Musical Echoes 2010, Day 1

2010 May 1

I just got back from Musical Echoes in Florida a couple days ago. This was my first time there and I had a wonderful time. This trip included a lot of “firsts” for me and I thought I’d share some of the weekend with everyone.

As always, the days leading up to a trip to perform are always busy. This is more so when I’m not driving as I have to figure out how to get all my stuff to the location. The week before I shipped product, forgetting to pack my Anasazi book. Then I had to borrow a better suitcase so my shirts and coats wouldn’t get too wrinkled. They always do anyway.

The next morning when we arrived at the terminal the TSA line snaked back and forth in a landing above the ticket counter, out the door down to the next terminal and then doubled back on itself. I thought sure I was going to miss my flight. However after spending over an hour in the line I made it to the gate just as boarding started.

I had to stop at DFW, which was much easier to deal with than LAX even though I’d never been there before. They had a train that connects all the terminals like a lot of newer airports. From DFW I boarded a 50 seat jet and head to Ft. Walton Beach.

As I headed toward the baggage claim area there was my “ride”, David waiting for me. David is one of the organizers and I liked him right away. A musician himself, he had a strong southern accent and welcomed me to “LA”

“LA?”, I replied in confusion.

“Yeah, Lower Alabama, that’s what we call it down here”.

I felt right at home.

We drove by the park where the festival is held, right on the water of a channel behind a barrier island. I met the sound guy and some others. Everyone was really friendly. Then he dropped me off at my room, which was too nice for the likes of me, and said to call when I needed a ride in the morning. I grabbed a bite for dinner, read some of the book I brought and went to bed. It had been a long day.

The next morning I woke to clear, sunny skies. I grabbed some breakfast at a Waffle House (another first) and then David swung by to take me to the festival.

There I met Dave McCullen in person, we had only dealt online before (another first). Dave, for those of you that don’t know, makes amazing PVC rim blown and oblique blown flutes. He has been doing so for a long time. Second perhaps to Michael Graham Allen. I have one of his PVC Hopi flutes. He doesn’t sell flutes, but gives them to those lucky few. He works under the name Warrior Wind Flutes. While we were talking I was expressing how lame I felt since I hadn’t shipped a blanket for my table. Dave said he could get one and took off. He returned about five minutes later with a really nice blue fleece with a “Native” design on it. When I asked who let him borrow it he replied “I bought it for you”. I was so touched, but insisted that I pay him back. He took the money I gave him and promptly bought a copy of Radiant Sky from me! He later came by the both with a Ney and a Kaval. Several of us were lucky enough to get flutes by him. What a treat. I got a Ney and a Kaval and another Hopi flute and an oblique blown flute with a NAF tuning. The last two I can play, the Ney and Kaval, not yet.

Mark Holland had a booth near mine, Jeff Ball showed up later and set up next to me. Also there was Jonny Lipford and Michael Searching Bear. I’d met Jeff and Mark and Jonny before. Jeff I’ve been lucky to know since 2002 and Mark I met in 2007 I think. They are both great guys and as we all know great flute players. Jonny I meet at the last INAFA convention. He’s really coming up with his career and I hoped to get a chance to talk to him sometime during the weekend.

During the day there was a flute competition and then the performing began. All this time the nice sunny sky was becoming darker and darker, the air turned cold and rain threaten to start. I took the stage at 6 PM and as I was playing I could see lightening to the west. It started to drizzle. The sound guy, Bob, told me to keep playing while they dismantled the lights in front of the stage and the speaker stacks. I slogged on as best I could as the lightening got closer, thunder started to clap, the rain increased, and the sound guys yelled back and forth as they lowered the lights in front of me. Finally the rain got so hard it was time to shut everything down. Even with all the commotion I felt lucky. At least I got to play. All of the evening performances were canceled. Once I stopped the brave few that were still in the audience rushed for cover and we all headed out.

Performing during the lightening, thunder and rain
Photo by Cynthia McDonald

The lightening storm was amazing. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much lightening in one storm. We don’t get a lot in LA. A bunch of us went to dinner. Myself, Katy Owen, Deborah Peterson, Lynn Lipford, Michael Searching Bear and his band, and the 2nd place winner of the flute competition, Traci Conley Junge and her family, were just part of the group. While at dinner Katy told us that she’d been hit by lightening three times!

