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.

When playing 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.

A good 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:

1.   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.

2.   Echoing:  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 skills.

3.   "Flute 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).

4.   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.

5.   Leading 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 guitar.

6.   Jamming 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.

7.   "Dueling 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."

8.   "Telephone":  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!

9.   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.).

10.  Ensemble 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.

11.  Mixing 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.

12.  Rounds:  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.

As 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.


Jamming sessions, 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.

3.   Observe 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 observing.

5.   Playing 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 its parts."

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.


                        Happy Dueting!



*(This "Duet 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





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