A woodwind player’s introduction to: Native American flutes

There are many Native American flute traditions, but the one commonly called the “Native American flute” today is the endblown Lakota-style flute, native to the Dakotas.

  • It is a duct- or fipple-type flute, which means it easily produces sound, like a recorder or pennywhistle, though the construction is different.
  • Many of the commercially-available flutes are labeled as Native-American-“style” flutes, which has to do with US laws about who can and can’t sell products as “Native American.”
  • Many Native American “flutes” are sold as decorative or souvenir items, and not suitable for serious playing. My best recommendation is for the Butch Hall “concert” flutes (which I’ve reviewed previously). They are relatively simple in appearance (though beautifully crafted); some other makers’ flutes are highly-decorated, which does not guarantee high instrument quality.
  • Modern NAFs generally have five or six finger holes. The five-holed flutes usually produce a minor pentatonic scale, and the six-holed ones add an additional note (the major sixth scale degree) plus some additional possibilities for cross-fingerings. Playing chromatically requires skillful half-holing in addition to cross fingerings, and these instruments really are better suited to mostly-pentatonic-type melodies. Most high-quality flutes are capable of playing over one octave but less than two.
  • F-sharp minor and G-minor are common keys for solo playing, though many keys are available. If you need to play with Western-tuned instruments, you may wish to double-check before purchasing that a flute is tuned to your preferred pitch standard, as they are not tunable.
  • There’s no surviving authentic ancient repertoire for these instruments; they are thought to have been mostly used for improvisation. (Prior to the influence of Western musicians, these instruments likely did not adhere to Western-type scales anyway; some were built with hole spacing based on the player’s hand size.) There is some modern (post-1970) repertoire for the instrument, most notably the compositions of R. Carlos Nakai (who is also probably the modern instrument’s best-known performer; also check out Grammy winner Mary Youngblood).
  • There is some consensus for notating NAFs in the key of written F-sharp minor, and treating flutes in other keys as transposing. Nakai uses a kind of tablature notation system that closely resembles this, but is intended to use lines and spaces on a Western staff to express fingerings rather than pitches, so it can be used to notate for flutes with atypical tunings.
  • The Nakai school of playing often incorporates bird- and animal-like sounds, including chirps at the beginnings and ends of notes produced by sudden bursts of air. (The required airflow for “standard” tone is low compared to modern Western woodwinds.) Vibrato, trills and tremolos, double- or flutter-tonguing, pitch inflections and portamenti, and grace notes are also common. Digital delay effects are commonly used to suggest the flute echoing against canyon walls.
  • The only traditional ensemble for a NAF is pairing with a Native American drum, but NAFs are commonly played solo, or in New-Age-type settings.
  • Native American flutes, like most fipple flutes, generally respond well to a low, open voicing, though the tone aesthetic is broad enough to potentially accommodate other approaches.

The wallpaper effect

white capsules on yellow background

Sometimes I see “challenges” similar to this posted on social media sites: can you find the letter J in the image below?

Of course you can. It’s not at all difficult. (But if someone online can convince you that it is, and that you’re one of the “special” few who can do it, then maybe you will “share” or “like” or whatever.)

Human brains are highly attuned to patterns. I’m not a brain scientist, but I suspect that’s why we like nice steady tempos so much. Dance music (from the Western Classical tradition to Country and Western to EDM) tends to have rock-solid pulses that make us want to move our bodies. Unsteady or inconsistent tempos? Not so much.

Have you ever been in a room with badly-hung wallpaper? A little gap or crookedness is immediately noticeable, and annoying.

In musical performance, little inconsistencies in patterns can be similarly distracting. Whether it’s a bebop tune or a baroque sonata, a tempo that varies when it shouldn’t is bad news. So is an unsteady trill, an uneven run, or off-kilter vibrato. An imperfection in the pattern breaks the spell.

While most kinds of music do place value on organic, human, dynamic elements, those need to be balanced against consistent, steady technique. For most of us, that means some long hours with the metronome, training our bodies to move predictably and unerringly.

To help your performance feel good, and get your audience tapping their feet, make sure the wallpaper is hung with care and precision.

List collection: Woodwind music by composers in underrepresented groups

I’ve added a new resource, Woodwind music by composers in underrepresented groups. This is a collection of lists other people have assembled. The object is to pull together some high-quality links for my own use and hopefully the use of others.

If you maintain or know of a well-researched list that should be included, please do let me know.

Favorite blog posts, January 2022

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

Jazz education and the “ya gotta listen” cop-out

brass drums

It’s an article of faith among jazz musicians and educators that listening to jazz is crucial to learning to play jazz. This seems obviously true to me about jazz and about any style of music.

(Doubtless one of the reasons the jazz-initiated like to bang this drum, so to speak, is because most of Western music education is so notation-focused. The “classical” tradition has developed hand-in-hand with a notation system that does a pretty good—not perfect—job of breaking down classical music sounds into visual symbols. That system, unsurprisingly, works less well for non-classical styles like jazz. But jazz music is still often expressed in classical-type notation, with some kind of caveat, explicit or otherwise, that the player must apply some significant additional stylistic know-how that will override the usual meanings of some of the notation.)

