Flutes

First Peoples also have created a wide variety of wind instruments.  These include everything from blowing through a blade of grass between the thumbs to complex end-blown flutes and occasional transverse flutes.  Whistles usually refer to instruments that produce only one or two pitches for each hollow shaft.  For example, among Siouan communities and other cultures who practise the Thirst or Sun Dance ceremonies, each male dancer customarily wears an eagle-bone whistle around his neck.  He then blows into this whistle to encourage the musicians and to increase his stamina at certain points in the ceremonies.  The Siouan peoples also have crafted long tubes of ash into whistles that produce one sharp note (Hassrick 1964: 146).  The Elk Dreamer or the Dreamer of the Double Woman often carry these whistles.

People also use whistles in conjunction with drums, as this account of the medicine practice of Bear Hat describes:

Bear Hat’s wife asked for seven men and seven married women still without child, all singers with good voices.  The men sat in a row toward the centre of the lodge, facing north and the women sat behind them.  The man sitting at the head took Bear Hat’s yellow-painted drum with the curlew picture drawn on it.  Taking the yellow-painted drum from the lead singer, Bear Hat’s wife sat by the doorway, beating very fast on the drum and blowing on her yellow-painted whistle four quick, loud whistles at a time.  After four quick beats on the drum, she began to beat slowly on the rim, singing her song with no words.

The men and women singers who had never heard this song before, learned it quickly.  She returned the drum to the lead singers, and they all sang as one voice.  The women especially sang with skilled voices.  Spreading out her robe with her arms, she made as if she were flapping wings, all the while blowing her whistle.  Then she let the whistle drop from her mouth, and she put words to her song:  “Man, sit up. Man, sit up” (Hungry Wolf 1977: 178).

Catlin said people fashioned a war-whistle six or nine inches long that they invariably made out of a deer or turkey’s leg bone.  A chief or leader would carry these into battle suspended from his neck.  The war-whistle sounded two notes.  From one end, a shrill note was a signal for battle. From the other end, a softer tone marked a retreat (1844/1965: 242).

The Siouan communities referred to their end-blown multi-toned aerophones as the big twisted flute.  Only men who had dreamed of the bison could make these.  The flute maker took grooved cedar halves, glued them together and bound them with thin rawhide lashings.  The flute had five finger holes and “an air vent covered with an adjustable block for changing pitch in the shape of a headless horse” (Hassrick 1964: 146).  The dreamers painted each orifice red.  Such flutes were ineffective if the makers were not true bison dreamers.

Catlin described this external-block end-blown Plains flute as the “deer-skin flute, Winnebago courting flute, or Tsal-eet-quash-to” (1844/1965: 242).  He said it could have four or six finger holes, or sometimes only three.

Richard Payne provided a detailed description about the making of such a flute:

The Plains flute can be made of any tubular material of suitable bore and rigidity, or of any solid material that can be worked to tubular dimensions. . . . [This includes] metal and plastic pipe, . . . acrylic tubing, cane, reeds, stalks, and various native and exotic woods.  . . . One selects a wood that is soft, straight grained and likely to split predictably along the grain.  Juniper (“native red cedar”) meets these specifications very well.  . . . Though the wood of native juniper is soft, fragile, knotty and swells with moisture (hygroscopic) when finished it is enduring, resistant to cracking or deterioration and improves in appearance with age. . . .

If one desires to return to “the old way,” they will select a suitably straight limb of  juniper cut to measure the distance from armpit (axilla) to outstretched fingers.  The bore of the flute is as the inserted index finger and the sound edge is marked at the elbow crease (anticubital fold).  The length of the upper air chamber is not critical, but should not exceed comfortable stretching of the arm necessary to cover the tone holes.

