Sometimes a musical instrument is more than just entertainment. As part of their studies of the ancient Mississippian and Iroquois tribes in Cultural History class, Ross fourth graders are discovering that the tribes not only used flutes in their rituals and celebrations, but also used them for herding animals. To learn more about one of the first instruments to be invented, the class recently completed a flute-making workshop with local musician and flute maker Jay Loomis and then demonstrated their creations for their schoolmates in a Lower School assembly.
Jay has been making flutes for about 10 years, and he said he enjoys visiting with Ross students to share his knowledge of the Native American instrument and its history. To get started, the students first decided what shape and size their flute would be. The design affects the sound; for example, a long flute will make low noises. They also decorated the instruments with shapes and icons, such as an eagle, with beads pressed into beeswax.
The flutes themselves were made from Japanese knotweed, a pervasive plant disliked by gardeners, but perfect for Jay’s needs because it’s already hollow. Students used sandpaper to smooth out holes that Jay had started for them. He next encouraged the class to experiment to get used to the unique sound of their instruments, and then work together to define a tune.
As part of the performance, the class introduced the audience to the different sounds of their flutes, each playing a few notes in turn. Then it was time for the real fun, with several students playing solos of well-known favorites or original songs as a group.
After the concert, the fourth graders answered questions about the flute-making process. Jay also brought along a diverse collection of flutes from Japan, China, Peru, and Ireland, and played each to demonstrate their beautiful, exotic sounds. The fourth grade specifically requested a rousing Irish melody, and the crowd stomped their feet in time with the beat.
“It adds so much to the students’ experiences when they get ‘hands on’ with their studies. They really got a feel for the historical significance of the flute in the lives of Native Americans,” fourth grade teacher Alicia Schordine said.