After you have chosen a Native American flute from a reputable maker, attentive care of that investment is important because it is made out of wood, a natural, sensitive material. Proper care and maintenance is necessary to keep it playing its optimal best.
Dents and Scratches
Regardless of what instrument you purchase, keeping it aesthetically beautiful and safe from potential physical hazards is paramount to its beauty and physical longevity. There is nothing worse than finding a deep scratch or a glaring dent on your instrument.
The Native American flute is particularly susceptible to scratches and dents. The type of wood correlates with its susceptibility to physical abrasions, but all wood instruments are delicate and should be treated with care. If your flute is created from a soft wood like cedar, chestnut, butternut, basswood, poplar, redwood, spruce, fir, or pine, then it is more vulnerable to dings, dents and scratches. Flutes made from medium to hard woods are more resistant, but not immune, to nicks and scuffs. Examples of medium to hard woods include walnut, cherry, hickory, mahogany, birch, cocobolo, bloodwood, bubinga, maple, ash, oak, and beach, to name a few.
Most flute makers include a fabric sleeve for storage when not in use. It is advisable to put the flute away after each use and subsequent cleaning to keep it from collecting dust and dirt, as well as to keep it safe from children, pets, and the curious. I learned this the hard way - I left a flute out on my bed and my cat decided to make his mark by biting into the wood, leaving substantial fang marks and a dab of drool. I have also heard of people who have left their flute on the couch and then sat on it later, crushing it. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to repair a compressed Native American flute…
It is best to store your flute, in its fabric sleeve, in a hard-shell case. Taking an idea from fishermen and architects, several businesses have come up with the concept of a fabric-covered PVC tube to carry flutes and other instruments (in a variety of pleasing fabric colors). The Flute Case Store (www.flutecase.com) has a nice selection of cases in a variety of sizes, ranging from those that carry just one flute to cases that can carry six or seven. These cases are sturdy and fit well in overhead airplane compartments. Although you should not check your Native American flute when you fly, if you have to do so these hard cases are your best defence. Remember to put a padlock on the case, as you do with your regular luggage.
Since it is made from wood, the Native American flute is very sensitive to sudden changes in climate and temperature, and it may crack if not kept away from extremes of heat, cold, humidity, and aridity. In addition, playing the flute in cold weather can be hazardous, as the warmth of your air stream interacts with the cold wood as it contracts and expands and may instantly crack or split the flute. In addition, do not store a Native American flute in a hot car, in direct sunlight, or near a heating or air conditioning vent. These elements can dry out the wood and may lead to a crack or split in the flute.
One of the difficulties in playing the Native American flute for long periods of time is that it is prone to ‘watering out’. Wood can only absorb so much moisture before it becomes saturated. There is a minimal distance between the bird or block of the flute and the nest on the flute body on which it rests; this area is responsible for sound production. When the wood on these two areas becomes saturated from breath condensation, water droplets form in that minimal space and the sound either becomes poor or stops all together.
You may be able to temporarily remove the water droplets from under the flute’s bird/block by blowing the water out of the small space or by whipping it downward, thereby shaking the water out of the flute. Be sure to whip the flute away from people, as being sprayed with water from an instrument can be viewed as unsavory. You can also take off the bird/block and wipe off the underside of the mechanism and the top of the flute upon which it sits, although this is not often possible during a performance. Regardless of which wax or other type of finish the flute maker use to treat the flute, underneath the bird/block will water out eventually. So, if you are performing a long musical selection, like a concerto, be sure to have at least three flutes in the same key, so that when one flutes waters out you will have spares.
Ultimately, the flute will have to be dried out completely before it will sound well again. When you are finished playing, take off the bird/block and wipe off any moisture with a lint-free cloth. Let it dry, underside up, exposing the wettest part directly to the air. Shake out any access wetness from the flute and then let it dry with the flute up, so that the area on which the bird rests can dry out; moisture evaporates upward.
Oiling Your Flute
Many flute makers and players recommend that the flute be routinely oiled once a month, depending upon how frequently it is played and the climate itself. Do not use vegetable oils, as they can go rancid. Mineral oil is recommended, as well as linseed oil. Whatever oil that you choose, be sure that it is not toxic.
When applied to the inside of the flute, oil acts as a partial barrier to help prevent moisture from penetrating the wood, as well as keeping the wood healthy. Before oiling a bore, ensure that the wood is completely dry; do not play the flute for several hours prior to oiling the interior. Completely wet the flute with oil and be sure to allow the flute to dry overnight.
With regard to the outside care of the flute, it is always best to consult the flute maker to see what he or she recommends for the care of the flute’s surface. If your flute has a polyurethane finish on the body surface, it should not require oiling or wood conditioning. If dirt and grime build up on the surface of the flute from your hands, simply wipe it down with a dry, clean cotton cloth. Do not use a cloth that is made of synthetic materials.
Wash your hands before you play, so that the wood does not absorb or acquire stains from dirt, grease, or oils from the body. In addition, do not wear lipstick, Chapstick, or lip gloss when playing the flute, as it will stain the flute and gunk up the mouthpiece. Do not clean any part of your flute with alcohol. Do not eat right before you play the flute, as food particles can lodge in the inside of the instrument and then decay or rot, emitting a most unpleasant odor.