Lesson One: The Importance of the Initial Tone

So I’ve been thinking about the importance of sound when it comes to the Native American Wood Flute (or NAF). There are a lot of people out there who pick up the instrument and start playing it with extreme ease. The instrument is a simple instrument, 5 or 6 holes and a mouth piece that you blow the air into to create the sound. Because of the ease of the instrument it becomes a great tool for students of all ages to get started playing. And the somber sound of the instrument makes most people feel a sublime spirituality when playing. I’ll admit that the times I felt the most connected with the created music was when I was sitting in the middle of woods in the back of my childhood home playing with the animals and trees listening.

So why aren’t there more R. Carlos Nakai’s, Mary Youngbloods’, Joseph Fire Crow’s or Douglas Spotted Eagle’s (to name a few) in existence? With the ease of the instrument and the simplicity of sound production you would think that more Native Flute artists would be pursuing the marketplace to get their names heard. I think that it is because of the ease of the instrument playability that most people forget about the simple rules needed for excellence in sound.

And rule number one: Create a SOLID INITIAL TONE.

Much like scales on a piano, finger exercises on guitar and embouchure for most wind instruments, the initial tone sets the stage for GREAT NAF playing. Practicing your initial tone helps with breath control, intonation, dynamics and various other musical techniques. It may seem a little silly and bothersome to practice, but it is one of the best exercises to make a great NAF player.

To begin, take your flute and cover all the holes. The standard hand position is “Left Hand Over Right Hand,” however this can be swapped if it is more comfortable as “Right Hand Over Left Hand.” Now with the holes sealed tightly with your fingers, gently kiss the mouthpiece and blow into the open air hole. This will create the lowest sound of your flute.

And that’s it! Kind of. If you blew into the hole you should have created a warm tone that resonated the sound of the Native American Wood Flute. However, creating that one sound is just the beginning of practicing the Initial Tone. A good solid initial tone should have a couple of distinct features:

  1. No wavering sound. Usually beginning flute players have a wavering sound that will oscillate from loud to soft (dynamics) or from sharp to flat (intonation) pitch. By practicing these “Long Tones” on the NAF you can remove those inconsistencies and get a more focused tone. This leads to more pleasing sounds when playing. NOTE: Vibrato is a wavering of the tone that will be discussed later. For now we should focus on a solid sound before varying it up with different techniques.
  2. Long Tones. A solid Initial Tone should last anywhere from 15 seconds to 30 seconds without the imperfections. This is focusing on breath control which will allow for more mellifluous musicality without worrying about breathing every 2 notes. Long tones come with focusing on using your diaphragm instead of your chest to get air into your lungs as well as only letting air out that is needed and not expending all the air in one breath. NOTE: Over-blowing is a powerful technique to consider when playing, but for the starting delicate sound of the NAF it is better to emphasize using focused air and not exceed what is needed.
  3. Dynamics. As important as Dynamics (loudness) is to the music, when focusing on Initial Tones the sounds should be very steady and even. Try practicing the Initial Tone at different Dynamics. The louder the sound the more air will be needed to be used, and vice-versa.
  4. Purity of the Sound. Make sure that the sound you hear is something that is steady and pleasing. The NAF is a very individual instrument that requires you to be pleased with the sound you are making. If the sound is something that you do not like to hear then, relax, take a deep breath and try again. This is a somber instrument that will be as patient as you need it to be.

For the most part, if you play for yourself and don’t worry about what other people think then the Initial Tone concept is something that you may not be interested in practicing. And that’s fine. You need to enjoy playing the instrument as much as possible. However, listen to some great flute players and focus on how their LONG tones sound. These are people who have practiced their Initial Tones on all the finger positions on the flute; from closed to open and high to low. The nice thing is that by working on Initial Tones, you gain greater breath control and intonation over the faster lines that will be played, and (on a completely spiritual level) a greater sense of oneness with the sounds you are performing.

Practice the Initial Tones on all your fingers. You will be grateful that you did.

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