Flutopedia - an Encyclopedia for the Native American Flute

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Piano Accompaniment for Native American Flutes

Piano and Native American flute make a fantastic combination. This page explores some of the techniques and offers some suggestions for working with a piano.

Peter Kater and R. Carlos Nakai at the Mahana Nursery, May 12, 2011, from the Molokai Dispatch, May 18, 2011

Peter Kater and R. Carlos Nakai at the Mahana Nursery,
May 12, 2011. Image from the Molokai Dispatch, May 18, 2011

Techniques

One of the challenges of playing with a piano accompaniment, regardless of the experience and background of the person at the ivory keys, is that piano accompaniment for ethnic flutes calls for some different techniques that other instruments.

First of all, our flutes tend to play in one key, in a few chords. Complex chord stuctures and key changes from the piano accompaniment rarely work well.

Another issue is the "density" of the piano accompaniment. Many piano players are accustomed to "comping" (accompanying) in a thick, dense style that can work great for jazz, blues, and rock music, but tends to leave no room for an instrument line an ethnic flute.

There are a lot of great examples for the piano-native flute combination (search YouTube to check some of them out):

  • Peter Kater and R. Carlos Nakai (shown at the right) have done a lot of work together
  • Cornell Kinderknecht and Julie Bonk

So here are some things to consider for piano players playing with ethnic flutes:

  • Play in a spacious style that leaves room for the flute to be heard.
  • Stay in the same key, with some simple chord modulations.
  • Providing a solid repeated pattern (ostinato) is a great counterpoint to a melody on the flute.
  • Consider call-and-response song forms.
  • Consider using flute solos and piano solos to provide some song structure.

And finally …

Playing in Different Registers

Piano players are often most comfortable in the middle register of the keyboard. However, this is often in the same frequency range of Native American flutes. Since these ethnic flutes are limited in the range of pitch, the music can lack contrast. On this topic, here is a recording of an Internet radio broadcast done on February 5, 2009 done with Peter Dubner on an electronic piano, Vera handling the technical details (you can hear her typing in the background), and I'm on flutes:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

A Sample Backing Track

So give it a try! This track is by Peter Dubner, from Jam Tracks in G Minor. Pick up a G minor flute (D minor can also work) and give it a go:

Audio Player disabled - visit Troubleshooting.

 
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