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How to Tie the Block on a Native American Flute

This page describes the how to tie (or re-tie) the block on a Native American flute. The basic information is provided, as well as detailed information on special cases and alternate knots that can be used.

The Basics

On most Native American flutes, the block is removable – held in place on the nest area only by a strap.

Nest Area of a Native American flute - Outside

Nest Area of a Native American flute — Outside Larger image

Some flutes use a spacer plate between the bottom of the block and the nest area:

Spacer plate between the nest and the bottom of the block

Spacer plate between the nest
and the bottom of the block Larger image

Although the strap is typically made of leather, it can be almost anything. Flute makers often use a rubber band to quickly fix the block onto the nest area.

Most blocks are designed so that they can be secured to the nest area by wrapping the strap over the center of the block. However, some makers have alternate arrangements for the strap. This tulipwood flute by Richard Maynard of Laughing Crow Flutes demonstrates a design where the strap wraps around two parts of the flute. In my experience, this design gives the block more stability from sliding lengthwise along the body of the flute:

Tying style used by Richard Maynard

Block design used by Richard Maynard Larger image

Other flute makers add holes into the block through which one or more straps are threaded. This is an example of a design using three separate straps by Leonard McGann of Lone Crow Flutes:

Tying style used by Leonard McGann

Block design used by Leonard McGann Larger image

The block serves many purposes:

  • It forms the roof of the flue, routing your airstream from the exit hole of the slow air chamber to the sound hole. The airstream then hits the splitting edge at the far end of the sound hole, which sets up the vibration that causes the flute to sound.
  • It also provides a degree of protection for the sound hole and the delicate splitting edge.
Nest area of a Native American flute - Inside cut-away view

Nest area of a Native American flute —
Inside cut-away view Larger image

Removing the Block

If you untie the strap, the block should be easy to remove. If it is not, there are several possibilities:

  • The block may have been tied onto the flute for a very long time
  • The flute may have been designed with a fixed block – glued into position. This is the case with a (very) few contemporary flute makers – in particular, those making flutes in the Micmac tradition.

You might be amazed at the number of players who have never removed the block from their flute. Novice players are typically unaware of the issues and can be fearful of not being able to restore the block to the nest. This situation is so common that, in flute workshops, we always go through the exercise of removing and replacing the block.

Some good reasons to remove the block:

  • If you play for more than a (very) few minutes, you can get significant moisture inside the SAC. This moisture can take a long time to dry, especially if the breath hole is small. That can give time for microbes to gain a foothold. By removing the block, you open the SAC Exit Hole and the Slow Air Chamber will dry much faster. However, you should never use heat or drying equipment (such as a hair dryer)!
  • It is possible over time for the block to bind to the nest. Removing it can be difficult or impossible without damaging the block or the nest.
  • Flutes without a block have a much lower profile and can be transported more easily in some cases.

Replacing the Block

Here are basic instructions for tying the block onto the flute, using an overhand knot (also called a “simple noose”, a “thumb knot”, and a “reef knot”). This is the kind of knot that you use as the first step when tying shoelaces. The overhand knot is listed as knot #514 in the ABoK ([Ashley-CW 1944]).

  1. Position the block (and possibly the spacer plate as well), in an approximate position on the nest area. It does not have to be precisely positioned.
  2. Drape the strap over the center of the block and wrap it once, so that two turns of the strap are on the top of the block and the loose ends of the strap hang underneath the flute. Adjust the strap so that the loose ends of the strap are approximately of equal length.
  3. Holding the two loose ends of the strap, rotate the body of the flute so that the block faces down (being careful not to drop the block!)
  4. Tie the two free ends of the strap with one overhand knot, as shown:

Here is a diagram of how it is tied. The green wrap on the right shows the full wrap from step 2 above. The green and purple segments to the left are the two free ends of the same strap – they are colored to make it easier to follow how the knot is tied:

Overhand Knot

Finally, cinch down the knot reasonably tightly, and then gently slide the block into it's best position. The strap should be tight enough to keep the block stable when you are playing it. However, the block will probably need to be adjusted after taking it out of a flute case.

Note: You should never drag the block any significant distance along the flute or try to slide the block and the strap together. If you need a major adjustment in the position of the block, remove the strap and start over. The specific shape of the bottom of the block is critical to the sound that the flute creates, and any damage to the bottom of the block will need to be repaired by the maker of the flute.

Positioning the Block

A good first approximation is to position the block so, as you look down at the sound hole, the face of the block is on the edge of the sound hole – right on the edge, but not covering up any of the sound hole. From there, finding the best position for the block is a deep listening exercise.

Block positioned far back from the sound hole Block positioned near the likely sweet spot Block positioned far back over the sound hole

Block positioned far back, near the likely sweet spot, and far forward over the sound hole Larger image Larger image Larger image

The pictures above show three positions for the block. The relation of the front edge of the block to the back edge of the sound hole is the important element. These are somewhat extreme positions — probably the limits of how far back and forward you would place the block:

  • In the leftmost picture, the front edge of the block is far back from the sound hole. You can see the bottom of the flue. This is likely to produce a relatively breathy sound.
  • In the center picture, the front edge of the block is close to and slightly behind the back of the sound. This is likely to be close to the sweet spot for most Native American flutes.
  • In the rightmost picture, the block is positioned very far forward. The flute is likely to sound “thin” and will also tend to overblow more easily.

