A Room Full of Flute Players
by Clint Goss, June 27, 2007
This article appeared in Voice of the Wind, 2007, Volume 3.
They come from many cultures, backgrounds, and musical traditions. They bring flutes of many makers, scales, and keys. Some are experienced and some are new to Native Flutes. Now they are all at your flute gathering, looking to you to guide them through an evening of music making and exploration.
Where do you start? What structure can you offer that will encourage but not suffocate? How do you enhance musicality and avoid the syndrome of everyone playing at once?
My wife, Vera, and I have been blessed with many opportunities to facilitate just such a room full of Native Flute players. These experiences have been the most musically rewarding of our lives. Jamming is a blast, recording is cool, but facilitating music workshops generates an energy and spirit that is so much richer and lasting than anything we do.
Along the way we have learned a few ideas and techniques that have “worked”, and we would like to outline some of them here.
What is Your Mission?
This “Big Picture” question may seem like a distraction when you’re trying to figure out what to do at your next flute circle. However, I believe that every aspect of a music event flows from this one question.
Do you want to entertain? Teach? Provide cultural enrichment? Establish a platform for participants to exchange ideas and techniques? Showcase accomplished participants? Promote a product?
Meditating honestly and deeply on this topic is, for me, the most valuable thing I can do in service to the participants. Close your eyes and imagine the event — not the details, but the feel and spirit of the event. Put yourself into the mindset of the participants and ask yourself, at every step of the way: Where are they coming from? What do they need? What do they really want?
It is natural for inexperienced players to look towards those with more experience as a role model. This responsibility is more directed and focused when you facilitate a workshop or gathering. Thankfully, the Native Flute carries with it a culture of improvisation, inclusion, a philosophy of “there are no wrong notes”, and musical acceptance.
I believe that whatever happens during an event, it is a prime mandate of the facilitator’s role to accept each person for whatever sounds they are able to offer. There are many facets to supporting that goal:
Every time a facilitator uses words to explain something, it tends to move participants into a head space and away from playing from the heart. So instead of …
“OK, so lets play in mode four, which is called that because the root of the scale is moved up a perfect fourth from the fundamental of the mode one scale, and the new fundamental then has two notes below it, so we can blah blah blah”
… which tends to put participants in crisis mode, make them feel stupid, and shut them down emotionally, I prefer to keep it simple …
“OK, so try playing a melody holding this finger down (showing the 4th hole from the top closed) rather than this finger …”
… and then to model what I am suggesting first by playing an example.
Also, anything that even remotely suggests a critical response to the sounds someone offers will shut them down fast. In particular, the nasty habit we’ve grown up with of referring to “good musicians” and “bad musicians” is a trap that will bring up all kinds of self-criticisms in musicians of all levels.
The groundbreaking music educator Dr. Shin'ichi Suzuki observed that virtually every child in every country grows up to learn the language of that country. Learning a language is a feat of incredible virtuosity, but children do it as a matter of course every day. He reasoned that, simply by applying consistent training and gaining experience, every person can attain a high level of musical achievement … and he was right!
Rather than these critical labels, try to refer to musicians as having more or less experience. The message is that one person is not better than another, they just have more musical experience.
What is the environment of the gathering? Size, lighting, sound qualities, temperature, furniture, cleanliness. Every aspect of the environment has a profound impact on the gathering.
In practice, facilitators are often handed a space and have to “make do”. But we still have a lot of freedom: know how to operate the temperature controls, the windows, the lighting. Arrange the furniture to best support the event, preferring arrangements that give everyone equal access. Consider devices such as candles, table cloths, and a sprinkling of small interesting instruments such as egg shakers.
Will you have refreshments? Are restrooms accessible? Can you accommodate a handicapped participant? Will you have a sound system? Even a simple boom box can be used for a background to welcome people as they arrive. It can also be used to play background tracks so people can jam on top.
The participants can only be musically authentic in a comfortable and safe environment. At the start of a structure three-day Native American flute workshop, one participant asked if she could bring her dog. We were a bit concerned about the potential disruption, but thankfully we said OK — it turned out that the dog was critical safety element for her owner: she was severely epileptic and the dog was trained to provide her with a warning just before an attack.
How people enter into the space of your gathering and how they are guided to a point of wanting to improvise music set the tone for the entire event. Everything you can do to make them feel comfortable, safe, and welcome enables their musicality.
A key element as facilitator is bringing the various energies of participants into a cohesive group energy that will fuel making music together. This usually takes the form of a group warm-up — a shared activity that gets people breathing, moving, and puts them into a rhythmic space. Specific activities may include stretching, Chi Gong, deep breathing, in-the-body activities to a “groove track”, toning, vocalizations, vocal articulation, babbling, body percussion, group motion, and call and response games.
