Discovering the NAF: Part 1

This is the first article in a series on the Native American Flute. In this installment, I’ll discuss the research and acquisition of my first “real” NAF. In later articles, I’ll go into details on my planned approach to this instrument and what I’ve discovered about it.

Before I start, let me say that will be using the term NAF in its generic sense. Technically, a flute is NAF only if made by a true Native American. All others are “Native American style” flutes, or NASF. “A rose by any other name” and all, NAF is just fine to me.

I’m always on the lookout for new instruments and methods of musical expression. “The journey is the destination” and I have no plans to stop. The NAF is my newest obsession and the first since restarting this blog (sort of – I need to talk about ocarinas soon also), so I thought it would be fun and possibly instructive to record my learning “in real time”.

Without further ado, let’s go ahead and present the instrument (although these cell phone pics really don’t do it justice):

More photos available on Photobucket.

This is a “mid G” flute in standard pentatonic minor tuning. The mouthpiece and main body are quilted maple with sapele for the middle and end, and blackwood bands in between. The “stylize” eagle fetish is also maple. The flute maker is David O’Neal who makes his flutes in Raleigh, NC and sells under the name Rising Moon Flutes.

I chose this after a lot of Internet research on places like The Flute Portal (which is unfortunately not accepting new members right now due to some technical issues). David’s name kept coming up as a well respected maker of NAFs and turns out he lives only 25 miles from me. I sent him an email asking a few questions and long-story-short, he invited me to his home to sample his flutes. In the email discussions, I noted that I was most interested in the key of “mid G” (lowest note is G4, the G above middle C on a piano). This is a common “first NAF key” and from sound samples, it seemed to have the best balance of tone (not too muddy, not too shrill) and responsiveness. (I have other reasons that will be discussed in a later article).

When I arrived, David had a display of perhaps a dozen G4 flutes, from simply adorned softwoods like cypress and wormy maple, to moderately adorned hardwoods like curly maple, quilted maple, sapele, and walnut (as well as combinations of these), to truly ornate flutes from exotic woods like madrone burl with inlaid ribbons of wood and stone. This last group showcased David’s woodworking skill and were truly stunning in their beauty. They could be proudly displayed as pure art pieces, and yet they sounded and played just as good as they looked.

How to choose? David invited me to play down the line and see what I thought. As I went, I was trying to discern any differences in playability and responsiveness, accuracy of tuning, and tone.

There was very little difference in playability across all the flutes. Finger hole placement and sizing were basically identical. There were slight weight differences due to the different woods, but not enough to be a deciding factor. Responsiveness was, again, very close across the collection. There were very slight differences in how easy the bottom note was to speak and how hard it could be “pushed” before higher overtones starting creeping in to the sound.

Tuning was very consistent and accurate. I pulled out my iPhone with the tuner in the Guitar Toolkit app to check myself and found that a medium breath pressure kept the bottom octave spot on. The top note (step above the octave) and one of the cross-fingered notes was a tad sharp but easily brought down with a little less breath. (I’ll talk more about fingerings and tuning in a later article.) Effective range is a ninth (two notes above the octave), though I feel like there is another note or two hiding up there for “special effects”.

Tonally, the differences were also pretty subtle. The softwoods were slightly airier and less focused than the hardwoods, and I would not have left disappointed with one of them, but I did prefer the sound of the hardwoods. Honestly, I think I would have been happy with any of them, but having the chance to play them all back-to-back with careful listening, there were subtle timbre differences. In the end, I picked the maple/sapele as being a tad bit more focused than the all sapele and a tad bit sweeter on the high end than the walnuts. But it really was splitting hairs by that point.

Finally, we swapped out the fetish from a fancier black-framed stone to the simpler maple eagle (among other choices) and selected a black leather tie to complete the aesthetic choices.

Having sealed the deal, I was also able to sample a few other keys just for funsies. The F#s were also very nice, and I can see why they are popular for solo play. The finger spacing and weight was still very comfortable and the slightly mellower tone was not unwelcome, but it’s just not a key that “plays well with others” (more on that in a future article). D was mellower still, but probably the limit of what I could comfortably play for any length of time. The C was probably beyond what I’d want to deal with in terms of finger spacing and weight, kinda like the tenor recorder I enjoyed for a few years but eventually re-homed.

Overall, I spent about 45 minutes from walking in the door to walking out with my new flute. Along the way, I learned quite a bit, and just had a great experience. I would definitely recommend Rising Moon Flutes to anyone interested in getting a Native American flute, from beginning players to professional musicians, or even non-playing art lovers, though I doubt the latter group could remain non-players for long.

Feel free to leave a comment if there are areas you’d like me to discuss in upcoming articles or if you happen to have pointers that might aid me in my journey of discovery.

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