“Get on it and go”: Big Bear High C

That NAF video stuck with me, and I began to use it whenever things were getting on top of me. I began to listen to R. Carlos Nakai and Mary Youngblood. I began to watch some of the NAF YouTubers out there, like Allen Bruce Ray, Christopher Ciccone and Charlie Mato-Toyela. Please do click the links and check out their videos. These gentlemen take the time to answer questions and respond to their comments, which to me is a sign of respect for their audience, something that seems to be the rule rather than the exception in the NAF community.

As the months went on, I became more and more interested in this instrument, but a part of me nagged, “Oh yay–another instrument. How long on this one? I give it a month.” The stress management aspect really drew me in. I found it hard to imagine a flute player freaking out about anything. Or listening to the demotivational coach in their heads.

(Yes, I could say “flautist” or “flutist”, but flautist sounds very classical and starched, like a symphony tux. And flutist sounds like a superlative adjective, indicating that something has reached peak flute: “This all-piccolo orchestra is the flutist.” Flautist will henceforth describe someone who makes flautas–end of discussion.)

I found out about a powwow happening in my old hometown, so I thought that I might be able to at least meet the instrument, shake hands, and see if we get along. Andy wanted to come along, and  I thought it would be a quite good bonding thing and a way to introduce him to native cultures. After a long car ride (by his standards), and a few tense minutes of wondering if I might actually be lost in the county I grew up in, we made it to the campground and paid our admission.

As luck would have it, there was a gentlemen selling flutes. I remember he was an older man, friendly, and his flutes were organized highest to lowest (and of course most expensive), but his gear topped out at  about 65 clams, which I now know in the NAF world is super affordable. I was a bit intimidated, so I picked up the cheapest one he had, which turned out to be this very unassuming high C:

I couldn’t tell you what the wood is. All I know is that it’s lacquered, the finger holes are burned in, and it cost 30 bucks.

As I picked it up, he said, “There isn’t a right or wrong way to play it. You just get on it and go.” This struck me as odd. I expected him to say something like, “It takes years to develop any skill on this,” or at least “Practice makes perfect.”At the time my research hadn’t gone into the philosophy of playing an NAF.

This is all I know about the maker. I’m planning to go back this year, and I’ll try to get more info.

I’d love to tell you that the first notes were where I fell in love, but that’s not what happened. At the time, it sounded like a wooden recorder, which is not bad at all, but I really didn’t know what I was holding. His other, deeper flutes had more ornate totems, combinations of woods, and higher pricetags, but I figured that 30 dollars wouldn’t put me in too deep, and I was supporting a small business, so why not?

I thanked the vendor and left the stall to think about the purchase. We wandered around, tuning in and out to the tribal dances behind us. Andy bought some agate at one stall, and he was fascinated by the flint knapper and the deer hides he had hung up.  Before we left, I went back by and bought the little flute I had tried out. As we left, Andy turned to the powwow and said in that carrying voice that only kids have, “Bye bye, Indians!” I hurried him to the car amidst smiles and chuckles from the assembled tribespeople.

As you can see, it’s got a very minimalist totem on it. In fact, today is the first day I’ve ever taken it off.

So the flute came home and made itself ready to mend my bruised and battered soul–and spent a lot of time alone on my computer table. I would toot on it a bit and then let it sit. I sensed it had secrets to unlock, but I just didn’t know how to get at them. I think what initially put me off was its high tone. I find instruments in the high registers rather annoying, and I assume others do to,which is most likely my imagination. It took other flutes to bring me around to my first.

Today, we’re quite happy together. I’m learning how to make a high instrument work, how to put together improvisations that it likes. This little guy motly sounds happy to me, but he can sound lonely too, especially when I imagine myself sitting on the desert floor in an Arizona canyon, with high, cold stars wheeling over my head, and the blank nothing of a mountain gaping nearby.

This brings me to my sub-project. I’ve reached a point where I want to make a contribution to the musical conversation out there. Writing about flutes can only take that so far; I need to go out on a limb and start playing, and I feel that the flute community would be an excellent place to do so because of its kind and supportive nature. I’ve decided to make a short video for my flutes and let you really hear what each one is like.

But after doing some preliminary videos, just stuff around the house, I’ve discovered that I can’t make a video that I appear in. I just can’t. It doesn’t look right to me because I hate seeing myself on video. So the audio you hear is indeed my playing, and is indeed the flute describe above, but the video are some images from my own archives. All the sound and video work was done with free apps, and the quality probably isn’t what it ought to be, but hell, I’m trying, and that’s what matters. I hope you enjoy it.



Anatomy of a Thing

Most of my life, I’ve had things. Other people call them hobbies or obsessions, but probably the best description in my case is a thing. When I was in college it was music and playing bass. Lately, it’s been WoW and gardening. With these it’s very hard to trace where they began. I’ve always loved video games, gardening and music, and the beginnings of those loves are lost in my own pre-history. But with my newest thing I want to try to trace the very beginning of it all right here, and follow its evolution as it happens. It’s my new project, and I like projects.

It started last summer while grading. I hate grading papers. I would rather grade 100 exams than papers. For those of you who thought that your teachers loved grading papers, let me pop that illusion right now. Real teachers like teaching, getting in the classroom and making you smarter. Evaluating you is just part of the gig. Grading papers is to English teachers what the act of emptying the catbox is to indoor cat owners. While it’s not our favorite thing to do, it is a necessary byproduct that can’t be ignored.  And if it is your favorite thing to do, you’re just fucking creepy.

Anyway, I was getting less and less motivated to keep plowing though the latest intellectual abortion to cross my desk, so I went into YouTube to find my favorite ambient meditation video. After it finished playing, I saw this lovely green forest image in the suggested videos, so I gave it a click.

The flute I heard was more soothing than anything I’d ever encountered before, and staring at that lovely emerald image calmed me down and helped me focus and get through the mental colonoscopy of grading my 26th paper about Poe. Not even Enya can smooth me over like flute music. Give it a listen, and you’ll agree it’s not like the European idea of a transverse flute or recorder. There’s something to this, something deep and ancient and spiritual.

This got me interested in Native American flutes (NAFs) in general. I started reading about what simple instruments they are, how easy they are to play, and how they’re being used to help people with anxiety, PTSD and traumas. I also noticed how different the YouTube comments for NAF players were. They were all supportive and very positive, not the normal hate faucet you see splattering all over even the most universally agreeable videos. Then I started wanting one. You see, I’ve spent my entire life wandering from instrument to instrument, from bass to recorders to Irish whistles, looking for the one that I can pick up and be a god on in ten seconds or less. Strangely, my search has yet to yield such an instrument.

For instance, I always sort of wanted to learn piano, but it’s so intimidating, both in expense and instruction time. I have images of sauntering over to tickle the ivories at a party and get the crowd going with “Tiny Dancer”, but that doesn’t come easily. It usually means being the victim of a piano teacher who somehow escaped Nuremberg, who corrects my posture with a cattle prod and screams, “Now play!” After two years I’ll be able to stumble through “The Wheels on the Bus” like a drunk toddler, and I’ll hate myself for my lack of commitment and failure to meet my impossibly-high goals. Bloody hell, I can get a gym membership for far cheaper and get the same end result.

But the NAF is different. Granted, my untutored fumblings with recorders and tin whistles laid a groundwork, but this really is an instrument you just pick up and go with. If you’re playing from the heart, you’re doing it right.

So that’s how my interest started. My next post will be the next step down the road to a new thing.