.
NATIVE AMERICAN FLUTE FORUM
.
Birth of the Flutemaker
.
By Scott Loomis
 
7

     A nationally known flute performer announces at his concerts that the Native American flute must be “randomly tuned” to be authentic and his words carry influence. He wraps his hand tightly around the flute, bridging the space between the windblock and first finger hole. “This is how Indian flutemakers laid out their flutes.” He presses his thumb between the first two holes. “The holes had to be one thumb-width apart.” He holds up his right forearm, fingers stretched upward, and holds the flute parallel to it. “The flute’s length was determined by the distance between the flutemaker’s elbow and fingertips. The instrument and its tone were as unique as the maker. Songs were created based on the sounds available on the individual flute.”

     But why would any culture develop an instrument that did not follow the human voice and the culture’s traditional songs? Of what use would such an instrument be? If there are people today whose ears discern melodic, tuned instruments from flat, untuned ones, were there no such musically gifted people among the generations of native Americans? If native peoples, with their creator’s gifts, developed refinements to their tools, their system of government, their basketry, their medicine, and every other important feature of their culture, why not the flute? When a flutemaker’s flute failed to meet his standards, failed to play the notes and tunes it was created to perform, would he not discard it? (Leaving it, perchance, for some wise archaeologist of a later time to discover and expound upon?)

     The legend of the “love flute” might support the principle of random tuning. Didn’t those lovesick young men create their own songs to woo the maidens of their dreams? If all songs played on the love flute were original songs, a standard tuning system would be unnecessary. But if the flute was used ceremonially or for entertainment, pressed into service to perform traditional songs treasured by the community, would random notes be satisfactory? The popular lore of the randomly tuned flute may seem romantic to those who cling to the notion of the “noble savage”, but it is inconsistent with what we know about native American musical tradition. Let’s imagine another scenario.


Or perhaps...

     In days past there lived one who heard the world in a different way. This one heard the harmony of the earth life around him and it made him feel good. He wished to share this harmony with others of his kind, so he gravitated toward the music of his people and soon his voice among all was heard. He had a talent for putting together the sounds around him so that all could hear the beauty of the earth’s harmonies. But not all could duplicate his voice, so he set out to help all hear the harmonic beauty of life on our mother, this earth.
     He went to the flutemakers because he heard the beauty in their tone. But he was not satisfied with the harmonic balance so he experimented and came up with a note progression that best projected what he was hearing around him. He shared it with the people. The people were glad and wished to learn this thing. So he told them how he did it, but many did not have the talent to see or hear the balance in his flute. So he made them himself and gave them to the people.
     He got old. He looked hard for one who heard the world around him as he did himself. None were there. So that the beauty of his flute would not be lost, he at least could make exact measurements to be passed on. He hoped one day another would discover what he heard and begin again the fine tuning necessary so the flute could again honor the harmonics of our mother earth.


Caught!

     It is in this quest for the pure flute sounds that inspired the best of Native American flutemakers in times past that I am driven to seek in this magical instrument the beautiful harmonies it is capable of and to present a flute that all can play, not just a chosen few.

     I began my relationship with the flute in a small South Dakota Indian craft market. My wife’s genealogy passion and my grandfather’s stories had directed me to an interest in the Cherokee. South Dakota might seem an odd place to seek the Cherokee culture and, indeed, the store carried but one item tied to the Cherokee. It was a tape of flute music by Robert Two Hawks. The ten dollar bill on the counter seemed innocent enough, but the path that small purchase led me down changed my life forever. This furniture and cabinet maker was about to be called to the magical power of the native American flute.

     For the next 6,000 miles, my family patiently endured the repetition of Two Hawks’ sweet tunes. I was caught. All I could do, once home again, was talk about this flute and how I, a professional woodworker, would someday make myself one. But I didn’t. Instead I read and read some more. My librarian friend Jeannette exhausted the articles available through Interlibrary Loan, trying to satisfy my curiosity about the construction, history, and traditions of the flute. I read Frances Densmore’s account of random tuning and became still more confident I could craft this instrument with little music knowledge.

     Then my drum partner Charlie brought me a pattern from a book. Still I hesitated. “When are you going to make it?” he carped, over and over. Finally I succumbed and we built a flute. It made pretty sounds, looked pretty, and fit Densmore’s description to a tee. I was encouraged by the flute’s sound and the interest of friends so I built another and another. These early flutes were given in love to those close to me. But when I told my wife I was finished with the cabinet and furniture business, she was understandably dismayed.

     Yet I surrendered all of my time and cabinetmaker’s skills to improving upon this first crude instrument. As I worked, my father’s image came back to me. Harry Loomis was a perfectionist. Though he built fences, not usually a subject of fine woodworking, he would not cut corners in his work. Every joint was precise and even, every board aesthetically placed, every nail driven without hammer marks spoiling the wood. From him, I’d learned to invest myself in any project, making even the smallest detail an object of pride. From my native friends and teachers, I learned to work “in a good way”, to bring a positive spirit to my work and to work for something greater than a spreadsheet’s bottom line. My flutes reflected these lessons and improved both in aesthetics and tonal quality.

