SONGWRITING WITH THE NATIVE AMERICAN FLUTE
(Basic Composition Skills)

 

Here are some basic methods for "songwriting" with the NAF.  This article can be used as an adjunct to the article, "Some Strategies for Improvising."  Many people feel that everything they play "sounds the same."  Following these suggestions will help you to "build" a song from a simple riff which has variety and interest for both the player and the listener alike.  The suggestions are given in a "building block," or stepwise, manner.  Continue to add each dimension one-by-one as you continue playing your riff.  As you will experience, the variety one can create becomes exponential as you incorporate more and more of the dimensions below, while still maintaining the continuity of a song.  After you identify your riff, you can change the order of the steps below and/or play with different combinations of steps, depending on what you are trying to achieve.  The more you practice this method, the better prepared you will be to improvise, and the more your improvisation skills will expand and grow.  As with anything, these are merely suggestions.  There is no "strict" method.  Be creative and have fun!

Basically, when playing the NAF, one has three options in terms of form: 

(1)  Wander:  You can wander, which is essentially formless.  This is a more "meditative" way to play the NAF.  There is no discernable rhythm or structure.

(2)  Structured (e.g., AABBAA):  This way of playing has much more concrete form.  Parts ("A" and "B" and "C", etc.) are easily identifiable and played in a particular order.

(3)  Improv:  Improvisation is somewhat of a mix of (1) and (2), above.  There is a loose pattern of playing a riff, leaving the riff and playing something else, and returning to the riff.  This is repeated several times, always returning to the riff again and again.

It is useful to keep in the back of your mind a general roadmap of the characteristics of music to guide you in your songwriting explorations:  A single note in isolation has little meaning in and of itself; music must be listened to as a whole.  As you put notes together, musical phrases begin to emerge.  Phrases can then be connected to make melodies.  Melodies become themes.  Themes evolve through variations.  And all may be combined to make beautiful heart music.

The following suggestions will help you to work more with (2) and (3) above:

O    Start with a riff, i.e., a short melodic sequence of notes.  Keep it short and simple:  Four to six notes is sufficient to start with.  The biggest mistake people make is trying to make their riff or song too complicated.  Think of your riff as "home" and always remember to "return home" every once in awhile.  This gives your song continuity.

O    Play the riff over and over again, each time varying the embellishments.  See what sounds best to you, and what best expresses your mood, theme, motif, etc.

O    Next, start your riff in a different place.

O    Now invert your riff, or turn it "upside down" and play it.   Inversion is about balance and symmetry, rather than an exact duplicate of your riff turned "upside down." A perfect reversal of your riff is not always feasible.  One approach might be as follows:  Use the same number of notes in your inversion as in your initial riff.  If your riff starts on the higher notes with your fingers up and ends with your fingers down, try beginning your inversion on the lower notes with your fingers down, and ending with your fingers up.

O    Then play the inversion with different embellishments.

O    Next, start your inverted riff in a different place.

O    This time, play your riff accenting or accentuating different notes (e.g., if the first two notes in your riff were held longer, and the second two were shorter notes, try playing the first two shorter and holding the second two notes longer).

O    Experiment with different hooks.  A "hook" is what immediately grabs your attention or sticks in your mind.  You may want to present your hook in a brief intro to your piece. Hooks can be rhythmic, melodic, or a hook can be a special/different embellishment that stands out in your song. Remember, you have exactly seven seconds in which to create interest in your listening audience and grab their attention. (The term "audience" being defined as any one or any thing within earshot. This includes animals, insects, humans, birds, trees, plants, etc.).

O    Now that you have all of the major components of your piece, it's time to "connect" them.  Flesh out your song by creating small "bridges" of extra notes so that each of the components you have worked out above flow into each other smoothly.  You can also mirror and amplify any of the embellishments contained in your riff here.  We sometimes refer to these extra notes as adding more "soup."  The riff, and its permutations, are the "bones" of your piece; the embellishments are the "spices;" the soup is what allows everything to flow together.  Be creative.  Your riff (and its variations) is the thread that weaves throughout your piece and gives it continuity.  A good rule of thumb might be to use one riff per "sentence" or phrase.  Try to focus on one "sentence" or phrase at a time, remembering to use space in between each "sentence."  Don't worry if you don't seem to have an entire song in your head; sometimes it comes note by note in the moment of playing.  Try to make each "sentence" or phrase you play resolve, i.e., be melodically complete in and of itself.

O    Play your improvisation for at least six to ten minutes, so as to give the piece time to "gel."  This will also give you time to "feel into" your piece, and allow variations and themes to naturally emerge and develop.

O    Shading will always give your music variety, colour, emotion, shape and texture, as you are playing each note on a "curve." Each note has more than one "value" or colour available to you.  Use the full range of the voice of the flute for each note.  It is helpful to think of the NAF as an extension of our breath and voice, rather than just an instrument we are playing.  Sing with your voice.

