Native American Flutes

R. Carlos Nakai- Native American Flute Creation Chant

(click on the video above to hear Nakai's flute music)

R. Carlos Nakai, the famous Native American (Navajo/Ute) flutist in the video above has made many flute music albums. He describes the Native American cedar flute, “as a sound sculpture, a piece of art that also creates sound.”

Nakai, who like most Native American flute players, handcrafts his own flutes discovered over the years that cedar wood is the best type of wood for making flutes. Nakai also found that there are no specific dimensions the Native American wooden flute must have. The dimensions of the holes and air column of a cedar flute is based on the size of the players hand and fingers. This is why each flute has a unique pitch and sound, making the tonality of each instrument different from all the others.

Another famous flute player of mixed Cherokee descent, Carlos Reynosa, recently explained the Native American philosophy concerning flute music. He told an audience eagar to learn about Native flute music: "Indians listened to natural sounds because they lived in a natural place."

"And did you know? Some Native Americans believe that if you're so quiet, you can hear the Earth's heart beating."

"Each flute is a prayer. It's a prayer when you play it, and a prayer when you make it."
"That's when we know we're alive - when we can feel things," said Reynosa.

About Native American Flutes
Native American flutes are unique to North America. They are part of the history and
fabric of the continent's indigenous cultures. For many, performing on these
instruments encourages a connection to another culture.

Native American flutes were part of an aesthetic that preceded the arrival of European cultures to the western hemisphere. After a period of relative dormancy, these instruments have reemerged to tell us something about the cultures that performed on them -- and something about ourselves.

Some Native American Indian mythologies suggest that the flute was used as a tool to communicate human feeling, such as in the Kokopelli flute player myth.

The flute's association with love and courtship is documented in the mythology of flute creation stories and it was almost always constructed by the flute player. He would craft the flute in a way that reflected his spirit and his culture. The creative process comprises making and decorating the instrument as well as performing, improvising, and creating melodies.

Native American Indians created an instrument that allowed adolescent men to communicate feeling using sounds without words. More specifically, their cultures seemed to include an appropriate time and place for the sounds of the Native American flute.

Native American cedar flute maker, Donald Coolidge (pictured above) makes flutes from the traditional cedar wood. He hand crafts them with a fine finish and adds intricate carvings of Native American symbols. Like American Indians in the past, Coolidge makes sure his handcrafted flutes sound good. If not, he destroys it and begins again.

Donald Coolidge is not just a Native American flute maker, like historical American Indian flute makers, he also is an accomplished flute player. Coolidge was nick named "Donald Duck" by his Teec Nos Pos Boarding School buddies in the mid 60's.  This is why he signs all of his cedar flutes "Duck".

Coolidge plays one of his flutes while traveling around the Navajo Reservation with a group known as the Red Men Christ Revival Band. He is currently a resident of Shiprock, New Mexico.

Donald Coolidge, Navajo flute player is pictured above.

The Flute
Native American flutes that are carved from wood differ from other musical
instruments because they are the only flute instrument in the world where air is blown
out and then re-enters to make the sound. This is what makes the harmonic windy sound
which is unlike any other flute.

Also, Native American flutes differ from most other flutes because they are made
from wood, traditionally from the cedar wood tree. Donald Coolidge makes all his Native
American flutes from hard woods because the harder the wood the better the
resonance. He prefers cedar wood, but also handcrafts native flutes from maple,
mahogany and cherry wood.

The flute is a very simple instrument, consisting of only five tone holes. The flute also
has no moving mechanisms to hinder the player. This lack of moving parts intensifies the
tangible relationship between the breath and the sound and response of the instrument.
The player can see and hear how the breath affects pitch, tone, and dynamics as they move their fingers on and off the tone holes. They can then apply their understanding of
the relationship between breath and sound when playing a band instrument. Playing the
Native American flute can help you recognize the importance of breath support
and its relationship to pitch and tone quality.

The flute's range is usually 1.3 octaves. Fingerings outside the diatonic scale are not
intuitive.  The unique sound production mechanism (a moveable block called a "bird" or
"saddle") has some adjustable parts. On traditional wooden flutes, the bird is usually
secured to the flute body with a leather cord. Tuning and fingerings among various
wooden flutes are not standard.

Native American flutes are generally handmade, high-end products that cannot compete
with the price of plastic recorders.

Making Flute Music
It is easy to produce a sound on the flute -- you simply blow into it. Of course, learning to adequately support and adjust airflow to get a beautiful, controlled sound takes time on any instrument. Producing a high- quality, expressive sound should be one of the most important goals.

All six holes are on the front of the instrument. There are no holes in the back.

Most modern Native American flutes are naturally pentatonic instruments. If the fourth hole (of a six-hole flute) is blocked with a piece of tape (or just keep the third finger of the left hand over hole 4), lifting one finger at a time while playing produces a pentatonic scale. In effect, this transforms the six-hole flute into a five-hole flute. The five-hole flute is as easy to improvise on. Copyright 2011.

Beck, Amanda. (2004). Native American flute is music to their ears. Orange County Register [Santa Ana, Calif] 20 May 2004.

Crawford, T. R. (1999). Flute Magic: An Introduction to the Native American Flute. Rain Dance Publications.

R. Carlos Nakai. (1997) Art of the Native American Flute. Canyon Records.

(R. Carlos Nakai, Native American to debut with Chicago Sinfonietta. (2002) Chicago Defender [Chicago, Ill] 07 Jan 2002.
Native American Art Heading
Native American Flute Maker Donald Coolidge