The Native American style flute lends itself to improvising. I remember meeting a man from Jacksonville, Florida who would climb out on his roof after work and decompress by “playing” the skyline. Depending on where he looked, the skyline was different. He said he’d never played the same thing twice using this way of improvising on his flute.
I like to go for walks in nearby state parks and play songs on one of my small branch flutes to see if I can attract at least one singing bird. The sound of insects, wind in the leaves, creaking branches — all have the potential to become inspiration for a song.
There are a range of strategies for learning to improvise on your flute. To keep you from having to climb out on your roof or get in the car to drive to a state park, I’ll provide you with a strategy that works in the comfort of your own home.
For this you need your breath and an A minor pentatonic Native American style flute that is concert-tuned — meaning it is not just “in tune with itself” but would also play in tune with other instruments such as a harp, guitar, ukulele or mandolin.
To familiarize yourself with your flute, play its basic scale — the A minor pentatonic scale. These are the notes you will use to play Amazing Grace and to improvise. No other notes. This is a liberating thing, not a restraining thing.
Next familiarize yourself with the song, “Amazing Grace.” The tab for AmazingGrace can be downloaded as a pdf by clicking on this link AmazingGrace
Notice there is no rhythm given with the tab, so if you do not know the song, you’ll need to listen to it via YouTube. Notice on lines 1, 2 and 4 there is no note pictured — it is a rest, or a time to take in air.
You can hear the tabs played below:
Once you are familiar enough with this version of Amazing Grace now you can play it along with this piano.
The tracks to play along with have different tempos (speeds) and styles (rhythms). You need to adjust your playing of the song to fit the style of each track. If you can learn to feel the rhythm of each version of the track, this will help to inform your improvising. Try another variation below.
Now that you are comfortable with one of the tracks playing and have changed the speed at which you play Amazing Grace, try something different from the traditional song.
Try playing your own notes. You may hear the notes in your head. You may feel them in your heart. You may simply find your fingers slip on the flute and the notes emerge — whether you planned them or not. When you play these notes, keep beat with the style of music you are playing along with. When you do this, almost any note and any order of notes will sound pretty good with the backing track.
Here’s an example with the first piano track. You will hear stanza 1 and 3 are Amazing Grace, sort of (you will hear some harmonizing). Stanza 2 is my improvisation within this framework.
Be sure when you are done playing to congratulate yourself. You have been improvising on your A minor pentatonic scale Native American style flute.