But one thing classical music educators have done in their few hundred extra years is codify and explain many (not all, and not all well, and not all in agreement) of their stylistic and interpretive ideas. In jazz education, too often important details get waved away with a “ya gotta listen.”

“Ya gotta listen” to classical music to play it well, too. But there’s also more clear, thoughtful pedagogy available to help you know what to listen for, and how to apply it.

If you are a jazz educator and find yourself dodging questions or glossing over concepts with a “ya gotta listen,” can you add something to the picture? Try saying instead, “Ya gotta listen to how Cannonball Adderley ‘lays back’ in this particular phrase. He plays some notes later than expected in a way that sounds good. Listen a few times to see which notes, and how late.” Or: “Ya gotta listen to how Freddie Hubbard plays ‘outside’ over this turnaround. Can you figure out which scale he is drawing from? Where exactly does he resolve back to playing ‘inside?'”

How long would it realistically take for an unguided young musician to listen to jazz until they had fully absorbed the nuances? I used to feel pretty overwhelmed and hopeless when teachers three times my age with thousands of well-worn records told me I wouldn’t sound better until I had really listened. Luckily I had others who were willing and able to accelerate and focus my learning by giving some direction and context to my listening.

If you find that you have difficulty explaining some of the things you want your students to listen for, there are resources available to help you and them boil things down to understandable concepts. For improvisational theory, you might try free YouTube videos (or additional paid content) from teacher/players like Chad Lefkowitz-Brown or Aimee Nolte. For style, consider books like those by Caleb Chapman and Jeff Coffin or Ray Smith.

And yes, ya gotta listen.

Jazz and classical musicians’ concerns about jazz playing

man playing saxophone

Recently I asked some questions on social media related to (self-identified) non-jazz musicians playing on jazz or jazz-adjacent gigs. This kind of thing might happen, for example, at a symphony pops concert, or a big band gig in a smaller market.

A number of concerns were raised about this, but two stood out.

  • Self-described non-jazz players overwhelmingly expressed misgivings about having to improvise in these situations.
  • For jazz players, asked about having to play a gig with non-jazz musicians, none of them expressed concern about the non-jazz players’ improvisational ability. They were overwhelmingly concerned with style (mentioning specifics like swing, articulation, and inflection).

I think for a non-jazz player, being asked to improvise is understandably frightening. But I’m hard-pressed to think of a situation like this where improvisation would be strictly required. For example, if your local pick-up big band has some jazz players and some non-jazz players, it’s a simple enough matter to pass the improvised solos off to the jazz players. (And there are plenty of big band charts with written-out solos.) If I’m hiring for the gig, I’d certainly rather rearrange the solos than put somebody in a situation that will be to their embarrassment and mine.

But everyone on the gig needs to be prepared to do good section playing. I’ve been in the frustrating situation of trying to lead a section (from the lead chair or from the director’s stand) with players who aren’t tuned into the conventions and nuances of swing, articulation, and inflection. Often these things aren’t specifically notated, the way they would be in orchestral parts, or the notations aren’t intuitive.

(A case in point: a curved marking like ⌣ over a note, which I hear classical musicians interpret by playing the note at pitch, then bringing it down, then back up. I understand why they think it means that, but it’s an un-jazz-like sound—it should almost always be interpreted as a scoop up to pitch.)

My takeaway: if you don’t consider yourself a jazz musician, and aren’t planning to really become one but want to play some jazz-oriented music on the occasional gig, study jazz style.

Music guilt

person in black shirt playing brass colored saxophone

In my professional capacity as a musician and music educator, I frequently have to lay down the law with my students or with myself about not practicing enough. The sense that I’m never quite good enough, and that it’s my own fault for not working harder, is a real professional hazard.

But when I meet people who aren’t professional musicians or serious music students, they often seem to feel the same way. They confess regrets about an instrument collecting dust in a closet, about not “sticking with it,” or about never learning to play at all. Sometimes they tell me how much they used to enjoy playing, but how some additional factor like music theory or stage fright or scales took the joy out of it.

I have to remember in those moments to keep some perspective. While my own musical goals demand serious daily work, lots of people find joy in dusting off an instrument once a month or once a year to play the same three songs again. Some people find certain aspects of a traditional music education boring. Some might play well, but aren’t interested in doing it front of an audience or a teacher.

And that’s okay! There’s lots of room for musicians of all levels and aspirations (or non-aspirations). And, of course, we professionals need a public that is enthusiastic about music, not guilt-ridden and regretful.

If you want to learn, it’s not too late. If you want to play or sing casually, you may. If you don’t want anyone to hear you, you don’t have to let them. Music should be fun for you.

Favorite blog posts, December 2021

See the woodwind blogs I’m following, and suggest others!