We all hoped for better weather the next day…

(After I wrote this I got a call from David. Ft. Walton Beach could be hit by the oil spill any day now. He asked that I keep them in our thoughts. Thought I’d pass it along. The more the better.)

India Trip 2010 and Learning From Other Instruments Part One

2010 March 28

Hello again, Flute Portal! It’s been a while since my last post, but a very interesting and eventful time…details to follow in successive posts. For now, I’m going to talk a little about my recent trip to India and share some creative ideas.

In early February I traveled to Varanasi, India, where I was staying in the home of my teacher, Pandit Vikash Maharaj. a maestro of the Sarod (a fretless, plucked-string instrument more akin to the guitar than the flute). I originally sought his guidance in 2001 to learn how to apply Indian melodic ideas to my guitar playing. In the last several years, however, I’ve been working on applying sarod-style techniques to bansuri playing. The process brings up some very interesting ideas that I think anyone can apply to their own studies.


When playing any instrument, there are phrases that seem to come naturally as a result of the way that the human hand interfaces with the physical tasks involved with making music on it. I think it’s a good idea to learn to make the most out the types of ideas that come naturally on your instrument. I also think it’s a good idea to try to break out of your patterns by emulating the styles of other instruments. At Berklee College of Music, we were encouraged to learn saxophone and piano riffs on guitar as a way of expanding our melodic vocabulary beyond the usual “guitaristic” types of ideas. When I started learning bansuri with Vikash Maharaj, I decided to try to apply the same concept to bansuri playing.

Sarod players use only two fingers of their left hand for playing notes on the fingerboard. This is a self-imposed limitation that actually leads to enormous creativity. While deprived of the guitar-like ability to play complex shapes that are only possible with all four fingers, sarod players compensate by developing a very complex rhythmic language enabled by a fierce right-hand picking technique. Simply put, sarod style is fewer notes played with incredible rhythm.

Lets say that you’re going to play on one string with only two fingers. For the purposes of this example, let’s ignore the fact that you can play up and down the fingerboard. Thus, you would have the open string (no fingers) and two more notes that you can add (one for each finger). How many ways can you play those 3 notes? Let’s take a look at how complex this can actually be. Try choosing 3 notes on your flute and playing through each line below, with each note given equal duration (i.e. all 8th notes). Go at whatever speed you’re comfortable with and repeat each line several times before moving on:




Notice how each rhythm feels different? Which ones sound good to you? Now try again and substitute 3 for 2 and 2 for 3. Or substitute 3 for 1. Or chop off the last note and work with 7 beat phrases (or 6 or 5 or 13 for that matter). All of a sudden the permutations multiply and endless combinations become possible – with only 3 notes! And this is really just the beginning of the kinds of patterns you can explore. Make up your own and try them!

One favorite of mine is to use the rhythmic template of 3 beats + 3 beats + 2 beats as in:



Turn them upside down and it sounds like this:



You can also try them backwards or upside down and backwards…and any other way you can think of!

The idea of all of this is not to reduce music to a math problem. The point is to use your brain to create variations of an idea, then try them and see how they sound. Most of them you will forget, but a few of them will stick and become part of your vocabulary. With practice, you will be able to improvise with these kinds of ideas in a real-time musical environment – often with very satisfying results. When you start with a simple concept and explore variations of it within an improvisational paragraph, the other musicians and the listeners can follow your thought process easily and you will have communicated something. When that energy comes back to you amplified through the creativity of the other musicians and the feelings of the audience, that’s what we live for!

I hope you find this useful and inspiring. If so, please let me know, and I’ll be sure to follow up with more. In my next post, I’ll get into applying sarod-style right-hand techniques to flute playing as well as telling some more about my trip and some exciting career developments that have taken place very recently.

free video link and “mastering”

2010 March 22


Last November, we did a trio concert at Montgomery College, Rockville, MD.  Janice and me and Lenny along on guitar.  The college tv station crew taped it and have put a thirty minute version up at YouTube.  It has some of the new material we’ve been working on in the studio, in a kind of “unplugged” version.  Here’s the link…

Let me know if the link works… thanks! 

Most folks are familiar with basic studio concepts like tracking, editing, samples, mixing, etc.  But “mastering” sometimes gets overlooked.  You can think of mastering as that last bit of polish that goes into a project.  A skilled mastering engineer will use equalizers, compressors and other tools to boost or reduce particular frequencies and otherwise tweak the final mix.  While they may not be able to fix an incompetent mix, they can take a good mix to another level.

