Thursday, May 11, 2017


English: Authentic Native American FLute by Ja...
Authentic Native American FLute by James Starkey, aka Wanbli WiWohpe

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The current popularity of the replicas of the ancient Anasazi flute among members of the Native American flute community present some interesting challenges for the Native American flute (NAF) enthusiast. The main difference comes from the nature of sound production of the different flutes. Traditional NAFs owe their mouthpiece structure to the European recorder or penny whistle due to the fipple which splits the air column creating the sound. 

As the NAF developed, a two-chamber system with a small air channel directing the airflow became the standard. The Anasazi flute replicas are examples of a much earlier, less technical system of using a mouth-guided airflow, or embouchure, as the means of sound production.

The early NAFs scale and tuning systems varied. There was a biometric method based upon boring holes corresponding to distances of various points of the player's hands, as well some tunings much like the major scale of recorders and penny whistles. Sometime in the 1950s-70s the standardization of the pentatonic scale became the familiar sound that has attracted people to the flute. The relative ease of sound production and pleasing sound of the pentatonic scale ensures quick success for the musician and non-musician alike. In contrast, the Anasazi-style flutes require that a tone be created by training the mouth muscles to direct the sound across the front edge of the top of the flute. This difference is at first difficult for many people since sound is not automatically produced by simple blowing, but is produced much like blowing across a soda bottle. A bit of muscle memory and trial and error (and a significant amount of practice) is necessary before a consistent sound can be obtained.

The other difference between the two flutes is that the basic scale pattern of the Anasazi flute is a pentatonic major scale. That is somewhat of a simplification because by utilizing other fingerings a more plaintive, minor sound can also be produced, but the main harmonic basis of the flute is a pentatonic major. Although the two flutes are different in construction and playing technique, the two can indeed be played together as will be discussed in a future article.

    Mark Purtill is an educator, artist, composer, performer and author and maker of anasazi flute replicas as well as other rim blown flutes.

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