A woodwind player’s introduction to: pennywhistles

The pennywhistle (or “tinwhistle” or “Irish” whistle) is common in Irish traditional music, and has found a home in some other styles such as southern African kwela music. They appear famously in movie soundtracks such as the Lord of the Rings movies and Titanic.

Here are some important things to know:

  • There are high-quality pennywhistles with good intonation, clear, pure tone, and nice even response. (The Burke whistles are among my favorites.) But some high-profile players of traditional Irish music prefer the chirpier, raspier, less-perfect sounds of inexpensive, mass-produced ones (such as Generation whistles). Those players might try many inexpensive whistles to find the most playable ones.
  • There are also some in-between options. The very consistent but relatively inexpensive plastic whistles from Susato have the advantages of high volume, excellent tuning, and availability in lots of keys. (They also have a reedy tone that some people find too recorder-like.) Or, there are “tweaked” whistles like those made by Jerry Freeman, inexpensive whistles with some adjustments made for better playability.
  • Pennywhistles are available in various sizes, but the way they are named doesn’t match with the conventions of orchestral wind instruments. The most common and traditional whistle is the high D whistle. These are usually notated with the instrument’s six-fingers-down note, D, appearing as D on the staff and sounding one octave higher. (By the terminology used for, say, clarinets and saxophones, this would be considered a “C” whistle.) Other whistles are named by their 6-finger note as well.
  • For non-D whistles, there aren’t firmly-established notation practices. Some notation treats them as transposing instruments, with music written so that a notated D at the bottom of the treble staff is always played as the six-finger note. In other cases, music may be written at the intended sounding pitch (or, often, one octave below, like piccolo transposition), and it is left to the whistle player to select an appropriate instrument.
  • Whistles use a simple-system fingering scheme, and are best used in mostly-diatonic contexts. Some chromatic fingerings are possible but cross-fingerings tend to be weak and half-holed fingerings are awkward in technical passages. To play in multiple keys, most whistle players keep whistles in a variety of sizes on hand. For chromatic passages, something like a soprano or sopranino recorder might be more suitable.
  • Like most fipple flutes, pennywhistles have relatively low breath requirements. The upper octaves are achieved almost entirely by overblowing, so they tend to be louder and brighter. (Some more expensive whistles are designed to “improve” on this traditional characteristic.)
  • Pennywhistles respond best to a low, open voicing.
  • Pennywhistle playing in Irish traditional music uses a sophisticated system of ornamentation and inflection inherited from bagpiping traditions. Since pipers don’t stop to breathe, whistle players use a system of placing breaths that is also somewhat unfamiliar to orchestral woodwind players, leaving out selected notes to breathe rather than trying to insert breaths between notes. For slower tunes whistle players may use a flattement-style finger vibrato. By far my favorite resource for learning these techniques is Grey Larsen’s book.

Pitfalls of giving musical instruments as gifts

gift box decorated with ribbon bow for present

Giving someone a musical instrument as a surprise is a generous and thoughtful idea. But getting it right can be tricky. Here are some things to consider:

  • For serious musicians, like a student studying with a private teacher, a college music major, or someone who does any kind of (semi-)professional playing, an instrument is a very personal choice. Even if you know what brand and model they have been eyeing, they will probably want to try several, since they all play a little differently. If they are a student, their teacher should also have significant input on any instrument purchase.
  • Nice instruments are expensive, and serious musicians invest in them as something they will use every day and possibly use to make a living. Certain instruments can cost as much as a very fancy car! So, if your budget doesn’t stretch quite that far, it might make more sense to make a contribution toward an eventual purchase.

For beginners or more casual hobbyist musicians, their preferences might not be as specific or costly. But if you don’t have some expertise in musical instruments (more than Internet research can provide!) there are still dangers.

  • The very inexpensive “instruments” sold in big-box stores or online megastores are sometimes not really playable instruments but more like realistic-looking toys, despite what they say on the box or website.
  • Used instruments from classified ads or pawn shops may be in unplayable condition, in ways that aren’t obvious to an untrained eye, even an eye that is otherwise good with mechanical things, furniture pieces, etc.
  • If your idea is for a youngster to join up with, say, a school band program, that program might have some guidelines or requirements about what instruments are appropriate.
  • Information you might find on the internet isn’t a substitute for advice from a good private teacher, and music store employees may have motives besides helping you find the best possible instrument at the best possible deal.

If you are thinking about giving an instrument as a gift, consider these alternatives:

  • Buy a young recipient some lessons with a reputable teacher, and have that teacher work with you on eventually upgrading to a nicer instrument.
  • Ask the recipient what smaller-ticket, lower-stakes items they might need, like a new instrument case, strap, stand, etc.
  • Contribute toward (or fund outright!) a future purchase of an instrument to be selected by the recipient. A college-aged student might be gradually paying off the nice instrument they already have, and might really appreciate having it paid off in part or full.

Happy gift-giving!