Forms and Activities
Once the group energy is cohesive and people are eager to play, facilitation is focused on providing just enough structure to maximize music making. With a room full of flute players, introducing a simple improvisation form that works well with two flutes can work magic.
Solo/Drone. One of the great improvisation forms is solo/drone — Simply to play a solo improvisation over a long held note or chord (the drone). At first this may sound too simple to be satisfying, but the power of this form is captivating (and the core of many world music traditions).
Melody — Hold Your Last Note. This form builds directly on solo/drone. One player plays a short melody and ends on a low note. They hold that last note as a drone for the second player to solo. Then the second player finds their own last drone note which they hold as a drone for the first play to solo over.
Call and Response. Simply the act of echoing back to a player what they played (as best you can, and in your own way), is incredibly affirming and supporting. The music then becomes an exchange, a conversation, an evolution of musical phrases into an ever changing story.
The basis for call and response can be set as a group activity. The facilitator can issue calls on voice or on body percussion and get group responses. Group members can try their hand at calls and get the group response. Then you can move to duets where one flute player plays a very short passage and the other responds. Acceptance is a key element here — any call made and any response is encouraged and supported. Of course, it helps if the two flutes are in the same key, and sounds even more musical if the flutes are an octave apart.
Soloing over a groove. Bringing in rhythm can really ground the music. One very satisfying activity is to request that two or three percussionists move to the center of the circle of flute players and establish a simple groove. Their role is not to wail, but to support flute solos with a consistent, solid groove. Because percussionists can easily overpower flutes, the percussionists have to be extremely sensitive to their volume, and you might have to help them attain a good balance. Each flute player in the circle gets to do a sort solo (“one breath solo”) and pass the solo around to the next person in the circle.
Solo over an ostinato. An ostinato is a repeated pattern – something simple that is played over and over. The word comes from the same root at “obstinate”, literally a musical passage that refuses to go away. A piano or guitar is an ideal instrument to set up an ostinato. If you have a willing piano or guitar player, have them play a simple sequence of notes (an arpeggio) in the key of the flute player. Having them repeat that arpeggio sequence over and over is an invitation for a flute player to soar over the top.
The Cultural Perspective
While Native Flute workshops often center on playing, participants often wish to learn more about the cultural aspects of the instrument. Discussions of the cultural aspects of Native Flutes often focus on the past: the historical context and philosophies of how the instrument evolved. But, from my vantage point, the greatest contribution of this instrument is how it affects and re-shapes our culture today.
Many of us grew up in a culture infused with European musical traditions. We got the message early on that music making was only for the few, those who were gifted, those who’ve “got it”.
Maybe we were singing our heart out at the age of five, open and vulnerable, and some adult frowned (or worse). Maybe we were slightly slower at some musical task or scored lower on some grade school music test, and got closed out of choir or band or music class. Maybe we believed some cynical remark like “White folks ain’t got rhythm” or “Don’t quit your day job”, or “You just mouth the words and let the real singers sing”.
Many of today’s world cultures have deep-rooted traditions of musical self-expression and acceptance of all voices. But this is often supplanted on our shores by a system of evaluating human musical potential based on how precisely someone can replicate the notes of a long-dead composer. Never mind that that composer was surely improvising and expressing himself when he composed it.
Making authentic music has this magical link directly with our raw emotions. But it also leaves our heart open and vulnerable to the smallest jab. And the scar from that jab can close our heart to musical expression, maybe for a lifetime.
In our environment that is so infused with European musical traditions, the Native Flute truly takes on the role of The Healing Flute. Simply the sound of a Native American flute calls to us from a different musical era, before the concept of “right music” and “wrong music”, when music was for self expression rather than performance and entertainment.
Adults who have been musically silent for decades suddenly discover the magic of improvising music. As the idea of “there are no wrong notes” takes hold, music becomes an expressive extension of the breath. And every Native Flute player seems to have a story of how they were dumbfounded when they first realized the profound effect that their “untrained” and “imperfect” improvisations had on other people.
This is more than just a healing of old wounds. It is restoring the birthright of every human being to be heard, to share their vibration with others. It is giving the opportunity to communicate emotions as no other, to be in resonance with every other vibration in the universe.
In the context of an instrument with such awesome potential, our role as facilitator is truly humbled. There is really very little to do, except provide a safe and non-critical environment, impart a bit of structure to allow each voice to be heard, and get out of the way while people Play, Play, Play!
P.S. I am endlessly interested in people’s experiences and thoughts facilitating music workshops. If you have any questions, ideas, or things you would like to share, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I am deeply indebted to the incredible music facilitators of our time who have been so generous in sharing their experience and techniques: David Darling, Mary Knysh, Julie Weber, Jim Oshinsky, Arthur Hull, Kalani, W. A. Mathieu, and all the members of Music for People. Many of the techniques and principles described in this article spring from the 4-year program in music facilitation offered by Music for people (www.MusicForPeople.org).