     Still, the randomness of the tuning I’d read about and followed bothered me. Some flutes, though created using the same measurements, belonged--and ended up--in the pile of kindling behind my shop. There had to be a better way.

     As my reputation grew, my flutes attracted the notice of serious musicians and instrument makers in the Northwest. I was feeling pretty good. That is, until Sky Walkinstick approached me at a powwow, tried one of my fancy flutes, and remarked, “Very beautiful flutes, fantastic craftsmanship, good tonal quality. Too bad they sound like s---.” I was still a student of this instrument, so was not offended by an elder’s criticism. I pressed for more information: What else should I be doing? How could I raise their musical legitimacy? Thus began a series of sessions in which Sky shared traditional scales and the rudiments of tuning with me. He also challenged me to produce deeper keys he could not find elsewhere.

     With expert guidance from Kevin Bacon, a recorder maker in Ashland, I learned the finer points of tuning wind instruments and jumped into the challenges Sky presented. I presented Sky with my first E flute, a beauty with a smooth, mellow tone. My next homework assignment was to reproduce a 100-year old Kiowa flute in the key of C. I experimented with many bore sizes, lengths, and note measurements while continuing to perfect the smaller flutes, but the big C was long in coming. Almost a year later, I jumped into my pick-up with two proud C flutes beside me and sped to Philomath to show Sky the results of my many trials. I was proud when he asked to use one in his soon-to-be-released recording and asked if he could send the other to John Rainer, Jr., his teacher. A few months later, in the peaceful, natural surroundings of the South Umpqua powwow, I presented Sky with another new scale, a high A minor. Maybe it was the bright summer sun, but I thought I saw a tear when he said, “Scott, I can’t teach you anymore. Your flutes are now better than mine. You are no longer my apprentice, but my equal.”


The Magical Partnership between Flutemaker and Player

     Because of the special relationship of the flute to its player, my work has become a passion for introducing music-making to those with no other outlet. The flute has become a tool, a conduit for those who were told they could not or did not have music to share or express. The simplicity of this instrument allows one to start playing music within just a few hours. This revelation can be and is life-altering. Many have told me with tears in their eyes how the release of their inner music has healed them physically and mentally.

     Every week I receive letters from new players. Their words speak of their new “flute friend” talking to them, bringing songs out of them. One letter from Apache Junction, Arizona spoke clearly: “I’ve loved music for as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, when I was in 5th grade I encountered a music teacher who was less than patient and my dream of learning the clarinet became a nightmare. Not until your curly redwood flute arrived did I dare to think that I could be a musician. Seldom has anything so lived up to my expectations. From the first thrilling note I blew on my flute, I knew I had become privy to a magic I had been seeking all my life.” A Blackfoot man in Portland, Oregon shared this: “Spirit beings take position in various places, such as eagle feathers. The spirit beings have found a new place to stand in line, as they wait for your next flute to be completed. Your flutes become their home. Between your good heart and your own spirit helper, many spirits have had special honor.”

     Because of this impact on my customers, I have a responsibility toward these flutes. I must make every one with the same positive energy. I must put more of myself into them. Any negatives around me must be cancelled. I must only think of the good things my work will bring. If I cannot clear my mind of negatives, then I will leave the shop and not come back until I again can put the positive to work.

     Retailers have asked me to make more than one line of flutes (one less expensive and one more expensive), but because of my relationship with the flutes and my customers, I can’t justify a stratification. I build every flute according to the highest standards, treating each flute as the most special, most important one. I put my whole into each one. I don’t know how to build “a cheaper flute”. If I find an improvement, all of my flutes must benefit, not just “the top line”. My father and mother taught me the importance of pride in every creation.

     In the special partnership between flutemaker and flute player, the role of the flutemaker is to provide a flute that plays the sweetest possible notes for the least possible effort. For the novice flute player, this means an easy-to-learn, easy-to-master instrument. For the serious flute player, this means freedom to experiment with note progressions and breath patterns. But even more important than technique and expertise, the spirits of the flutemaker and player come together to create a special bond unexpressable by simple words.

     The tradition of the great flutemakers of previous generations was to continue to perfect this rich instrument. As their heir, I hope my modern techniques and love for its music honor this tradition by offering my skills to provide a contemporary instrument based on their spirit and musical genius.


Yours in harmony and beauty,
Scott E. Loomis
Wind’s Song Flutes

 
TOP
 
7

     Do you have questions about caring for or playing your Native American flute? We"d love to hear from you. Email: webmaster@loomisflute.com
 
 
7
 

© Copyright 1998 - 2010 by Linda Hugle
All rights reserved
 
Updated December 2009 - catNcap Enterprises