Part of the appeal of Native American flute is not having to know a lot of music theory to make music that sounds good. If you stick to the base pentatonic minor scale of the instrument, all the notes go together and you can tootle away to your heart’s content. But let’s face it, playing the same five (or six with the octave) notes can get boring after a while, so you might want to learn some of the other notes available, especially if you have a 6-hole flute, which I have (#inigomontoya). And if you’re going to interact with other musicians, you’re going to have to use some kind of notation system, either to write down what you’ve created or to read what others have created and be able to play it on your flute.
In this article, I’m going to list all the notes I’ve discovered so far on my NAF. To do that, I have to give those notes a name, and those names have to fit within a larger notation system. There are actually a number of choices available with advantages and disadvantages and reasons why you might want to choose one over the alternatives. The systems can largely be derived by answering a single question: what should I call the lowest note on my flute? Believe it or not, there is not a single correct answer!
- Nakai tablature – in this system, the low note is called F# and the “tab” is really standard music notation in the key signature of F# Dorian (same as E major). Now on the surface, this seems like a really bizarre choice. This key signature is not all that common, especially for beginning musicians, it still needs ledger lines for the upper range of the instrument, and is not a natural fit for playing with others. However, if you recognize that F# is one of the most popular keys for NAF, what this system lets you do is learn the concert pitches for the fingerings of your F# NAF. If you see a note on the lowest space of the staff, you know that is f#, you cover all the holes on the flute, and blow an f#. If you see a note on the next space up, you know that is an ‘a’, you uncover the bottom hole, and blow an ‘a’. And so on. (And really you don’t even have to know the names. You just have to equate notes on the staff with a specific fingering on your NAF.)
Now what can you do with this knowledge? Well, you could learn just a little more about key signatures, and then you could then play from *any* standard notation chart, regardless of the key signature, and play the correct concert pitches on your F# NAF. Effectively, you would be treating the F# NAF as a “non transposing” instrument.
But, and this is a rather big “but”, Nakai tab is specifically designed as a *transposing* system. So no matter what the key of your instrument, if you see the note on the bottom space, you think “all holes covered” and play the note. With all due respect to Mr. Nakai, you just lost me. If you’re designing a transposing system anyway, why on Earth use F# Dorian as the basis of it? There is a much simpler alternative which I will present shortly.
- Scott August Number Tab – in this system, the low note is called by the number “1” with other notes given higher numbers according to the interval between that note and the low note. In this sense, it has a lot in common with the Nashville number system, so if you were playing with a guitarist familiar with NNS, you could communicate easily by thinking intervallically. The disadvantage is that there isn’t much music available in Number Tab so you have to write it out yourself if you have a chart in another system like Nakai tab or standard notation.
- Standard notation/low note is “C” – what if you say “all holes covered” is C? This is kind of a combination of the previous two systems. If you happen to be holding a NAF in the key of C, you gain the ability to play at concert pitch from any chart. Otherwise, you gain the simplicity of the transposing system to think intervallicaly from the C root note regardless of the key signature of the chart you’re reading. The disadvantage is that if you have a standard tuned NAF, the base key signature is either going to be Eb (if you’re thinking in natural minor, or Aeolian) or Bb (if you’re thinking in Dorian mode like Nakai tab), neither of which is that much simpler than Nakai tab. But if you happen to have a NAF in *diatonic tuning*, then this system suddenly makes a lot more sense as the base key signature is then C, and what could be simpler than that? (I will probably be exploring this option in more detail at a later date.)
- Standard notation/low note is “A” – what if you have a standard tuned NAF, you want to read from standard notation charts, and you want the base key signature to be C? You end up with this system. If you happen to be holding a NAF in the key of A, you gain the ability to play at concert pitch from any chart. Otherwise, you still gain the simplicity of the transposing system to think intervallicaly, regardless of the key signature of the chart you’re reading, but now you’re thinking intervallically from a C root note which is the note with the bottom hole open. This does have the disadvantage that the upper range is limited even greater than the NAF’s already limited range. If you’re lucky, you will have a full C-to-C chromatic octave, but you may not have that top C depending on the instrument.
