THE FIRST FLUTE
first Native American Flute I held in my hands was not only delightful,
but opened a whole new chapter in my life. Soon afterwards at a
traditional archery tournament I was able to purchase one that Scott
Kennedy had gifted a mutual friend. Dare I say it changed my
life? I was enthralled by the wonderfully haunting sound.
It seemed so naturally to belong in the out-of-doors, a part of nature
as free and lovely as a prancing doe or the chattering flight of a
I thought I
would start off with a portion of the first flute story I
learned. I wish I could recall the original source. It is
one of the many versions of the Plains Nation’s stories that are
frequently told of the origin of the courting or love flute. What
a wonderful concept! I won’t relate the entire story just the
portion about how to learn to play the flute revealed in a dream to the
young brave lost and living alone in the woods. These were
the very first flute lessons given for the Native American Flute.
I will tell this story with my own words and imagination.
Though the young
man had acquired a flute from following a woodpecker after a previous
dream he was at a loss as to how to learn to play it. In a dream
that evening, with the full moon dancing moonbeams on his closed and
tired eyelids, the Great Spirit again appeared in his dream in the form
of a woodpecker. He spoke to the brave, giving three sets of
instructions. The first set was to fix his gaze on the tree line
across the meadow. Let his fingers go up and down the
magical path of his flute as his eyes followed the tree line up one
side of the tall tree, down the other, fingers going part way up and
down the flute as his eyes went up and down the shorter trees and so
on. He should fix his gaze on the distance mountain range and
foothills, and follow the ridges, gaps and peaks with his fingers
following his eyes like he had done with the trees. The
ever-drifting clouds also provided these first pages of nature’s
musical songbook to be practiced by his fingers up and down their
ever-changing contours. He was instructed to do this until the
moon shone full again.
initial period of his fingers learning to walk upon the flute he was
advised to let them dance across it. His new book of nature’s
songs was to fill the pages with the rhythms of a soaring hawk, or the
dipping flight of a woodpecker. Turn the page and follow the
bounding deer or the stately walk of the wild stag. Let his
fingers flow with the rhythm of the stream or the falling rain.
Let them dance with waves of tall grass in the wind and the swaying of
the trees. Let them accompany the drumbeat of distant
thunder. He was to dance with his fingers across the flute with
the rhythms of the songs of nature until the next full moon.
Now that two
moons had past, his fingers' third and final task was to allow the many
moods and deepest feelings of the young man’s heart become the guide
for their dancing steps upon the magical path of the flute. His
greatest joys, his deepest sorrows, the racing of his heart as he drew
his bow to send an arrow into the beating heart of his quarry were to
be some of the next songs in his music book. The feeling of a
cool gentle breeze across his skin as the warm rays of sunshine made
him lazily lie in the prickling grass or the cold water flowing over
him as he bathed in the stream. He would add the feeling that
filled his heart with mystery when the chill and deep shadows of a
moonless night and incessant hum of the crickets and katydids made him
wakeful and listening, looking at the uncountable blinking stars.
The thrill that ran through him when the young woman he loved from afar
came into his consciousness and so many more songs that dwelled within
his heart he was to play, inscribing them in the songbook of his memory.
When the third
new moon rose he was to sit and play the songs of his heart. A
concert of his own making, a celebration of life transformed into the
haunting music of the flute he had learned to play. The audience
would be all of nature’s teachers which had taught him how to
play. They would be the ears with which the Great Spirit would
listen to the music the young Brave would play that evening. The
bright rays of the full moon would become the stage lighting, and the
night sounds of nature the accompanying orchestra. It would be
the best of concerts for it would be the songs of his soul.
Have you said to
yourself, “I wish I could play like that!”? If you have said or
thought this, but thought you really never could, I am going to tell
you that you can. The path to get there and the steps to walk it
are contained in the simple genius of the first flute story.
What follows is
my interpretation of the musical teaching philosophy contained in these
simple three principles of the First Flute Story. I wish to make
a disclaimer before writing more: I am not trained in music, nor
have I had more than rudimentary teaching. Yes, it can be said
that I was musically untalented and the bucket given to me at birth in
which to carry a tune came without a bottom. In fact, if I forget
and burst into song I am reminded that I should be on the radio so the
dial could be turned “off.” I now have found my musical
wings. I may not soar like an eagle, but I am no longer tied fast
to the ground. People even proclaim they enjoy my playing.
It has to be a miracle.
