This article was written by Geri LittleJohn in July of 2000, in response to a question of whether or not a flute had its own “spirit;” and, in addition, rather than the flute getting better with use, the secret to playing a flute well is to play the flute.

Geri LittleJohn

From a flute maker’s perspective, it’s not as simple as that.  When you play your flute a lot, it gets imprinted in some way with your personal playing style.  Sometimes a great flute that sits on a shelf in a store for a long time just goes flat and lifeless and needs to be revoiced before it will really sing.  Other times, we’ll take a flute that just doesn’t sing, throw it up on a shelf for a few months, take it down and it sounds amazing.  And we’ll wonder why we ever thought that we shouldn’t send it out to someone on the first place.

Hawk’s Grandfather used to say that this was natural.  After all, you take a piece of wood that only remembers what it was like to be a tree, cut it up, hollow it out, make it round, put holes in it. . .  sometimes it just takes a while to know it’s a flute.

Which leads us back to the question of whether or not a flute has a spirit.  Hawk planned to say something on this, but it’s very difficult to translate into words, especially written ones.  He felt he came close when he spoke about this in the documentary that you’ve heard about [See,  Songkeepers,*******).  Being Cherokee, who are formulistic people, he described flute-making as a formula.  There’s the tree itself, which is magical because it lives in three worlds:  Below the earth, on the surface, and in the air.  There are the birds that have nested and sung in its branches.  The wind that has made its own music when it blew through its leaves.  There are the offerings made to the tree.  The fire that we put into it when we burn the holes.  The part of the flute maker that goes into it over the many hours it takes to make the flute. . . .  It’s like when you gather up a bunch of bits of food:  Eggs, milk, flour, sugar. . .  looking at them separately,  you’d never know that when combined they could be a cake.

Addressing the issue in the language of my own dominant cultural upbringing, it’s like the old philosophical adage, “I can’t prove it, but I know it’s true.”  I can’t explain it in rational, linear-critical terms.  But having made lots of flutes, there is a moment when a flute comes to life.  Sometimes you feel it in the early stages.  You put the wood back together and you notice the particular beauty of the grain and you say to yourself, this flute is going to be amazing.  And when you finally put the block on it, after making it round and sanding it and finishing it, it does.  Other times, the flute sounds good, but there is this indefinable disconnect between what your fingers are doing and the sound you are hearing.  So you keep making fine adjustments to the whistle and . . . magic happens. . . all of a sudden the flute is alive.  Each flute is unique.  It has its own voice.  And that, too, is part of the formula.

The last part of the formula is you, the player.  You bring to the flute your own unique experiences, your own unique song.

I’ll leave you with two of Hawk’s favorite sayings; seemingly contradictory, but both equally valid:

“Magic happens through repetition.  Magic happens when all doubt is cleared from the mind.” 


“Practice will make you a better technician and help you play your flute better.  But the flute can play you, as well.”

                            (Copyright Geri LittleJohn, 2011)