melody, but more about
providing pure sound effects to augment the story (e.g., "the sky
thundered"; "the sun shone brightly"; "the door creaked open"; etc.).
Duets: Within a circle, make "teams" of two or three people. Each
team takes turns blending with the other team(s). This method can also
be done in "conversation" (see #1, above) style.
Set Pieces and Improvisation: Similar to #3, above, Player #1 and
Player #2 (or more) each start together with a set piece they may have
agreed upon or generated together. Player #1 takes off and does an
improvisation, and then returns to the set piece; then trades off with
Player #2. This continues for an agreed-upon number of "sets." Both
players finish together with the set piece.
This can be done with any piece suitable for a round. This can also be
done with more than two players. Player #1 begins the set piece; Player
#2 joins in at a "round" interval. Both players end on the same note.
you can see, there are many ways to play duets. Any of the above
can be adapted, or mixed and matched. Use your imagination and
come up with more ideas. The only limit is your imagination.
where all of the musicians are basically improvising, can be exciting,
fun and creatively stimulating. Such sessions provide a unique
opportunity for new melodies to emerge and to further hone your playing
skills and technique. The following are a few guidelines which will
make the experience more enjoyable and fruitful for all.
1. Know the
"language": Talk with your partner(s) before beginning to play
duets or in an ensemble. You may want to have several "signals" that
you develop with one other, such as a signal for "switching" from high
to low notes, and a signal for ending together. Know what keys of
flutes go together (e.g., thirds and fifths). Know what modes work
together and which don't. If someone is playing a certain form (e.g.,
blues, jazz, etc.), be sure you are able to blend in gracefully. Also,
it is extremely helpful if you have had experience with different
rhythms and pacing. There is nothing more awkward than finding out in
the middle of a song that you are having trouble maintaining a certain
rhythm or pace, which can throw your fellow musicians off.
2. Be honest
about your abilities: There are many different "jamming"
opportunities in which to participate. This is where one needs to know
their playing weaknesses and their strengths. It's best to begin with
friends in more informal settings, such as a flute circle, rather than a
"performance" venue, until you become more confident with improvisation.
Make sure that
whoever you are playing with is willing and able to play what you can
do; otherwise, you might want to bow out. Conversely, if you are
playing with someone whose ability is below yours, try to blend with
that person at their level. It's bad form to run right over
someone just because you might have more experience than they do.
Remember, this is about blending.
jamming etiquette: A good rule of thumb is to play less, rather
than more. As a member of an ensemble or a partner in a duet, the goal
is to blend and let each person take the lead at some point, rather than
you playing continuously throughout the piece. It is extremely bad form
to just jump in and take the lead and hold onto it. When improvising in
an ensemble, one musician leading at a time is the usual. Work out with
the other musicians how much they want you to play at any given time,
whether it be more or less. When another instrumentalist is taking a
"solo" or "lead" or a vocalist is singing, you most likely should not be
playing at the same time. Face your partner when doing duets. This
facilitates blending. It's hard to coordinate with your partner(s) when
you are not aware of what they are doing! Listen to your partner's
melody and try to blend your melody/playing with theirs. This includes
tone, rhythm, mood, pace, etc. Ask your partner(s) ahead of time for a
signal when they want you to take a solo, move up the scale, or end. Be
sure to leave some SPACE in your playing, rather than playing
continuously, with a multitude of embellishments, or at breakneck
speed. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to blend with a person
who is sitting and playing with their eyes closed and not connecting
with the other musicians around them.
4. When in
doubt, sit out: Be sensitive as to whether or not the situation is
conducive to your sitting in. Frequently, a small group of people will
get together and already have an idea of where they are going, of which
you might be unaware. Never force yourself into a situation, no matter
how badly you'd like to join in and play. If you aren't sure you can
keep up with a particular rhythm or style (e.g., jazz, blues, etc.), or
a group of advanced players, even if you have been sitting in
successfully with others in the past, have the good sense and courtesy
to sit that one out. There is an old saying: "When in doubt, sit
out." Even if you are sitting out, you can gain valuable knowledge by
with others: When you are playing with other players of your level
or below, please SHARE your knowledge. When you find yourself one of
the more experienced players in a group, it is your responsibility to
help other players who may need (and want) help. Conversely, if you are
less experienced than others, don't be afraid to ask questions. This is
how we learn. There are NO dumb questions. When everyone works
with and helps each other, the "whole becomes greater than the sum of
I hope that you
have found this both interesting and helpful. It is offered in the
spirit of sharing and expanding the ways in which we can play the Native
American Flute together.
Etiquette" portion of the text was freely adapted, with respect, from
Music Theory Made Easy, by David Harp).
I would like to
thank my brother, Barry "White Crow" Higgins, Dave Fields, my wonderful
students from whom I learn something every day, and the members of
Cascadia Flute Circle (Oregon), for their ideas, suggestions and input.
I would also welcome any feedback, ideas or additions that anyone else
might have. Please don't hesitate to contact me at (503) 846-1755.
c Stephanie Baldridge 2004