O    The rhythm you choose will greatly affect your song.  One can play the same song twice, using two different root rhythms, and each time the song will sound completely different.  In addition, using Rhythmic Variations within your song will create interest and variety.  Find the pulse you want to use as your root rhythm.  Start playing slowly, so you have a place to "go."  Then introduce some Rhythmic Variations (which may be several increments faster, but still within the context of, your root rhythm or pulse), always returning to your original tempo at the end.  Playing cascades is a useful technique when transitioning between Rhythmic Variations, and also help to maintain the flow of your song.  Remember, the speed at which you play your riff, the emphases or accents you use, as well as the rhythm you choose will greatly influence the emotional tone of your piece.

O    Experiment with the Dynamics (loudness/softness, ebb and flow) of your riff.

O    It's OK if your riff doesn't hit exactly the same notes each time, or even have exactly the same number of notes each time you play it; your riff will still be recognizable.  This also gives variety to your song.  At some point, your riff may even begin to expand, change and grow.  Surrender to the process and see where it takes you!

O    As you continue playing, at some point, parts of your "song" will begin to take on a more discernable form.  This is where you may begin to identify an "A" part and a "B" part.  You can then arrange these "parts" in whatever order you wish (e.g., AABA, AABBA, ABABA, AABBCAA, etc.)  These forms are used throughout almost any songwriting genre.  This is a useful nomenclature to begin to use for yourself, especially if you are playing with another musician(s) or flute player(s).  When you are ready to end your song, return to your riff and try varying the notes in your riff slightly, in addition to drawing the notes out longer.  Many traditional Native American flute players use a Chirp to end their song. Any embellishment employed in a dynamic way will help you to create that dramatic sense of "ending."

O    Remember to leave SPACE in your music.  Space, or silence, is every bit as important as the notes you play.  Learn to make friends with silence.  Try to think in terms of sentences or phrases.  At the end of each sentence is a "period."  This is where you rest, take a breath, and leave some space, whether when speaking or playing the flute.  Place your space strategically for effect.  Your music will be much more expressive and pleasing to not only your ears, but others' ears.  When playing with other musicians, your leaving space gives others a chance to be heard and showcased.  A good place to start with improv is to choose your favourite piece of poetry or prose.  If each line had a voice, what would it sound like?  Space frames what you want to say.  At the end of each line or sentence you play, rest, breathe, and frame it with space.  The human brain cannot take constant sound; it is a form of torture (remember that jackhammer in the background that nearly drove you out of your mind?).  As an exercise, try playing without any space, and watch how fast your anxiety level rises!  Consciously using space will create interest in your listening audience, give you a chance to breath, fall back and regroup, and be more relaxed about where you are going next while you play.

O    Keep in mind that, just as different flute keys evoke different moods and feelings in our audience, the same is true when composing on the NAF.  Different flutes, of differing keys, seem to have different music in them.  If you don't feel like you are getting anywhere, try changing keys and start again.  Songwriting can also vary with your mood from day-to-day, as well as how any particular flute key affects you at any given time.

O    Occasionally, a song will emerge the first time you pick up a flute; however, this is quite rare.  Most recording artists will tell you that their process around creating a song may take hours, days, weeks, months, or perhaps years.  Don't get discouraged if something doesn't come together perfectly right away.

O    When you are satisfied with the outcome, ALWAYS remember to record your efforts and label the jacket of whatever medium you are using with the date, what key of flute you were playing, come up with a title and note it on the jacket, as well as a brief note as to what form you used (e.g., AABA, AABBA, ABABA, etc.).  You might not think you will need this at the time; however, later, you will be very glad you took that extra minute to jot these things down!  This riff has now been "installed" in your body, and become part of your flute medicine musical "bag of bones" and will now always be available for those impromptu flute performances, whether alone on a mountaintop, at a flute circle, or in front of an entire arena of people.

O    Lastly, listen to your favourite music (flute or otherwise) and try to identify what it is about that particular piece or genre that attracts you.  For example, is it the rhythm that stands out for you?  The melody?  The lyrics (if applicable)? The spaciousness of the music?  The flow?  The feeling you experience when listening to it?  Any hooks that appeal to you?  Etcetera.  If it is the melody that draws you, try playing the intervals of the melody on the NAF.  Don't worry that the notes don't exactly match.  Often it is the intervals that make a melody interesting.  Experiment with different songs and different intervals; often these experimentations are the seeds of beautiful melodies on the NAF. Also begin to consciously note how singers and musicians employ space, or silence, in their music.  Once you begin to understand what pleases you, you can begin to incorporate those elements into your own music.

 

                                       c Stephanie Baldridge 2004

 

 

 


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