The Song of the Flute


The tunes were soft and gentle, like rainfall or the wind. He heard them at dusk, when fire turned the sky a golden yellow.

When John Rainer was a young boy in Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, one of his favorite parts of the day was dusk. Like most young Indian children, John would run and play and do chores all day long, with an exuberance typical of those who grow up with space to roam and air to breathe. But at the end of the day, when golden fire filled the horizon, John would pause and listen. He would always hear the song of the flute.

“It was a peaceful, relaxed melody,” John recalls. “The old man would sit near the river half a mile from town and play his tunes. He believed the music would travel with the water. You couldn’t see him, but you could always hear his tunes.” It was a time for rest from the day’s labor, a time of repose and contemplation, a time during which a love for music was born in John’s heart.

John grew up and moved to the city. He lived in a comfortable brick home in a suburb of Orem, Utah, with his wife and children. And every evening, just at dusk, he would take his flute—one he made himself—and play a melody—one he wrote himself—to his family. His neighbors didn’t always see John, but they could usually hear his songs. When they did, the whole world seemed to pause, breathe deeply, then sigh in contentment.

“Playing the flute is my way of sharing something my ancestors shared with me,” John said.

Over the years, John taught a lot of students about Indian flute music. Tilda Suen, from Toadlena, New Mexico, remembers standing in front of a class of about 30 Brigham Young University students. Using simple fingering patterns, she played an original composition for her classmates. Then Brother Rainer led the entire group in a discussion about the melody.

“Trying to compose on the flute is fascinating,” Tilda recalls. “It’s hard to get your own expression and style into your song. But Brother Rainer taught us something that helped. He wanted us to convey strong feelings in our music, things like love, our feelings about the Church, our emotions.” Others also played their compositions for the class, then offered supportive comments.

“We learned about improvisations,” explained Lance Silverhorn of Anadarko, Oklahoma. “We arranged the notes we knew to come up with a song, practicing fingering and basic sounds. Later, we’d work out more complicated melodies on our own.”

For John Rainer, teaching a class was another means of sharing his love for the art of his ancestors—and also a means of preserving a skill that to them was interwoven in the fabric of everyday life.

“Native American flute playing was a dying art 15 years ago,” he said. “But now it’s regaining popularity throughout the country, as native performers like Commanche Doc Tate Nevaquaya of Norman, Oklahoma, record traditional songs and travel the country explaining them.” Brother Rainer invited Doc Tate to BYU several years ago and learned a lot from him about how to make flutes and play them. Through his own study, John also amassed a personal knowledge about the role of the flute in Indian society, a knowledge he continues passing on to others.

“I try to help people understand the function of the flute as it was and as it is today,” he said. It is a story of a rich heritage.

Some songs were most personal and were played only for sacred occasions. Some tribes treated songs as actual property—another person could not perform them without permission, payment, or proof they were given to him as a gift. In the Northern and Southern Plains, songs could be rented or leased.

Although many people think of the voice as the primary means of producing a melody in Indian society, the flute and whistle were also used.

Flutes were used in religious ceremonies, to mark events of importance to the community, as a means of self-expression, as a greeting to strangers, as a war signal, to announce the arrival of VIPs, and often in courting.

“Courting was not as overt as it is in modern society. A young man with feelings for a young lady could have a flute made or purchase a song and play it, hoping the young woman would respond. In some cultures, if she was impressed she would tie a feather in his pony’s tail. But they would not go walking around hand in hand.

“The Apaches had a very strict moral code. For them a melody was a prayer. They believed the flute player, to offer an effective prayer, had to be totally clean.

“The philosophy of the people was that there was life in everything, animate or inanimate. Taking that into consideration, they had respect for all life around them. So when the flute maker went out to select his wood, he did so in a religious context. He would try to understand the area from which his wood would come.

“If you have strong feelings and want to compose a song, it’s almost like putting clothes on a feeling. As Latter-day Saints we can use the flute to convey feelings about our Heavenly Father, our testimony, and our love for the gospel and our fellowman. At first your songs will be rough, but expect that. Practice each day and you will find it becomes part of your means of expression.”

One of the non-Lamanites who studied with Brother Rainer at BYU was Ingrid Jensen of Payson, Utah, who had exposure to European classical music in her home. One day in class she interrupted with a question, wondering how the trill so common in native American music is produced. Brother Rainer, whose favorite European composers include Bach, Berlioz, and Mozart, demonstrated the technique. Then he and Ingrid discussed diatonic scales and compared the baroque period’s augmented fourth interval with styles traditional in Navajo hymns.

