Soft whistles from handcrafted Native American flutes filled the Athabasca Delta Community School (ADCS) in Fort Chipewyan for the first time on May 14-16 as part of a student health and wellness program.
Self-taught flutist Jacob Handel from Calgary gave a workshop to about 20 Grade 4 students on how to play the Native American flute as part of the school’s Helping Hands to Success program.
Now in its fifth year, the program strives to improve recreational activities in the community and promote mental health, prevention and early intervention services to students from kindergarten through Grade 12.
“What we’re trying to do is introduce children to a lot of different things. When you live in a Northern community, you don’t always have these opportunities. So we’ve brought in the guitar, fiddle, the native drum and now we have yet another opportunity with the flute. Not many people play it, so it’s special,” said Donna Cyprien, the Helping Hands project coordinator.
“Playing the flute or any musical instrument reduces stress. It’s calming and overall it’s good for your mental health to have something like this to go to when things are not so positive,” she said. “The students loved it. Our staff loved it. It’s not hard to learn; it’s actually easier to play than a recorder.”
Handel, who travels to Fort Chip multiple times a year to visit friends, brought a number of A-minor starter flutes from Butch Hall, a traditional woodworker who makes precision tuned flutes out of Weatherford, Texas.
Each student purchased a flute at the end of the workshop, Handel said, for a discounted price.
“I tried telling them about the flute’s history, but they really just wanted to play,” he said with a laugh. “We went over a few basic songs and added our own ‘embellishments’ to the music.
That’s the thing about the flute: it brings out students’ creativity and you don’t need a whole lot of formal training to do that.”
Handel last visited ADCS in January, performing flute solos for students and staff.
“The students calmed right down. They just stopped and listened to him. It was moving,” Cyprien said.
The enthusiasm was so overwhelming that he returned this month to host his first workshop. He said he hopes to do more in the future.
“It’s very therapeutic,” he said. “People have even started using them in yoga classes.”
Handel has been playing the Native American flute for just over 10 years.
“I was on a road trip and had just reached Montana or North Dakota and I heard someone playing the Native American flute for the first time and it was just so different and beautiful.
That was when my flute journey began,” he said.
Overshadowed by the drum, the flute is slowly gaining popularity again, Handel said.
“People hear it on television or in the movies and get it mixed up with the pan flute…Back in the day it was prevalent in many indigenous tribes. They found a 5,000 year-old flute in Ontario…I can see that interest growing again with things like flute circles – there was just one in Cold Lake, actually.”