I want to start off this post by making it clear that I am not a professional musician in any way, shape or form, nor am I professionally trained Waldorf teacher. I am, however, trying my darndest to make sure that I have taught myself as many of the necessary Waldorfian skills as possible, before Dora enters first grade. With that, comes learning to play the pentatonic flute. Some Waldorf educators will tell you that a student recorder is just fine and I would say to them that it really depends on what you are hoping to gain from the experience. I played the recorder for years, while in elementary school, and the music quality of traditional student recorders just does not come close to that of the Choroi pentatonic flute. In addition, recorders have more complicated fingering, so I do not believe it is reasonable to expect your average first grader to play a recorder. I’m also going to stick my neck out here and say that you should….yes, I’m going to “should upon you”… buy the Quinta Pentatonic Flute and not the traditional Choroi flute. My reason for this is simply that it appears to me that Choroi is phasing the traditional flute out, so it may become difficult to find replacement tone blocks as time goes by. Not to mention, why would you want to deal with tone blocks that have to be replaced and can get lost in the first place? What even is a tone block? Who cares what a tone block is? I’m not a professionally trained musician, so maybe my ear is just not discerning enough, but I cannot imagine saying that the Quinta sounds anything less than 100% beautiful! The best price I have found the Quinta for is from A Toy Garden. It is currently $85, which is $22 cheaper than most other stores, but it is still nothing to sneeze at. It is worth the cost in my opinion, given the quality of the instrument, but once again, it depends what you are hoping to gain from the experience. If you decide to buy the Quinta, do order some flute oil while you are at it (you can use jojoba oil, and only jojoba oil, instead if you want), as you need the oil immediately (the flute comes with directions on how to oil your flute).
Now, I have a confession to make, not only did I play the recorder for several years, while in school, I also played the clarinet for a few years, and the Saxophone while in university, so I do have some woodwind instrument experience that most people don’t have. This has come in real handy for me in learning to play the Quinta, because I already knew how to tongue, tie, and slur, which I will explain later.I have bought many, many books (e-book and bound) that purport to teach you how to play the pentatonic flute, but there is only one book that I could, in good conscience, recommend. It is a spiral bound book (8×11”-ish), published by a small company called Promethean Press, and is entitled Waldorf Teachers’ Companion to the Pentatonic Flute, by John Cyril Miles. Unlike other flute instructional manuals, it is printed in a professional manner (some of the others are actually illegible photocopies of typing and/or handwriting). The Teachers’ Companion clearly shows you how to finger and hold your flute. It presents the notes in a logical order, but with the most difficult notes saved for last. Finally, it has a lovely selection of songs. There are two potential problems, however, that others might have with this book. The first problem is that the foreword is anthroposophian, which might make some people uncomfortable, but can be skipped completely without any negative consequences (you can simply start on page 7, where is says “Begin Here”). The second problem is that the book starts with the assumption that you know the fundamentals of reading music.
So, in case there are some of you out there who want to learn to play the pentatonic flute, but don’t know the fundamentals of reading music, I am going to attempt to teach you the basics. I’m going to beg forgiveness ahead of time for any and all mistakes I make or confusion I cause. I never, in my wildest dreams would have thought I’d ever be writing a music tutorial (I haven’t played any music in two decades and was never very serious at my best, Mr. Mo is the musician in our household). I feel strongly, however, that this is an area of weakness in the Waldorf community. There just appears to be a major dearth of good books for learning the pentatonic flute and this is the only book I feel is even acceptable, much less good.
When reading music, you will read a staff, which are the five lines that run across the page and are shown below. The staff includes a symbol that tells you which clef you will be using. For our purposes, we will only be using the G clef. Next to that swirly, “S” thingy there may or may not be a fraction. If there is no fraction next to the clef, then the default fraction is 4/4, which means that there are four beats per measure. If the fraction was 3/4, there would be three beats per measure and so on. In the Teachers’ Companion, all the songs are in 4/4 time. In 4/4 time, a whole note lasts for four beats. A half note lasts half of that, or two beats. A quarter note lasts 1/4th of that, or one beat. An eighth note lasts 1/8th of a whole note, or 1/2 beat. A sixteenth note lasts for 1/16th of a whole note, or 1/4th beat. A 1/32nd note lasts for 1/32 of a whole note, or 1/8th of a beat (yes, that does get confusing, and remember that this is only for 4/4 time). For our purposes, I consider a beat to be the amount of time that it would take for you to tap your foot, which is why some musicians tap their foot while playing music. Sometimes the beats are faster or slower, but to just get yourself going, consider a typical foot tap to be one beat (I am well aware that any and all music experts who have read this post this far are currently experiencing apoplexies from my words, but please, just take a deep breath, remember I am writing this for total beginners, and roll with it).
You read music from left to right. The note symbols look like the ones shown on the chart below. The book will show you what note to play, depending on where the note is located on the staff, vertically, but it doesn’t explain that a hollow circle is a whole note, that a hollow circle with a straight line coming up out of it is a half note, or that a black circle with a straight line coming out of it is a quarter note. The one symbol that this chart does not show and you need to know is called a dotted note. A dotted note is a note with a small dot next it (on the right side). The dot means that you increase the the length of the note by 1/2. So if you have a dotted half note, that means you would hold the note for the two beats for the half note and then an extra beat for the dot, for a total of 3 beats. If you have a dotted quarter note, you hold the note for one beat for the quarter note and an extra half beat for the dot, for a total of 1 1/2 beats. Once again, this assumes 4/4 time.
These are the symbols for rests, which are times that you don’t play any music. They last as long as their note counterparts.
When you play a woodwind instrument, you tongue each note, unless the music tells you otherwise. To tongue a note on the Quinta, you basically tap the mouthpiece with your tongue. Your tongue stops and starts the air from going in and out of the instrument. So if the music shows 5 “D” notes in a row, you would tongue the mouthpiece 5 times, articulating each note independently. Sometimes, you will tie or slur notes together (the technical definition between a tie and a slur is not something you need to know right now, but you can read about it here). This means that you do not tongue between the notes, but will continue to blow for the duration of all the notes together, moving your fingers as applicable (i.e. a half note and a quarter would be held for 3 beats). The symbol for a tie is the same as for a slur and is shown below.
Whoo! That is a lot more information than I thought I was going to need to give. Later, I will discuss the why’s and wherefores of the pentatonic scale.
If I actually managed to convey this information correctly and you work through the Teachers’ Companion, Promethean Press also publishes another book of folksongs that have been adapted for the pentatonic flute by John C. Miles.
Please note my left sidebar for all the awesome link-ups that I am participating in.