THE FIRST FLUTE
Douglas DuRant


The 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 goldfinch.

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.

After this 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.

The practice 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 flute.

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.

Develop these 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 your music.

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.”