Most westernized musical education, definitions, and notation are presented in a standardized manner and method.  Not only does the Native American flute traditionally not have a westernized scale, but our verbiage and definitions for various notation, techniques and embellishments are new, and vary among players, geographical areas and flute groups!  Some of these are shared by others, and some are definitions of mine, which I gladly share…


 ALL of these embellishments can and should be used when practicing “the scales” (moving up and down the flute in order from bottom to top).  These embellishments can easily be applied to the 5-hole NA-style flute as well.


                                                                                   ~ Mary Youngblood





Breath Control is our number one embellishment!  The following exercises will teach you various ways to increase, improve and fine tune your playing technique.



When all the holes are covered/down, the fundamental is the lowest of the notes you get when you play into the flute.  It is the “key” the flute is in. (A, G, D, F#, etc). The top fundamental is the higher note (when all of your fingers are up, except the 3rd hole from the top), but one octave higher. 



Standard, classical, woodwind instruments are taught and played with the left hand on the top, and the right hand on the bottom.  Many of you have learned the other way around, or are naturally left-handed.  Although we’ll not ask you to change that (unless you’re comfortable doing so), you may have to pay closer attention to descriptions, hand positions, or details written or visually taught, but you’ll be just fine!



Play each note on your flute from the bottom/lowest note (all 5 or 6 holes covered) to the top/highest note.


Play these notes from the very softest/flattest it will play, to the very loudest/sharpest that particular note will play (even to the point where the note is compromised, and sounds horrible!).  This is your “window of sound.” You will notice every flute and every note on every flute sounds different and has a smaller or bigger window of sound.



After you get to know the “window of sound” of each flute and each note, you can begin to hear and feel when the note is in pitch.  Musicians use a tuner, or another instrument to validate this (some folks have perfect pitch).  And especially as you play your first note, you will get used to the air pressure it takes to make each note sound “right.”



Because we are playing a fairly simple instrument with one octave, and 5 or 6 holes, we need to really show the contrast in sounds on the N/A style flute:  The subtle differences of the notes in terms of softer and louder or slower and faster.



Webster’s Dictionary 4b:  A pattern of musical sound created by tones or lines played together.  Basic theme or structure.



I don’t take my fingers physically far from the flute. I usually try and keep my fingers “at the ready.”  I keep my fingers pretty close to the holes, so I can get there quickly.  This is especially important when doing the bark, or in using passing/grace notes.



Rapidly moving your finger(s) up and down over the various holes.



Playing notes together without any articulation.



Articulation of each individual note (also double & triple tonguing).



Rolling your tongue while blowing into the flute.  (Like rolling your “R’s” to speak another language).



I visualize a shooting star, dissipating smoothly into the horizon. Get a good solid note going, then lessen the breath until the note seems to disappear. . . .



I use visualization on this one (the “flat-line” visual).


Using one single, big breath, and having all your fingers down, blow air through the flute, (finding the “sweet spot”) then lifting up the bottom three fingers (at the SAME TIME!), thrust/blow a huge amount of breath through the flute.  The force should make the flute almost shriek--reaching those very highest registers of sound.  Then I come back to the same “sweet spot” IMMEDIATELY, as if I had never left that original note. This embellishment takes lots of breath control.



(This is one of the more advanced embellishments).  Pushing and lessening the breath to form smooth waves of sound.  I choose to teach the classical style of vibrato, using my diaphragm. Traditionally, many players use a throat vibrato. There is no wrong way to use vibrato!  And be very patient with yourself:  Each flute and individual note will react and sound very differently. (I also use visualization on this embellishment).



A smaller, softer version of The Bark.



Holding the fundamental (bottom note) for a few dramatic seconds, then lightly releasing all the fingers except the 3rd hole, so you lightly hit the top fundamental note. Usually done at the end of a musical sentence.