For a more accurately proportioned traditional tenor Plains flute . . ., a billet of wood 23 inches in length and 1½ inches square is prepared and carefully split using a large blade gently tapped along the grain.  Both of the divided halves are then troughed with a knife or chisel to a half circle of approximately seven-eighths inch diameter, leaving an uncut area approximately one-half inch in length 16 inches from the distal end.  . . . After removing the waster to a smooth and symmetrical surface, the two halves are repositioned in precise apposition so that the bore will be perfectly round with no intruding edges.  Strong water-resistant glue (epoxy) is used to fix the halves together in an air-tight union.  The window and air vent are carved on either end of the barrier and the tone holes and wind holes are bored or burned in the tone chamber.  Some prefer to perform these steps prior to rejoining the segments.  The fipple edge of the window is bevelled downward at an angle of approximately 20 degrees, which is more easily accomplished prior to joining the halves.  Carving the roost is most simply done with a flat knife, perhaps finishing with a flat file – making every effort to precisely smooth and plane this platform flat so the apposition of bird, nest, and roost will be tight.

Regulation of airflow through the flute is important.  . . . In general, the longer the air chamber the slower the response, but the greater waver of the sound due to increased compressibility of the larger air volume.  . . . The size of the mouth hole (embouchure) (a quarter inch in diameter) is calculated to slightly impede inflow of air, as an additional aid in producing the multiphonic “warble” on the tonic tone.

Dimensions of the window produce variable effects: a narrow window favors a pure tone with reduced harmonics, while widening the window favors warmer and more diffuse tones.  Shortening of the window favors upper harmonics but muffles the tone; lengthening improves the lower register.  More breath is expended as the area of the window is increased.  . . . Particularly important in configuration of the roost, nest and baffle bottom is a close fit to avoid the waste and noise of air leaks.  . . . With slight breath impedance and very close tolerances to the efficiency of airflow, it is possible to accomplish a Plains flute capable of supporting cyclic breathing particularly if the mouth hole is sufficiently narrowed.  Though the surfaces of the airway should be sealed to prevent sealing of the wood, some element of absorption is best allowed on the sound edge to prevent collection of moisture droplets. . . .

The sound edge is usually undercut downward to provide a rather acute edge.  . . . The baffle plate (nest) may be made of a variety of materials, including paper, thin wood, and various metals cut to proper size and thickness.  . . . Thickness of the nest might vary according to the size of the air vent and window, though generally would approximate 20 gauge (12/1000 inch.) in thickness.  Greater heights would require more breath air and tend to direct the air stream too high over the fipple edge.  . . . The “step” is the relationship between the emerging air blade and the fipple edge.  If the step is too small (strikes too high) the sound is pure and sweet but lacks depth; if too big the sound is breathy and diffused, lacks focus, and tends to jump the octave too easily.  . . .The general form of the baffle (which no matter its depiction is commonly called the “bird”) served at one time to identify the flute maker, his dreams, or perhaps his tribe; though more recently tends to exhibit variable artistic creations.  . . . One has the choice of cutting an indentation or flue in the distal end of the bird (channelling) to provide a shield to the lateral aspects of the window.  Such projections, comparable to the ears of an organ pipe, serve to funnel the air stream toward the sound edge and also to protect it from external air current.  This funnelling of the air stream tends to amplify the sound while giving it a somewhat vigorous edge, important in enhancing the boisterous multiphonic warble on the tonic note. . . .

Uniformity and smoothing of the interior bore, as well as thickness of the tone chamber wall, is of particular importance in locating tone holes in anticipation of a predictable scale as well as influencing resonance and response to tone shading.  Opinion varies as to the extent to which the interior walls of the bore should be sealed.  . . . Dipping the flute in hot beeswax, usually thinned with mineral oil, thinned epoxy solution, or various varnishes, lacquers, or oils, will seal both interior and exterior of the instrument. . . .

Tone-hole size is of some importance as small holes are restrictive in their venting and very large ones are difficult to efficiently cover.  Properly sized tone holes depend to some extent on the size of the player’s finger pads, but should be of sufficient size to allow adequate shading necessary to produce semitones.  One can vary size and spacing of tone holes.  . . . Wind holes are . . . optional, largely adding to the appearance of the flute and allowing the addition of distal appendages of decorative or totemic nature (Payne 1999: 42 – 48).

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