Not everyone John talks to about flutes is so musically inclined. “Very few of the students in the flute-making class had any musical training when we started,” explained Katherine Kokenes of Mililani Town, Hawaii. “We came to the class because we wanted to build our own flutes and learn to play them. Once our first flute was made, he taught us simple tunes like ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb,’ and we practiced them over and over until we got used to them.”

Katherine based the exterior decoration for her flute on a Hawaiian motif symbolizing the ocean waves surrounding her island. She rubbed the wood with kukui nut oil.

Others John has taught have also found ways to personalize their instruments. Freida Maize from Shiprock, New Mexico, carved an “S” on her flute to stand for her home town. Ray Delgarito of Crown Point, New Mexico, fashioned part of his in the shape of a quail. And Jackie Smith of Dustin, Oklahoma, carved a thunderbird and other tribal symbols of the Creeks and Seminoles on her flute.

“The thunderbird symbolizes power, and to me music is a powerful way to influence people. In my tribe and every tribe it plays a vital part because it is involved in everything—religion, everyday singing, powwows, war dances. Everything is tied in with some form of music or other.”

She explained that her mother, who is not a member of the Church, heard her playing the LDS hymn “I Need Thee Every Hour” on the flute and asked her about its meaning. “I was able to show her that she can kneel before God and meet him any time, every hour.”

John Rainer knows that the wood on a flute can be left natural, rubbed down with a piece of cedar to smooth the surface, or the wood can be finished with linseed oil, stain, or shellac. Designs can be painted on the surface. Each flute, like each song, should represent the person who made it.

“It’s more worthwhile than just making something,” Tilda said. “Something simple becomes something beautiful when you use it to play a song.” John agrees. “It’s an extremely satisfying experience to take wood, carve it out, and then make music from your own creation. And each flute has a timbre all its own—no two instruments, just like no two songs, are alike.”

A flute is made from two halves joined together. This allows the center to be rounded, hollowed, and sanded. When the halves are joined, the instrument must then be tuned. The process requires consideration of many variables: size of holes, their distance from each other and from other parts of the flute, the diameter of the center bore, and the distance from a sharp wooden edge inside the flute that produces the vibrations. Most tuning is accomplished by increasing or decreasing the size of holes.

John explains that his ancestors made their flutes by burning holes with wooden rods, or by hollowing out cane which, when hot, is almost like plastic. In some regions pine, cedar, and redwood were used.

Early flutes were simple, straight tubes. With time, the two-piece construction was perfected, using resin rather than epoxy or glue to join the wood together. Interior carving leaves a thin strip of wood designed as a resonator. A wooden block is usually cemented above the resonator to help redirect air toward the finger holes.

It’s easy to see that a person who wants to make a flute needs to learn something about woodworking as well. A novice learns quickly. Tilda had nearly completed her first flute when it cracked; she completed her second in four days working three hours a day.

“I worked on my flute outdoors,” said Eric Hatch, a Navajo from Fruitland, New Mexico. “It helped me get a feeling for the olden days. The old ways are not so dead after all. My grandparents would be surprised, but they would be proud to see I want to learn and understand things that were important to them. Brother Rainer’s gone back to a lot of things I never knew, things I used to ignore. But now I listen and it seems very real.”

“I learned not only how to make flutes, but I learned a lot about the flute makers’ way of thinking,” Lance said. “It’s quite invigorating culturally to think of them and then build a flute and play a song the same way they would have.”

“I didn’t even know Navajos used flutes,” Ray said. “I think flutes sound neat. When you’re alone, play your flute and it’s like someone else is there. At first I thought I’d learn and then quit. But I think I’ll keep making them. People keep asking me to play songs for them.”

Nelson Atine of Salt Lake City, Utah, said playing the flute helped him think of the future, “what I’ll do with my heritage and my family and my children.”

John has taught many people to share the song of the flute. Some have played Church hymns in meetings. Others have shared their talent with relatives. John often plays a beautiful song he composed for his wife. He smiles proudly when his son David plays his flute.

John’s expertise has opened new opportunities for him. He has moved to San Carlos, Arizona, back to the reservation so that he can spend more time carving ebony and ironwood into flutes. People come from all over the world to hear him play. He travels to universities to give lectures. His music is being recorded and distributed throughout the country.

John will explain that every Indian tribe used the flute in some way. He’ll talk about geographical distribution, varieties of flutes, and compositional techniques. He reminds you that in some native American societies, the flute was so revered that the instrument and the honor of being the flute player was handed down from one generation to the next.

In his own quiet way, that seems to be exactly what John Rainer is doing for the coming generation—he is passing on to them the tradition of the song of the flute.

[photos] Photos by Floyd Holdman