With the strap just loose enough to allow some movement in the block, play a long tone and listen to the sound. It helps to play facing a wall, with the foot of the flute almost touching the wall (use caution – hitting the wall or any solid object with the foot of the flute can knock your teeth out!). You could also rig up a microphone and earphone setup to hear the sound of the flute more clearly.

Now play a long tone with the upper holes holes, leaving your other hand free to adjust the block. Slide the block in tiny increments and see if you locate the sweet spot of the sound.

If your flute has a spacer plate, you will be experimenting with the position of both the spacer plate and the block.

Moving the block and/or spacer plate will affect many compnents of the sound: pitch (typically flatter as you move the block towards to foot of the flute), breathiness, timbre. Moving the block towards the foot of the flute will also tend to make the flute jump into the second register on the lowest note.

Marking the Block and Spacer Plate Position

Some players, especially if they perform or if they have problems finding a good position for the block and spacer plate, mark a “starting point” position for the block. This allows them to set the block position visually.

You can do this with a fine-point permanent marker: Once you have a good position, place a straightedge perpendicular to the body of the flute. In an inconspicuous place, draw a small line on the block, the body of the flute, and the spacer place, if present.

Material used for the Strap

Although the strap is typically made of leather, it can be almost anything. Flute makers often use a rubber band to quickly fix the block onto the nest area.

Barry Higgins of White Crow Flutes describes an alternative for performers, and also provides recommendations on selecting leather for the strap (personal communication, May 12, 2013):

The first time I met Jeff Ball he was playing a concert in the White Mountains in New Hampshire. It was an evening concert, late summer, under a tent, and it was raining. These are perfect conditions for “wetting out”, but Jeff handled these conditions very well. The reason was, he was using black elastic hair ties (scrunchies) for bird ties. These elastic ties allowed him to move the bird away with out untying the bird, wipe the flue dry, and position it back again in less than a 4 beat rest, yet held the bird in position and contact with the flute body.

If you have more than one flute you may have noticed there can be a difference in the leathers generally used to tie the bird to the flute. The best leather by far is tanned Deer hide. The advantage is that the leather is softer, thinner, and has an wonderful elastic quality to it. You can feel it stretch when tying. Elk has similar properties to deer but is most often thicker than deer hide and slightly less elastic then the deer. Tanned Cow hide is thicker and stiffer than elk and no elastic qualities. Cow hide is often split (thinned) to make it more supple but does not make it more elastic. The non-elastic qualities give the leather strength but less holding strength in the tie-off if a form of knot is not used. The least effective tie is one made of raw hide laces, the type used for boots. Although small in size it is very stiff and hard and requires a knot to hold. This type of leather can even cause indentations to form on very soft woods like cedar, pine, and redwood. I suggest replacing ties like this as soon as possible. Pig skin, lamb, sheep, or goat are generally too thin to be effective tie material and break more easily. Always use care with any tie, when tightening, that have been cut thin, or in multiple strands. If you have a multi-strand strap, grasp the strands together when tying them off.

Other Knots

While the vast majority of players use the overhand knot, you can use many other knots to secure the strap. Each has it's pros and cons.

Shoelace Knot

For added security, you can build on the basic overhand knot and create a shoelace knot. This know, also called the bow knot, is knot #1212 in the ABoK ([Ashley-CW 1944]).

Here is an example of how Butch Hall of Butch Hall Flutes ties his flutes. Notice that Butch uses five wraps around the block and the flute, and completes the wrap with a shoelace knot:

Tying style used by Butch Hall

Tying style used by Butch Hall Larger image

In addition, Butch uses an unusual and decorative “X-crossover” style on the top of the block:

Tying style used by Butch Hall

Tying style used by Butch Hall Larger image

Clove Hitch

The clove hitch appears in this image of a tied flute, from [Gage 2001]:

One style of tying

Style of securing the strap, shown in [Gage 2001] Larger image

The clove hitch is listed as knot #1176 in the ABoK ([Ashley-CW 1944]). Here's a sequence of pictures showing how to tie a clove hitch:

Tying a clove hitch

Tying a rolling hitch. Photos courtesy of David J. Fred Larger image

Rolling Hitch

The rolling hitch is listed as knot #1734 in the ABoK ([Ashley-CW 1944]). Here's a sequence of pictures showing how to tie a rolling hitch:

Tying a rolling hitch

Tying a rolling hitch. Photos courtesy of David J. Fred Larger image

Constrictor Knot

Constrictor knots are somewhat more complex that the knots shown so far, but they have some favorible properties in terms of security and adjustability. We look at three versions of constrictor knots on this page:

Constrictor Knot

Here's a sequence of pictures showing how to tie a constrictor knot:

Tying a constrictor knot

Tying a constrictor knot. Photos courtesy of David J. Fred Larger image

Double Constrictor Knot

Here's a sequence of pictures showing how to tie a double constrictor knot:

Tying a double constrictor knot

Tying a double constrictor knot. Photos courtesy of David J. Fred Larger image

Slipped Constrictor Knot

Here's a sequence of pictures showing how to tie a slipped constrictor knot:

Tying a slipped constrictor knot

Tying a slipped constrictor knot. Photos courtesy of David J. Fred Larger image

 
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