They also have the task of bringing the dynamic levels of all the tracks on a project to a similar range so that the listener doesn’t have to continually fiddle with the volume setting on their system.  All the tracks are of a similar loudness.  The overall loudness of a CD can be boosted as well, so that the CD will “pop” when it’s played and will be as loud as other CDs on the market that are in a similar style.  I usually will put a master CD of a new project into my CD player with several other discs and hit “shuffle” to make sure about this before we send it off to the manufacturer.

There are other things that happen at the mastering session as well.  We can make final decisions and adjustments on the fade outs at the end of tracks.  We can decide how much time there will be between the tracks.  The final track order is laid out and other necessary techie info is burned onto the master disc, info the manufacturer needs to set things up right.

Some engineers get so good at this that they become known as mastering specialists.  Keith, the guy who mastered the new project I’ve been taking you through, does nothing but mastering.  Lenny (our guitar player/producer) and I sat in for the mastering session.  I mostly sat back and just enjoyed hearing Keith do his thing.  Lenny, as producer, had a few questions along the way, but we both quickly realized that the project was in very good and experienced hands.

Next time, I’ll tell you about Leonard Stevens and his duel role as musician and producer on the project.  In the meantime, those of you in the Washington, D.C. region might want to check out his powerhouse classic rock band, Big Mouth.  You can find them on Facebook.

Hope to see some of you at the Potomac Flute Festival this weekend.

good journeys


Survived Snowmageddon

2010 March 15

Shovel, shovel, shovel.  I know some of you out there are used to 30 inches of snow almost all at once, but here in the D.C.- Baltimore region, it brought things to a complete standstill for a week.  And, of course, that meant everything got backed up for a while.

For one thing, I was invited to sit on a selection panel for some arts projects funding through the National Museum of the American Indian.  The meetings were scheduled the week of the blizzards, so that got pushed into the next week or so.  There are some very cool creative music/multi-media projects going on in Indian Country, but that will have to wait for another time.

Also, we were on a deadline (self-imposed) to have the new CD project out to the manufacturer by the beginning of March.  The band is playing at Potomac Flute Festival  in Arlington, VA at the end of the month.  We’ll be doing a lot of material from the new CD, so we wanted to have it on hand.

By the time things got moving again, we were up against it.  We had tracked the rhythm section, piano, lead flutes and lead vocals at the main studio, but still had a lot of layering to do.  Working with rough mixes of these parts, our guitar player/producer, Leonard, laid in his guitar parts and some nice keyboard pads and organ bits at his basement studio.  I tracked some traditional percussion (hand drums and shakers) at my place along with a few backing flute parts and even a couple of Janice’s secondary vocals.  We finished up backing vocals and an extra flute solo at Leonard’s, then it was back to the main studio to put it all together.   Then it was on to a final mix in record time, a mastering session and out the door.  Whew!!

One of the most important decisions along the way is track order.  This probably matters less these days in an iPod world, but a lot of our listeners still like to play a CD from beginning to end, so I always put a lot of thought into what order the songs will be in to provide the most satisfying listening experience.  I like to try and make music that rewards careful listening and track order certainly contributes to that.

In the middle of all this, Janice and I came up with a design concept for the packaging which the graphics folks at the manufacturing house turned into reality.

I love the full creative control of being a proud and complete indie, but with that comes a lot of extra time commitment and leg work doing those necessary things that some labels do for some of their artists.

A number of you have responded that you enjoy the info about studio recording, so in the next week or so, I will try to get back on here and write a bit about a couple things in the process that might be less familiar to those who don’t spend much time in the studio – mastering a CD project plus the role and importance of the producer.

Wado (thanks) for reading.  Good journeys.


Reflections on Teaching Shakuhachi

2010 February 3

Reflections on Teaching Shakuhachi

Well, it’s been a while! I hope everyone’s winter is going as well as possible. My winter has been quite introspective, but busy nonetheless with teaching and flute making. So writing has been on the back burner. But now that the weather is getting bit warmer, my brain is revving up with it so I feel like writing again.

I am so thankful for the shakuhachi as it has made my life deeper and has opened me up to worlds of beauty and wonder.

