Music plays an integral role in our society. Think about how silent and unfulfilling our lives would be if there was no music. Can you imagine a movie without music or a parade or a football game? Music is everywhere; at times, we are not even aware of it because it is so ever-present in our society. We utilize music in our lives for entertainment, mood enhancement or intensification, motivation, and social interaction, to name just a few. There are a multitude of uses for music in our lives, and, therefore, there are many ways in which to listen. Some music takes more effort to understand and mentally and emotionally categorize, while other types of music do not require the same amount of concentration.
There are generally two types of listeners: active and passive. For passive listeners, music is often experienced on the peripheral or as a relaxed, leisure interest. He or she enjoys music as a background to other activities, using it to elevate mood, provide background music for dinner, or to camouflage the sounds of other environmental noises. The passive listener may be cognizant of the sound or simply regard it as part of the environment. Conversely, the active listener experiences music more deliberately, seeking a deeper connection to and meaning within the music. Often times, the active listener is concerned with the quality of the music or performance, as well as correct musical style and interpretation. Of course, no one person is always either passive or active in his or her listening habits; a blending often manifests between the two types of listeners.
When active and/or passive listening is not enough, learning to play a musical instrument is the next logical step. The reasons for playing an instrument are many, such as self-expression, stress relief, personal achievement and satisfaction, enjoyment, mental stimulation, and the idea of bringing pleasure to an audience.
There are numerous ways to approach playing any musical instrument, depending upon one’s intent and ultimate goals. Regardless, it will be a lifelong pursuit; instant gratification seldom happens when embarking upon learning an instrument. It is often a slow process, but it can be a rewarding endeavor.
Learning to play the Native American flute is satisfying on many levels. It is an accessible instrument for those who have no musical experience, and is easily picked up by those who already possess musical skills. After the initial investment for a well-crafted instrument, for many individuals time will be the only requirement to learn to play, as flute makers usually include easy beginning instructions and a finger chart with the instrument purchase. Others may seek out CDs and music books to further the learning process. This all depends upon the player’s goals and optimal learning strategies, meaning whether he or she shows a propensity toward visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learning styles.
In the Native American flute community, there are three primary approaches to playing. The first is what is called “playing from the heart.” One does not need to have a music background in order to play the Native American flute, as the majority of people involved with the flute do not read music. They are attracted to the haunting, ethereal sound of the instrument and usually to the culture, as well. Playing from the heart is musical improvisation, sans notated music. It is playing what moves you in the moment. Improvisation can only take place if the person truly knows his or her instrument, which can readily and easily take place without learning to read music. It is commonly stated in the Native American flute community that every flute has a special, unique song to sing. That song is intuitively released through the improvising flutist. It is also believed that every flute finds its proper owner at the appropriate time in his or her flute journey, although a person can come to several different flutes over a lifetime. But, it seems that when the flute finds its intended owner, it sings more sweetly for that individual.
Another approach to learning to play the Native American flute is through rote learning memorization or learning by ear, stimulating and holding the attention of the ear. This is a common way to learn for those who do not read music notation, as well as for those who read music but are trying to figure out favorite tunes when sheet music is not an option. Many individuals, musicians and non-musicians alike, have incredible auditory abilities. They have an innate ability to listen to a song, memorize through repetition, and play it back perfectly. Many performers of the Native American flute learn music this way, whether they keep it solely in their head or they notate it in some manner after it is learned by ear through repetitive listening and playing.
The third approach to playing the Native American flute is by reading a form of music notation called TABlature. While one may also read regular music notation using the Native American flute, TABlature is easier since the fingering system remains constant regardless of what flute key is utilized. One of the difficulties in playing this type of flute is its severely limited ability to modulate or transpose into different keys during a composition. To modulate within a composition or transpose to a different key, the player would need to pick up another flute in the intended key. The problem with this in reading regular music notation is that he or she would have to know different fingerings for each flute. The note G on a G flute is fingered differently than the note G on an E flute, and so on. If one has twelve flutes in different keys, then the number of fingerings to learn and retain is staggering.
Created by Canyon Records recording artist and world-renowned Native American flutist R. Carlos Nakai, the TABlature system successfully addresses the problems with modulation and transposition, while maintaining the other necessary elements that a music notation system imparts like meter, rhythm, tempo, style, dynamics, melodic contour and form, and articulation. TABlature is simply a consistent finger placement system. As an educated and classically trained musician, the only difficulty I encountered with the system, at first, was the fact that the note viewed on the music staff is not always the pitch that is heard by the ear. It all depends upon the flute key that is being used. It took me fifteen minutes to let that issue go, and now I swear by the system.
The Nakai TABlature system uses the E major key signature, but the first TABlature note begins on the first space of the music staff and does not extend down past the first space. If you consider that when a note is placed on the first staff space it actually looks like it is resting on the first staff line, this is significant to why Nakai chose to begin the system in this manner. In his book, The Art of the Native American Flute, Nakai explains why he starts the system using the first staff space: “I equate this [first note placement] to being on the surface of the earth over which the sound of the flute will circulate like the seven sacred winds to Native philosophy.” It is important to remember that a TABlature system only indicates which fingers to depress, not the actual pitch that is being sounded. Many players who have no music background often rail against the system at first, because it looks like regular notation. They often have had unpleasant experiences with music lessons in their childhood or they view it as a foreign language that they will never comprehend. But, the notes themselves only truly indicate which fingers to press down on the instrument, and there are not that many notes to learn with the Native American flute since its range is roughly an octave and a third, depending upon the maker. Once beginners get past the look of the music staff and the symbols, they find it quite easy to learn and even master.
While there is also an extended scale, the primary Nakai TABlature scale is as follows:
x = finger down o = open hole
(The flute graphic below each TAB note is read from top to bottom, with the top three symbols for the left hand used closest to the mouthpiece and the bottom three symbols for the right hand toward the bottom of the flute.)
* = There are several ways to play the octave on a Native American flute. It depends upon the flute maker’s construction technique. He or she will usually include a finger chart with the instrument.
If you were to play the above TAB scale on a flute in the key of G, it would sound as follows:
If you were to play the above TAB scale on a flute in the key of A, it would sound as follows:
“Ink Pa Ta” is a familiar Lakota love song. Kevin Locke is a world-renowned Lakota flutist, hoop dancer, storyteller, cultural ambassador, recording artist, and educator. Being an expert in the culture, he gives performances and lectures about traditional Native songs and dance to audiences all over the world. Locke indicates that “the traditional repertoire on the flute is so old and so highly developed that, in addition to all the categories of ‘long’ love songs that originate as vocal compositions and are also instrumentalized, there are also genres of the ‘short’ variety,” with “Ink Pa Ta” being an example of the latter. Locke translates the words to be:
"I will be standing at the top of the hill signaling for you to come here, now"
If the above TAB of “Ink Pa Ta” were played on a Native American flute in G, the sounding pitches would be as follows:
While no method of playing the Native American flute is better than another, TABlature is a tool that is convenient and easy to learn. With TABlature, one only needs to use the same fingerings from flute to flute in order to transpose or modulate. Gone is the need to learn new fingerings for each flute key. It makes the process much easier and more efficient.
© 2010, Dr. Kathleen Joyce-Grendahl