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A Note at a Time

Monday December 21, 2020

Parkinson's Disease (PD) is very much like a card dealer in a poker game. The disease is good at taking your life and reshuffling it into something unexpected. But like any good poker player you eventually learn to deal with the hand PD dealt you. With Parkinson's, it doesn't hurt to have a card or two up your sleeve!

Parkinson's shuffled recreational running out of my life along with anything requiring balance skills. The first card that slid from my sleeve was the card of extra time. Okay, so I can't run anymore, why not try boxing? Rock Steady Boxing (now Neurofit at Longevita Yoga in Auburn, WA) used up some of the newly available time, but not all of it. What else could prove challenging, do-able with my changed skill-set, and possibly help slow my PD? And whatever it was it had to be fun! Enter the Native American Flute (abbreviated NAF).

The Native American Flute was almost swallowed by the sands of time and prejudice. The effort to assimilate Native Americans into American society and to erase their indigenous culture nearly proved fatal to the NAF. Native American children were removed from their ancestral homes and sent to schools run by the United States government. Cultural items, such as headdresses, drums, and flutes were banned in these schools. The NAF was saved from extinction by the efforts of Dr. Richard W. Payne, M.D, and many others, who not only rediscovered the flutes but learned to build them. The Native American Flute's popularity grew rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s due to its unique sound that played well with popular New Age music. This genre of music is what introduced me to the instrument. I might add that many Native Americans do not consider this "New Age sound" as the true NAF and prefer the term "Indigenous Flute" which does sound different.

Truthfully, I'm about as musically skilled as a fence post, but playing music always intrigued me. I was retired and PD had removed many hours of running from my schedule so on a cross-country trip I purchased a High Spirits Sparrow Hawk flute in the key of A at the Cameron Trading Post located in Cameron, Arizona. My first attempts at "music" sounded more like a hen being zapped by a Taser than a pleasant tone! Not to be deterred by my lack of music training and PD-slowed reflexes, I started practicing the flute almost every day. Gradually, with persistence, the squeaks and squawks became recognizable tones that eventually evolved into music. While my music is hardly polished (a sample is attached to this blog post), learning to play is beneficial in many other ways.

Playing any instrument builds new neural pathways in the brain. PD destroys those very same pathways. Anything a person with Parkinson's can do to increase the brain's neural growth is a net benefit. This includes exercise and dance, crafts, puzzles, and music. I've already noticed in my year of playing the flute that my handwriting has improved and the quickness and accuracy of my finger movements are stronger. And there is the simple benefit and pride of accomplishing a new skill that I thought was beyond me.

Why the Native American Flute and not some other instrument? I chose the NAF for its simplicity. A single flute is a one-octave instrument. An octave is composed of eight notes. For example, the A minor octave is composed of the A, B, C, D, E, F, and A (next higher octave) notes. Whereas a piano or a guitar may have many octaves. While having only one octave is a limitation it greatly simplifies the learning process and initially, most NAF players only use a five note scale named the minor pentatonic scale. An ideal instrument for the musically challenged! But don't limit yourself, if you have always enjoyed the sound of the piano or guitar, go for it! There is anecdotal evidence, while PD may take away movement and other facilities, it sometimes releases your creative abilities. Learn to play before Parkinson's removes that option forever. One note at a time, you'll be glad you did.

Click here to listen to Bill playing "Wendeyaho".

About "Wendeyaho":

A short, Native American song (some questions about it's heritage, but it's at least partially Native American), "Wendeyaho" is also known as "Cherokee Morning Song".  From what I've read about the song, it actually predates the Cherokees and was written by the Tihanama culture. Rita Coolidge actually recorded it under the "Cherokee Morning Song" name, but there is no copyright. The backing track is (drums) from "Rhythms to Accompany the Native Flute" by Stephen DeRuby and cleared for non-commercial use.

Below is a list of resources and vendors for the Native American Flute that I have dealt with or used. It is definitely not exhaustive or meant to be an endorsement of the sites.

Native American Flute Resources

Your Brain on Flute, a small research study on the flute's effects on brain and body physiology: https://flutopedia.com/ybof.htm

Flutopedia.com, an exhaustive reference on the Native American Flute: https://flutopedia.com/index.htm

FluteCast.com, an excellent training site with extensive video training on the Native American Flute: https://www.flutecast.com/

 

Native American Flute Vendors

Stellar Flutes, a local Pacific Northwest flute maker based in Shelton, WA: https://www.stellarflutes.com/default.asp

High Spirits Flutes, based in the American southwest, one of the largest and better-known flute makers: https://highspirits.com/

Jonny Lipford, a performer with the NAF, but also has flute training, music, and flutes: https://www.jonnylipfordmusic.com/

-Bill Clugston

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