It seems today that everything is so disconnected, fragmented, split apart; everything from families, to minds and bodies, to our relationship with nature and the cosmos. Ironically, the internet is creating a strange kind of unity with consciousnesses and countries and cultures that is quite fascinating to observe. With the rapid rise of popularity of the internet, most of my students now, I teach via internet. This is a kind of mixed blessing because since I live so far from the city it is very convenient for me to stay at home to teach, but much is lost in this process. Such is the way of life today. Traditionally shakuhachi is taught face to face, teacher and student together. The student listens and repeats whatever the teacher plays. This process goes on until the student learns the piece. In the old days, no notation was used and there was no explanation of how to do the techniques or difficult passages. That was up to the student to work out. It was not uncommon to take us much as 3 years to learn one piece. Today we use notation and use much talking to explain technical details. And now internet is becoming a common practice and it is really great for those who don’t live near a teacher. So anyone, anywhere in the world can learn shakuhachi now! However, there is no substituting the pleasure and benefit of actually learning face to face. On the internet (e.g. using Skype, iChat, etc.) one cannot hear and feel the actual sound or the teacher so it is difficult to really know if the proper sound is being produced. Also, it is impossible to play together since there is a slight delay in the connection and so it is impossible to feel the mind/breath flow of the teacher and piece which is important in the learning process. So to solve this problem, I record the piece on mp3 for the student and they can play on their own in their own time. But person to person is the best way to learn so I offer retreats at my home for students to come and train. If money was not an issue, I would teach students for free and build a shakuhachi monastery where people can live and learn shakuhachi for free in exchange for their personal donations or whatever they can offer. The only prerequisite is a deep desire to learn shakuhachi.

I am eternally grateful for all the students I have. They are the ones keeping the tradition of shakuhachi alive and flowing. I learn something new from every student and it deepens my relationship with the honkyoku (original pieces).

When you become a student of shakuhachi, you also become a member of an international community that is growing every day. This community extends throughout the world. It consists of hundreds of your fellow students.

The Dojo

Shakuhachi lesson at Taniguchi sensei's dojo

Shakuhachi lesson at Taniguchi sensei's dojo, Japan.

The word dojo literally means “place of the Way”. The dojo is a place of learning; a place to respect, keep clean, and to care for. A place to be made special for practicing a special art.

Shakuhachi can be taught anywhere and everywhere; in living rooms, garages, community centres, next to a running river, in your living room on the internet. It is important to remember that the place where shakuhachi is practiced becomes, at least symbolically, a dojo, a sacred space, and should be treated as such. This is part of the reality and tradition of shakuhachi. Eventually you will come to appreciate its inner value.

The student sits in front of the teacher. Traditionally in Japan, seiza (“sitting with legs folded sitting on your feet”) is often practiced. For most westerners (and modern Japanese), this is very difficult. So sitting on chairs, isuzo, is usually done. Loose fitting clothing should be worn to enhance the free flow of energy through the body. Many teachers teach strictly privately in a private room. Others practice a more open form of teaching where all the students gather in one room as the teacher teaches each student one at a time while the other students observe the lesson and wait their turn. The lesson begins with a formal bow and the expression of onegaishimasu, which means “please” or “I ask a favor” and at the end of the lesson arigatou gozaimashita, or “thank you” is said.

Without a qualified teacher to guide one in the shakuhachi path, it can be extremely frustrating and slow, and will perhaps lead one to quit before ever witnessing your art blossom. Even with a teacher, seeing progress can be quite slow. Patience is so essential. A common phrase in Japan which all teachers say to students when one undertakes a difficult path is, ganbatte kudasai, which roughly translates as “hang in there, do your ultimate best”.  So true for shakuhachi!

In the end, the study of shakuhachi is what you make it. The world of shakuhachi is deep and broad. You can tread a purely musical, intellectual road with it or you can dive into the profound realms of meditation and spiritual development. Each student maintains control of their individual training level. Shakuhachi can be enjoyed by both the player and listener but to understand the shakuhachi one must hold and blow the instrument. You must listen to the sounds of nature because it will continually provide you with different stimuli and a feeling for the traditional pieces. During the learning process, you must always strive to keep an open mind. By doing this your technique will become more diverse and take on more meaning.

One of the hardest things to overcome for the beginning student is the feeling that you are not “good” enough in playing. This is erroneous thinking. Shakuhachi is a most humbling path. It requires great patience and the ability to let go much of what we have learned in the past and open ourselves to a new and different way. We must re-learn our most basic skills of breathing, listening, sitting, and moving. This may be the most challenging and perhaps the most rewarding of experiences. Learning something of great quality never comes quickly. Just as a finely crafted piece of art takes time to create, the learning of shakuhachi requires years of study. We must develop patience with ourselves and then add to that by learning patience and understanding of others.