I personally, usually only use my index fingers while “bending the notes.”  This is because these fingers offer more me more “control” over the bends.  I either roll my finger off, or slide it off the hole.  This technique can be done slowly and dramatically, or quickly, for a blues- or jazz-style bending of the note.  In doing this embellishment, be mindful of the “contrast” you intend to bring to the musical sentences you create.  A more advanced technique is adding more air pressure to the “center” of this bend, to create more “texture.”



Covering only half of a hole to obtain the half note between whole notes, or the quarter notes between half notes.  (More advanced).



I consistently use my top, left index finger to present what I call a “smidgeon” of a note before an actual note played.  Just a “hint”of a note prior to landing on an intended note.  It’s to be played very quickly.  Sometimes, it’s almost unnoticeable. . . .                                                                



Ian Anderson, from the band Jethro Tull, has this unique technique of almost spitting these huge amounts of air through the classical flute that sound like this enormous, spitting wind, but with tonality.  I’ve attempted to emulate this technique for the NA-style flute and credit him for introducing me to this unique, textural, and bigger than life embellishment!


I literally take my mouth a little bit away from the sound hole, and almost ‘spit’ air in and around the sound hole.  Sometimes it can be a whisper of sound, and at other times, a passionate, windy breath with more tone. And I always “tongue” the notes and air I spit into the flute.  It gives the embellishment texture as well as creating a really interesting, intense sound.  Ian Anderson also incorporates rolling his (“R’s”) tongue throughout this embellishment, which I hear as, and would title, THE GROWL. . . .



If your flute does not have the four directional holes at the bottom of the flute (symbolic &/or decorative):   If you place the end of the flute close to your knee (sit for this one, or use a friend’s shoulder!) and slowly cover the hole with your knee/friend’s shoulder.  In this way, you can get almost a full note below the fundamental.  At the very least, a half note below, thus being a hidden and fun note to use!


MODE 1 (6-hole flutes)

Playing the scale from the bottom to the top, leaving the 3rd hole from the top covered.


MODE 4 (6-hole flutes)

Playing the scale from the bottom to the top, leaving the 4th hole from the top covered. (It’s almost like having two flutes/scales in one!).



(Using the basic scale).  Starting from the bottom fundamental (low), and moving towards the top fundamental (high), as smoothly and as quickly as you can, count how many “reps” you can do (going from the bottom, to the top and BACK) in one single breath.


This exercise is wonderful for the continual building of breath control. Make it fun and have a friend count, or use it as a friendly competition!


If you have access to a swimming pool, make it a competition of seeing how far or how many times you can swim underwater from one end of the pool to the other.


Learn to circular breath with the didge . . . LOL!



Practice is good.  Hone your craft and your passion.  Play, learn, grow. . . .  I will reiterate:  All of these embellishments can be used with the scales, so work on the things you want to get better at.  Play with others, be disciplined; but my number one rule is:  HAVE FUN!  When you get tired, put the flute down.  It will call to you again.  These are not our old-school music lessons!  This is about the journey . . . (but practice is still GOOD!).



Before I start to play a song in concert, you will usually see me close my eyes, and take a cleansing breath before I start to play.  Then I go away.  I take myself someplace beautiful and/or meaningful.  Always someplace I’ve been before, that touched my heart and my visual memory:  Watching an eagle soaring above the redwoods in Northern California; listening to jazz with the top down; driving through the Smokey Mountains; watching humpbacks on my ancestral land on Nuchek Island, Alaska; looking out from the Pyramid of the Moon in Peru; to listening to the birds in my own backyard; or kayaking the lakes and rivers near my home.  I picture those beautiful places, and try to bring that memory back to my audience in the form of a song.



Like myself, most of you have raised your kids, built your careers, and have had considerable life experiences under your belt.  You are spiritually-minded, lovers of nature and music, and are ready to embark on another journey. . . it’s our time!


You’ll soon discover that this amazing instrument will take you to places you’ve never been before.  From composing and/or playing in front of others, to playing for your communities, perhaps for someone transitioning, or for a grandchild or child’s classroom. Maybe your church, social groups, or perhaps a wedding or memorial.  Even if you’re playing to the critters in your own backyard. . . .