I disclose this
humiliating information and magical transformation to bring hope to
those who think they will never learn to play. Have faith and be
open. I believe you will be surprised. And, above all else,
play like a child plays: Uninhibited, not judgmental, and with
joy for the fun of it.
When I was in
the same lost place of the young brave trying to learn to play, my
fingers were like the legs of a child trying to learn to walk.
They wouldn’t always go where I wanted them to go. It seemed they
refused to step fully upon the holes, and, like on a slippery rock in a
stream, they would slip from their purchase and stumble. So the
very first step is to teach our fingers how to walk on the flute.
The three basic
principles in learning to play represented in the Native American Flute
Story are to me the essential elements of music and becoming adept at
playing. The first principle is developing the muscle memory of your
fingers on the flute. The second principle is to develop rhythm,
a variety of rhythms, even if at first you have to copy the rhythms of
others. The third principle is to play with feeling, for it gives
the heart and soul to music. It is the reason to play and listen
to the songs.
Well the advice
to play the tree line was a very poetic way of teaching us to play the
basic scale. It is better in my mind than just playing a scale,
because it also incorporates a variety of movement going part way up
then down, all the way up, then part way down, and perhaps several
notes repeated as the tree line becomes level. You are never
actually repeating yourself, as nature never repeats itself in exactly
the same way. Practice like this is less boring or
work-like. It is more like play and helps to hold our
attention. In fact it shortly becomes playing. How clever
of these ancient, supposedly primitive, peoples!
By keeping our
eyes focused on the trees, we learn to play by feel and are less likely
to look at our fingers to see if they are really covering the
holes. Just as once we have learned to walk we don’t look at our
feet, instead we let our feel of balance place our feet. We learn
to tell if the note is right by listening and feeling instead of
looking. It sets us down a pathway of doing, rather than thinking
of what we are doing. It helps to trick our mind into letting go
of the control and trusting our body to go where we intend.
Closing our eyes is another way of focusing on the feel our fingers
need to develop.
during the first moon accustoms one's fingers to the position of the
finger holes. We gain the muscle memory to hit the note with the
hole fully covered. It gives us one thing to focus on, and the
rhythms can come later when our fingers have learned to walk across the
The second moon
of practice concerned learning rhythm. We have a sort of steady
cadence to our walking step. This is our base rhythm, the
foundation from which we learn to dance. Our heartbeat adds a
pause to the steady beat. I remember well learning to skip as a
child. This alternating step, then quick double step was fun;
much more fun than simple walking. It moved me more quickly and
lifted me higher off the ground. The dance had begun.
I have trouble
with rhythms that aren’t simple. I have to repeat them to
learn them. I also don’t seem to break free from certain rhythms
once I learn them. What tends to work for me is to copy a new
rhythm. This is very much what the Flute Story suggested to the
young brave. He was to copy the rhythms of nature, and, as he
progressed, he would learn to step outside these rhythms and add his
own unique beat.
The third moon’s
lesson was to add feeling to the notes and rhythms. It is so easy
to over-think what we are doing. Music to me is an expression of
feeling, containing the emotion at the root of our desires, not the
justification of them. Music without feeling is stale to listen
to, and quickly becomes boring to play. If we open our ears to
how we play with the alertness and urgency of a deer hearing a stick
snap, or other potentially important sound, we can not fail to hear the
feeling or lack of it in our playing. We have to be in the moment
as we play with a direct connection to the sound and feeling it
engenders. It does little good to be thinking about what comes
next if what we are playing in the moment is neglected.
A song is like a
story told around a fire’s dancing flames, the listener surrounded by
the shadows of the night. The player is the storyteller using the
notes, rhythms, and feeling to hold the listeners' attention to create
the mood. Like any good story, it has to pull the listener in so
they feel like they are living the story being told. The story
can be simple or complex, but it is only as good as its ability to
connect the teller and the listener.
three simple principles and there is little more to know.
One: Get those fingers limber and stepping true. Two:
Let them learn to dance slowly, quickly, and skipping across the
flute. Three: Play with heart in the moment with your ears
open; play with feeling, creating the mood, for this is the soul of
One more thing I
would like to pass on: You need to play the flute every chance
you get. If you are timid about being heard, then find the
solitude so you feel free. Don’t approach it as if it has to be
work. Rather, treat it like a game of tag or charades; make it
fun and treat it like play, and you will want to play. You will
play. You will play the flute. R. Carlos Nakai will tell you at
one of his flute-playing workshops if you want to learn to play the
flute then “Just Play It.”