Until my next post,

Ganbatte kudasai!

Blowing good energy to you!

Blowing good energy to you!

Travels through China Part 3

2010 February 1

As we continued our visit to the Minheng District Museum of Shanghai, Chinese Folk Musical Instrument Exhibition Hall, I was amazed at the quality of the flutes in the collection.

Chinese Mouth Organs, Sheng and Hulu si

Chinese Mouth Organs, Sheng and Hulu si

In the photo above there are some beautiful examples of Chinese mouth organs. The ones on the back wall are multi-reed pipes called sheng and the gourd shaped one in the front has only two pipes and is called the hulu si. The hulu si has one pipe that is simply a drone and the other has finger holes that can play melody. 

Chinese transverse flutes (dizi)

Chinese transverse flutes (dizi)

Here is a beautifully carved jade dizi (Chinese transverse flute). Notice the interesting finger hole pattern in the flute to the right. At first look it doesn’t make any sense. Some Chinese players play the flute right to left instead of left to right and this finger pattern might be a strange hybrid of both.


Chinese Xun (egg shaped ocarinas)

Chinese Xun (egg shaped ocarinas)

The xun is an egg shaped ocarina made of clay. This flute does not have a fipple like a South American ocarina but instead the player has to blow across the top like on a soda bottle. This flute produces a beautiful earthy tone and employs all the fingers of the player except the pinkie on the right hand. Even both thumbs are used.

Double reeds (Suona, Guanzi)

Double reeds (Suona, Guanzi)

In this display case we have some double reeds. On the right we have a very ornate suona. This instrument has a trumpet like bell and rather a kazoo type tone.  Almost like a coloratura soprano cross bred with a mosquito. On the middle stand we have the guanzi which has sounds similar to a saxophone.  In 2002, I was involved with a concert in China where we did collaboration with a guanzi player who was studying jazz and we performed a piece in the style of George Benson’s Affirmation.


pitched bamboo pipes

pitched bamboo pipes

Aside from a comprehensive offering of woodwinds, the District Museum also has a great complement of strings and percussion. The string collection includes bowed, hammered and plucked instruments of all shapes and sizes.  Some instruments normally the dimensions of  a small banjo were the size of double basses and there was also a wide array of gongs and metallophones 

Travels through China part 2

2010 January 22

After about 45 minutes of testing and shopping at the Dunhuang musical instrument showroom I had many boxes of flutes to stuff my already bulging suitcases. My attitude towards collecting flutes is like Carrie’s attitude from ‘Sex in The City’ towards buying shoes.   We bid farewell to the factory staff and went to our next stop which was lunch at a picturesque town called Qibao meaning ‘Seven Treasures’ in Chinese. It is an ancient town established in the year 960 with water canals and winding streets. We feasted on local specialties in a noisy restaurant and strolled through the busy streets. 

Qibao - Ancient Water Village

Qibao - Ancient Water Village


After that they took me to the Minheng District Museum of Shanghai, Chinese Folk Musical Instrument Exhibition Hall 中国民族乐器陈列馆.  It certainly didn’t look like we were going to a Museum as we walked through the main entrance which was a grocery super market and took the escalators up through the department store to the 5th floor. Little did I know that we were about to visit one of the most impressive collections of Asian instruments in China.


The Minheng District Museum claims the artefacts predate the Qing Dynasty (1616 – 1911). The instruments are displayed in simple glass cases with descriptions in Chinese only.   In this display you can see a series of end blown flutes. The ones on the top row and on the bottom right are notched flutes similar to the Japanese shakuhachi. The others on the lower right are similar to the Ney or modern day Xiao. The flutes in the front are an ancient set of panpipes and the stand to the left appear to be made of animal bone.  (to be continued)


end blown flutes

end blown flutes



Ready to Rock and Roll

2010 January 18

Wow!  Didn’t realize I was away for quite so long.  I usually take some down time in January and was enjoying it so much I lost track of the days a bit.


Anyway, 2009 ended with a good couple sets at the National Museum of the American Indian on December 27 with Janice and Lenny.  Now we are getting ready to head into the studio this weekend.  Yes, we decided on a studio.  Deciding factors included a good piano in the big room, a choice of smaller rooms all of which have the same ProTools HD available as the big room, good mic selection, solid engineers and very good rates.