Most of us have had to be very task-oriented, so it’s challenging to get outside of ourselves--our heads--so we can become that vessel, and an instrument for our intentions.   


Close your eyes.  Pretend everyone/everything listening is just a friend sitting with you in your living room.


I always ask that a song touch someone’s heart.  I don’t play for myself, but for someone else (sometimes that’s easier to do).  Take the focus away from YOU or any fear you may have about playing.  Get out of ego. Take yourself to that sacred place in your mind, as you remember we’re all simply vessels, so follow your heart. . . .



Many players believe they must fill all the space with sound.  As a visual artist, I understand that the negative spaces, or holes without subject/sound, add “texture” and a level of completeness and resolution to any composition.  This is especially important when dueting, as you must leave space for your partner to fill with his or her sound, and musical sentences and phrases.  And even when playing together, you should allow space for nothingness . . . a pause.  Don’t be too “busy.”  Leave some open space, which will give your piece a fullness, maturity, and dramatic flair.



Playing well with others.  Developing an unspoken musical experience with another player.   Some dueting styles incorporate a “call and response” technique which gives each player time to “strut their stuff” and contribute to the overall vibe of the song, while at the same time, creating some structure in the musical sentences of bantering back and forth.  In jazz we call this “trading eights.”  The more one plays duets with others, the more one gets a sense of “how” to do this. It simply takes time and practice.



This segues from the last subject of dueting as, in order to play well with others, you must develop a musical sensitivity, if you will, so as to “feel” out how to best share the musical experience with others.  Perhaps even others whom you have never played with before.  It requires active listening skills, and the ability to be in the moment, and “go with the flow. . . .”  Setting ego aside for the continuity of the overall performance.  For example, often I am performing somewhere where the opening act has the bigger/louder sound.  Perhaps it is just myself and my guitarist, where the opening act has a 5-piece ensemble!  So for the fluidity of the show, I will usually suggest that I open the show, and the other band plays second, so the overall concert has a nice flow.  “It’s all good” is my motto in those situations.



One person leads with a strong musical sentence, and the other player responds in kind, but perhaps changing a little something in that sentence.


This should “tie into” the composition somehow, with the other person’s musical sentence.  Players can use non-verbal communication to decide who takes the lead, and who follows.  This is interchangeable throughout the composition, and is recommended, so as to make the song interesting, by incorporating and showcasing both players’ playing styles!



If you “over blow,” or play the bottom fundamental with a lot of breath, some flutes will give you a couple of extra notes above the fundamental.  I do this covering ALL the holes and blowing pretty darn hard.  Sometimes these extra notes are in pitch, others are not there at all.  You will have to experiment with this, and see what other fun surprises your particular flute has in store for you!



May Creator Bless your Flute Journey. . . .


Mary Youngblood













Native American Mary Youngblood, half Seminole and half Aleut, is the first woman to professionally record the Native American Flute, and the first woman to win not just one, but two Grammy Awards for "Best Native American Music Album".

About her second Grammy Award, Silver Wave Records said, "...Mary Youngblood has always had the talent to stand out above the crowd, and with this honor she stakes her claim as the number one star of Native American music."

Mary’s sixth album for Silver Wave Records is a compilation produced by Silver Wave's staff.  Of “Sacred Place - A Mary Youngblood Collection”, Silver Wave writes, “With rich vibrato and notes that melt into your heart, Mary Youngblood takes the artistry of Native American flute music to its highest level. Her song writing brings forth some of the sweetest original melodies ever performed on this instrument, and the collection herein showcases the most sublime.   

“When this two-time Grammy Award winner reflects on her life, she resonates with the peaceful warrior. Both softness and strength come through in her deeply passionate music inspired by the wonders of nature. These peaceful and vibrant songs have been carefully selected to quiet the mind, relax the body, and inspire one to contemplate the Sacred Place within.” 