But the big advantage of this system, and the reason I’m going to be focusing on it, is that you have access to the vast array of charts written for all kinds of other instruments, and if you pick the correct key of NAF, you will be playing at concert pitch with those other instruments. For example, if you have an NAF in the key of A, you can read charts for any C instrument like flute, piano, recorder, etc. If you have a G NAF (which I have, says Inigo again), you can read charts for any Bb instrument like trumpet, soprano/tenor saxophone, and clarinet. An NAF in the key of C can read from Eb charts like alto saxophone, and a D NAF can read from F horn charts.
I have a lot of jazz charts and play-along books many of which have parts in C, Bb, and Eb. So with just three flutes in A, G, and C, I will have access to lots and lots of music.
To be fair, this advantage could also be gained with the previous system which opens an interesting possibility if you a C NAF. If you treat the bottom hole as C (as #3 above), you could read off C instrument charts, but if you treat the second hold as C (as #4 here), you could read off Eb Instrument charts – with the same flute. Mind blowing.
With that very long introduction, here are all the notes I’ve discovered on my flute: (The diagrams here are taken from SNAFT)
- A – <xxx|xxx — all fingers down
- A#/Bb – <xxx|xxq – crack the bottom hole.
This note is very hard to hit cleanly on its own. It is easier to bend up from A or down from B
- B – <xxx|xxh – half-hole the bottom hole.
Also hard to hit cleanly on its own but possible. It helps not to have “too much finger” on the flute when covering the right hand holes so you have less movement to get to the half hole. Finding the right position is a matter of practice and muscle memory. Brent Haines has a good guide to finding it:
- C – <xxx|xxo – open the bottom hole.
- C#/Db – <xxx|xox – right hand middle finger up.
The fact that this note, the major third up from the lowest note, is just as easy to play as the minor third, and as we’ll see shortly, the F# and G# notes are also easily accessible, means that it is quite doable to play in the major key of the bottom note of the NAF. To say that the 6-hole NAF is “tuned to pentatonic minor” is, at best, unnecessarily limiting, and is in a sense, flat out wrong.
- D – <xxx|xoo – open the bottom two holes
- Eb/D# – <xxx|oxo – right hand middle finger down.
There’s a pattern forming here and it works all the way up the first octave. Whenever you have the top left hand holes covered and want to go a half step down, just skip a hole. Works for Db, Eb, F#b(uh, F), G#b(uh, G).
- E – <xxx|ooo – right hand all up
- F – <xxo|xoo – see Eb above, this is kind of F-sharp-flat.
Note this is the first note that has the third hole open. (Or is it the sixth hole? This is the “extra” hole that a 5-hole NAF doesn’t have.)
- F#/Gb- <xxo|ooo – C-D-E-F#-G# – pentatonic whole-tone scale?
There’s the open third hole again meaning this fingering is not available on a 5-hole NAF
- G – <xox|ooo –
having a main scale note be a split fingering seems a little odd but makes sense considering G# below
- (alternate)Gb – <xox|xoo – same as F# of course, but I’m backing up here as this note makes more sense coming down from G. Or as a D-F# trill
- (alternate)Gbb – <xox|xxo – same as F of course, but makes more sense coming down from G and Gb. Or as a C-F trill.
- (alternate)G – <oxx|ooo – also G but a bit sharp compared to the primary
- (alternate)F# – <oxx|xoo – related to the alternate G, this is pretty much in tune compared to the primary
- G#/Ab- <xoo|ooo – goes back to my c# comment.
Having F# and G# as simple fingerings (not cross fingered or half-holed) goes against calling this a pentatonic minor instrument.
- high A – <oox|ooo – octave up from the bottom hole
having the top hole being open means this is really the start of the second register and things get weird from here
- (alternate)high “Bb” – <ooo|ooo – listing this first as it seems natural with all holes open, but it doesn’t quite work. This is quite a bit flatter than the primary Bb listed next, almost a quarter tone between A and Bb really, but can be pushed up to Bb.
- high Bb/A# – <oxx|xxx – top hole open
since the bottom Bb note is so hard to hit and “unstable”, it’s good that this one is easy and solid
- high B – <oxx|xxo –
as is this
- high C – <oxx|xho –
not <oox|xxo which is the published fingering but doesn’t work on my flute. It makes more sense coming up from B anyway.