We are going for a very organic, “live” feel, so we’ll be tracking the rhythm section all together as much as possible and trying to avoid click tracks if we can.  There will be quite a bit of overdubbing in the vocals and flutes and, of course, those overdubs and most of the solos will be recorded after the rhythm section.


As I’ve mentioned before, I prefer to have the musicians work from lead sheets rather than writing out parts for them, unless there is something really specific that I need for them to do.  I’d rather give them the basic melody, chord changes and structure, then turn them loose to bring their own flavor to things.  Lenny Stevens (our guitar player) is producing, meaning that he is overseeing the sessions and helping with arrangements and song structure.  Lenny is from L.A. and cut his teeth sitting in with just about every band you can think of when they came through town.  He’s a great player with an understanding of lots of different styles (essential for what we do) and has previous experience as a producer.


While I usually have a pretty clear idea of what a song is about, I find it extremely useful and helpful to have a set of “producer” ears on it along with mine.  Keeps me honest about what I’m hearing, what’s working and what’s NOT working.  Having a producer and engineer also allows me to focus on making music and listening instead of worrying about technical stuff and scheduling.


Anyway, we’re pretty much ready to rock and roll.  Will keep you posted.  We’ve been trying out some of the new songs in live shows and I hope to get some samples up here soon so you can check them out.  Might have some session photos and videos along the way, too.

btw – some of you have asked for more recommended listening.  The closer I get to recording a new project, the less I listen to other music (especially flute music) so I can stay focused on what these songs need to be.  So this isn’t really a flute or even world music relevant recommendation, but if you like the “Black Crows”, check out the DVD “Brothers of a Feather”.

Will be back sooner next time…

Ron W

Travels Through China Part 1.

2009 December 14
The Oriental Angels

The Oriental Angels

In 2007, I had the privilege of playing a concert at the recently relocated and beautifully renovated historic Shanghai Concert Hall. Yes, I did say relocated, as the Shanghai local government spent six million dollars to jog the hall over two blocks. This concert hall was in the 1979 documentary Mao to Mozart with violinist Isaac Stern. Our performance was part of the Shanghai International Spring Music Festival and featured my band along with The Oriental Angels, which is a traditional classical instrumental music group chosen from the top female virtuosos from across China. They play the Chinese erhu (2 string violin) the dizi (6 holed bamboo flute) yangqin (hammered dulcimer) zheng (21 string zither) and the pipa (4 string lute). Aside from concertizing, the Angels all teach music in either the Central or Shanghai Conservatories.

I stayed a week after the show to do some sightseeing. As I am always looking for new instruments, I asked my promoter if they could take me to a musical instrument factory. They obliged me and took me to The Dunhuang Musical Instrument Co., Ltd. makers of traditional Chinese instruments in Fengxian District of Shanghai.

Dunhuang makes a wide range of instruments including traditional strings (guzheng, yangqin, pipa, erhu etc.), woodwinds (dizi, bawu, xiao, hulusi etc.) and percussion. For me as a flute enthusiast, it was rather like Charlie finding the gold ticket to Willy Wonka’s Chocolate factory.

We were met by the shop foreman Mr. Zhao Jin-gua and taken to the woodwind workshop upstairs. The craftsmen at the factory had all seen my concert the night before and said they really enjoyed it, however, those flutes I played by their competitor flute makers in Northern China just wouldn’t do. I was very impressed that they were not only producing old designs but also developing new ones like flutes with a curved headjoints similar to the silver bass flute. It was here that I got to try the world’s biggest Chinese dizi flute. It produced a very low quiet tone. Since it requires three people to operate it is not really practical for the road.

World's biggest Chinese Dizi Bamboo flute

World's biggest Chinese Dizi Bamboo flute

After the visit with the flute makers I went downstairs to the showroom to see the finished products. When I walked though the door a very determined young lady was in the midst of negotiating full tilt with the slightly annoyed salesman to get a bigger discount on a guzheng (Chinese zither). She was talking up a storm and kept saying she travelled a long way and spent many hours on the train to get there. The salesman then looked up at me and smiled and said, “He came all the way from Canada, so what is your point”? The storm cleared up and she quietly retreated to the corner to think of a restructured battle plan.

