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Engineer adds American Indian flute to musical library

  • Published
  • By Mike Wallace
  • 88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
Base engineer Larry Collins' love of music goes back at least to when he was a sixth grader in San Diego. The lead engineer with the Defense Enterprise Accounting Management System at Headquarters Air Force Materiel Command said it was then that he learned to play the clarinet, something he did through high school and into college.

He put his musical career on hold for about 20 years during which he worked for the Navy, then a contractor, and later here, and at the same time raised a family. Learning of the civic orchestras of Kettering and Centerville, he began playing his clarinet in both and added the bass clarinet, oboe and flute to his musical instrument repertoire.

"It was like falling off a bike," he said. "It came back quickly."

He said that playing in both orchestras, he performs about "40 times a year at festivals, Fourth of July celebrations and other events."

"There are a variety of people in the orchestras," Mr. Collins said. "Some are just out of college, but the majority of people are retired."

Last summer, he decided to add one more instrument to his repertoire. Mr. Collins said he saw an announcement of lessons in American Indian flute music. Having heard and liked the sounds of this kind of flute in movies, he decided to try it, and he's been playing ever since.

The American Indian flute is unique among other flutes of the world because it has two air chambers: one to blow into and the other for fingering to create different notes. A narrow passageway near the top of the barrier between the two chambers connects them, and a block, usually ornately carved, tied to the flute by string or rawhide forms the upper wall of the air passageway.

When one blows into the American Indian flute's mouthpiece, the air goes into the first chamber, then up and through the small passageway and into the music chamber. As in any woodwind instrument, the sound is dependent upon the size of the chamber, the position of the holes and, to some degree, the type of material used to make the instrument. The sound made is full, mellow and haunting, something that Mr. Collins said is what attracted him to want to play it.

John DeBoer, a musician and storyteller who has more than 30 years of experience playing American Indian flutes, gave Mr. Collins' lessons in playing the Native American flute. Mr. DeBoer performed most recently on base at the American Indian/Alaskan Native cultural event. He said that sometimes when he played that birds would answer him. Mr. DeBoer added that someone doesn't play this type of flute to written music, but rather plays what he feels.

Mr. Collins said that having to read music was not necessary to play the American Indian flute since a person could easily and quickly learn to express himself with it. Mastering it is something else, however, and requires years of playing.

He explained that before Europeans settled in North America, American Indians made their flutes' dimensions and placements of holes using their hands as guides. The resulting sounds made by these older flutes didn't necessarily match notes in Western music scales. Today's American Indian flutes are tuned electronically to scales that match those of pianos.

It's possible to play in only one octave and one musical key, as opposed to seven-and-a-half octaves and all 12 keys on a piano, on each American Indian flute.

For the flute player, this means that in order to play songs in different keys, he must have different flutes. And to play in, for example, high D and in low D, the player must have two flutes tuned for the different octaves. Thus, many "flute addicts," as they call themselves, own numerous American Indian flutes. Mr. Collins has six, and at least one of them took more than a year to get after he ordered it. Many of the American Indian flutes today are made by craftsmen, using traditional hand tools. And while older flutes were made of cedar, contemporary flutes may be made of exotic hardwoods, softwoods or combinations.

A Bellbrook resident, Mr. Collins often plays his flutes at church to accompany his wife's gospel singing.

"I find hymns that are written in one octave," he said. "The church has nice acoustics, and the Native American flutes sound better there than silver flutes."

Besides playing at church, Mr. Collins also takes part in John DeBoer's monthly "flute circle" at Dayton's SunWatch Village.

"About 25 people come to the flute circle," Mr. Collins said. "Some are Native Americans. One is a schoolteacher with a classical music background. Anyone who's interested in Native American flutes is welcome."

People attend the circle to learn how to improve their playing and to hear each other play.
So with his background in orchestra music and experience playing in a flute circle and in church, what does Mr. Collins enjoy the most?

"I like to go out in my backyard or sit in the woods, especially when it's cool, and I play my flute," he said. "Normally it's played individually, not in a structured setting. Most Native Americans consider the flute a spiritual instrument to play for your own peace of mind. It's nice to sit around and try to imitate the sounds you hear. It's something you can do until you die."