Mary's fifth album “Dance with the Wind” won the 2007 Grammy Award for “Best Native American Music Album.”  In an interview after accepting her award, Mary told the media that "'Dance with the Wind' was created during the 2006 winter storms in Northern California.  The storms brought extremely high winds; a tall oak lost a few good sized limbs and the maples took a thrashing.  Having an incredible affinity to trees, Mary looked at them in her backyard, and thought it would be hard to be a tree right then.  But as she watched them, she noticed how the trees were almost moving with purposeful rhythm, and with something that resembled . . . JOY.  Mary related her own personal stormy times to the dancing trees and realized she could be like they were.  She was not going to give in to the elements either; she was going to learn to be more like the trees . . . and "Dance with the Wind." 

Mary’s fourth album “Feed the Fire” was nominated for the 2005 Grammy
“Best Native American Music Album”. Mary’s original melodies and lyrics spanned a
variety of musical styles and instruments:  Her wood flutes, piano, alto flute and sweet vocals. Special guest appearances by Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull), Bill Miller, and Joanne Shenandoah, all contributed to Mary’s album full of energy, warmth and passion. The tribute song ‘Feed the Fire’ for her birth parents and dedicated to her birth mother will melt your heart.

Mary’s third album 'Beneath the Raven Moon,” won the 2003 Grammy Award for “Best Native American Music Album.”  Silver Wave Records considered
this a poetic concept album--the title of each track being from Mary’s thematic poetry reflecting the Human Journey. Mary’s beautiful voice harmonizing along with her many flutes debuted with the instrumentation of award-winning producer Tom Wasinger. Of Mary's exemplary flute playing coupled with two of her favorite American music styles, Classical and Blues, Dirty Linen Magazine stated, "Mary Youngblood brings a fresh perspective to original melodies."

Mary’s second album “Heart of the World” found Mary weaving her flute melodies with the lush accompaniment
of guitar, percussion and the exquisite voice of Joanne Shenandoah. “Heart of the World” won “Best Native American Recording” by The Association for Independent Music (INDIE Award), the New Age Voice (NAV Award), and the 2000 Native American Music Awards (NAMMY’s) for “Best New Age Recording”. The track “Cold Wind” will blow right into your chest and thump you hard.  It is amazing.

Mary’s debut album, “The Offering,” was a solo flute effort recorded “live-to-DAT” in the huge underground chamber of the Moaning Cavern in California. The
natural acoustics lent an amazing echo and organic quality to the distinctly memorable melodies that Mary created with her flutes. The Monterey County Herald News wrote, "In addition to the haunting sounds of various handcrafted wooden flutes, the listener can occasionally hear the drip of water in the cavern, which adds a surreal ‘you-are-there’ feeling."

In addition to Mary’s two Grammy Awards and three nominations, she was the first woman to win “Flutist of the Year'” in both 1999 and 2000, and “Best Female Artist” in 2000 at the Native American Music Awards (NAMMY’s).


Mary started piano lessons at age six, violin at eight, and classical flute and guitar at ten.  As an adult, when Mary received her first wooden Native flute, she was driven to pursue the mastery of this instrument so tied to her own heritage.

Now years later with five unique and accomplished albums under her belt, Mary owns over 250 hand-carved Native American-style flutes in her collection and uses a wide variety of them throughout every one of her albums. Each of her flutes is masterfully crafted from different types of wood, bringing a unique sound and texture to each song.

When Mary performs, it takes only a moment to acknowledge the profound spirituality of the sacred Native American flute and its historical courtship and wooing attributes. Her haunting music is much more than a song . . . it's liquid poetry, a prayer.

Mary Youngblood takes little credit for the intense emotions people feel when they listen to her music. "I am only a vessel between Creator and this instrument.  As a sculptor would tell you, the clay has a spirit of its own and decides what it will become; so it is with the flute. These songs came from those who walked before me."

Mary and her family currently reside in Northern California.