by Joel Shaber

With the arrival of autumn, the rich and subtle contrasts of the changing landscape delight the eye.  That bank of trees you pass every day, all summer a mass of nebulous green, emerges as a distinctive and harmonious mosaic of warm color, shape and design.  The glare of summer’s sun now transformed to slanting golden rays, throwing long shadows, illuminating with a painter’s light.  There are lessons here for the Native American flute player:  Lessons about repetition and variety.

Our instrument is very limited in range.  We have very few notes (pitches) compared to most instruments.  The clarinet, the silver flute, even the recorder has a much greater range of notes than the Native American Flute (NAF).  Most NAF players limit their play even further by using only the pentatonic minor scale – the familiar fingerings.  For this reason, repetition comes easily on the NAF.  We use those same five or six notes round and round in a drone of sound much like that bank of summer trees, all a nebulous green.

Here comes autumn to teach us something new.  Within that bank of nebulous green, all the colors of autumn lay hidden, dormant, waiting to show themselves.  Within the limited pitch range of our instrument, all the rhythms available to any other wind instrument lay hidden, waiting to be discovered.  Think about it.  Any rhythm that the oboe can play, we can play.  Any rhythm that the silver flute can play, we can play.  Rhythm is the key to adding variety to your flute playing.  Interesting and creative rhythms transform those five simple notes into a rich and colorful mosaic of sound.

Put on a CD of flute music you like, preferably solo.  Listen specifically to the rhythms which give each song its distinctive character.  You will discover that each song has a “rhythmic motif,” a collection of similar rhythms which tend to reoccur throughout the song.  Very often, the exact same rhythmic motif gets repeated, but each time it occurs, different notes (pitches) will be used to create the rhythm.   Sometimes a rhythmic motif will be used without ever changing notes – the whole rhythmic motif articulated on the same pitch.

When you identify the rhythmic motif of a song you are listening to, articulate that rhythm softly to yourself right along with the CD, just as if you were playing along with it on your flute.  Use the same articulation syllables that you do on your flute and use your tongue as if playing.  It will be like softly singing, or chanting, along with the CD:   “Daa ta taaaaaa, dad a da Taaaaaaaaaaaa, wa tooooo aaaahhhhhhh.”    Chanting, or singing, in this way you will assimilate a huge variety of rhythmic ideas, which you can use in your own playing, without the limitations imposed by your slower fingers.  By getting the rhythms in your head, and “in your tongue,” you will discover them spontaneously showing up in your own flute playing.

When you discover a rhythmic motif which you particularly like, stop the CD, and articulate the rhythm by singing, or chanting it several times on your own:  “Daaa to ahhhhh, da daaaa, da ho.”   Try chanting the same rhythm with different notes (pitches).  Make slight variations upon this rhythmic motif, softly chanting the articulations to yourself.  You will find that you can create whole songs without ever picking up your flute!

Of course, that is the next step.  Pick up your flute and put that rhythmic motif through your instrument.  Don’t worry about what notes (pitches) you are using – play whatever notes you want – just get the rhythmic motif in there.  Articulate it into your flute just as you were articulating it with the CD.  If you have trouble with finger movements, just articulate the rhythm on one note.  When comfortable with that, try articulating the rhythm and only changing the note once, perhaps at some slight pause in the rhythm, some place it seems natural to change notes.

Rhythm is the secret to rich, colorful and distinctive compositions on your flute.  The autumn landscape is teaching you...............listen.











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