The Flute and Global Fusion

2009 December 13

In his comment on my first post, Paul Van Heuklom said, “Your thoughts and experience with the fusion and global aspects of music and flute playing are much appreciated and welcomed. I, for one, am very interested in ideas about transcending particular genres, conventions, and cultures–without losing sight of them in the process.” Thanks, Paul, that’s where I’m going to begin. What is our role as a flute player in a fusion context, and how can we best fill it? I think in order answer to that question, we should begin by asking two more questions. “What features do most styles of music have in common?” And “What are the distinguishing factors that define any given style of music?”
Let’s start with the common elements. We play flute, so melody is the obvious starting point. Then there’s harmonic environment (chord changes, modal, or dronal), rhythm (in or out of time, swing or straight feel, etc.), dynamic range (loud and soft), and texture and tone quality. Each of these broad categories has its own qualities of ebb and flow, yin and yang, tension and release, branching off into infinite variations. As a flute player playing “global” music we should start by understanding the basic elements of music itself.
There’s an obvious relationship between melody and harmonic environment. For example, if the harmony is a C major chord, we know that the “resting” or consonant notes in a melody will be the chord tones C, E, and G. Adding non-chord tones will “spice up the soup” in accordance with their individual properties. This has nothing to do with musical style. Somehow, we all perceive those notes in that way. Likewise, a loud bass tone makes us want to move our body. Think about it; if you hear a loud bass tone in the middle of the jungle, it means that something really big and close to you is moving around—get ready to run! Thus, we should take into consideration that the human organism is equipped with a set of perceptual equipment that fundamentally characterizes the way we interact with the world. Varying musical styles stimulate subtle (or not-so-subtle) differences in what we perceive, but they don’t alter the fact that we have ears connected to a brain that interprets information according to its evolutionary design. Therefore, knowledge of the fundamentals of music and how they interact with human cognition is paramount.

A quote from Bruce Lee:

“I hope martial artists are more interested in the root of martial arts and not the different decorative branches, flowers, or leaves. It is futile to argue as to which single leaf, which design of branches, or which single flower you like; when you understand the root, you understand all its blossoming.”

With regard to playing within any given style of music, we must be familiar with the specific features of that style. In his book, “This is Your Brain on Music: the Science of a Human Obsession”, Daniel J. Levinton describes something called a “schema”, which is a mental model that your brain uses to identify and categorize. Imagine flipping through the radio looking for something to listen to. If you hear a ride cymbal and walking bass with a piano solo, your brain says “jazz”. People can argue endlessly about what jazz is or isn’t, but generally speaking, we all know it when we hear it. That’s because we have a schema in our brain for “jazz”. This accounts for the spark of recognition we experience when we hear something new, but familiar. If the music is totally unusual from the listener’s standpoint, they have a hard time understanding it, because there is no schema to help them interpret it. But if the music is too familiar and predictable, it’s boring. One of the challenges of being an artist is to provide that recognition, the activation of the schema, without being boring or predictable. Familiar with a twist is a good formula for making captivating music.
What this means if we want to “transcend a genre without losing sight of it” is that we need to activate the schema for that genre in the listener while using our knowledge of the fundamentals of music to provide a different context or element that works harmoniously with the essentials of the style. For example, many traditional modal or dronal styles of music use the minor pentatonic scale (C Eb F G Bb in the key of C). If you were to play a traditional melody in that scale, then it would activate the schema associated with it. What would happen, though, if you put different chords behind that melody, besides C minor? C sus, F minor 9, F sus, Eb major 6, Ab major 7, Bb sus, and Db major 7 #11 will all change the way you hear the C minor pentatonic scale, even though the melody itself is unchanged from its traditional form. Thus, the same melody will activate the schema for its tradition, while the new chords simultaneously expand on it in a way that works. This is a very simple example, but the general principle can be extrapolated and applied to other specifics.
It gets more complicated in real-world practice. Sometimes fusion leads to confusion. I could speak the most eloquent poetry on the nature of the soul, but if you don’t understand my language, it just sounds like nonsense. You can’t just throw an Indian sitarist on a stage with an African drummer, a jazz piano player, a techno DJ, a mariachi, and a Bulgarian women’s choir and expect it to work without effort. I’ve been in situations like that, and no one comes away happy with the result. That’s why in my opinion, it really helps to make the effort to truly understand other styles of music.
It reminds me of when Arturo Sandoval came to do a master class when I was at Berklee. He’s a trumpet virtuoso, but also plays great jazz piano. I asked him, “How do you approach being a multi-instrumentalist?” His answer was so simple and true. “If you want to play two, practice twice.”