Thursday, April 14, 2016

Kay Ragsdale and her Flutes

Kay Ragsdale and the flutes of The Lion King

It is with a heavy heart that I offer this tribute in memorium to one of the kindest and most generous people that I have known. Kay Ragsdale was a fine person and excellent flutist who loved her work and was happy to share her joy in her flute collection with anyone who was interested. It was more than a flute collection to her; it was a way of life. For every ethnic flute she owned she sought out a master to teach her the ways of the instrument. She learned not only how to play the flutes with their respective traditional techniques, but also their history and folklore. I will always cherish the time I spent with her, remembering her generous spirit, infectious laugh and amazing knowledge about flutes and cultures of the world.

This is a transcript of a lecture demonstration given by Kay Ragsdale, the flutist who travels with the Gazelle Tour of The Lion King. She has a magnificent collection of ethnic flutes from all over the world, as well as novelty flutes from different cultures and fascinating stories to go with the instruments. Not all the flutes she owns are played in the show. The Lion King flute book requires fifteen instruments (that’s a lot of doubling!) but she transports about 80 flutes in the instrument truck, some as back-ups in case a bamboo flute develops a crack, and some she carries with her so she can give demonstrations to groups in the cities where the show is playing. She offered to give a demonstration in Detroit when the show was at the opera house in 2008 and what follows are highlights from a transcription of the lecture she gave to the lucky few who were assembled there.

Kay also offered to any flute student the chance to sit with her during a show and experience The Lion King from the pit, an opportunity that two of my students took. It was a unique experience which they will always remember. At the end of the show she gave each of them a little clay bird ocarina which chirps when you put water in it and blow through the tail.

If you want to find out more about the flutes in The Lion King and see interviews with Kay Ragsdale, just go to You Tube and search for Kay Ragsdale, flutes.

Highlights from Kay’s lecture in Detroit:

“One of my favorite things, and I’ve actually had to use this, is a cane. It’s a walking stick flute. These were very popular in Victorian England. The Dayton C. Miller collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. has the largest collection of walking stick flutes of any country. Some had detachable piccolos and a bird whistle in the handle. Of course, only wealthy men had walking sticks but the women, not wanting to be left out, installed little music boxes in their bustles which would play their signature tune whenever they sat down. We do know that Queen Victoria’s bustle played “God Save the Queen” when she sat down.

“Now, of course you all know what this is - it’s a Nose flute. it has three holes so you only use one hand to finger the notes and with the other hand you close off the other side of your nose, if you need to change sides, then you change hands. Very practical. They make different sized flutes for different keys. While a lot of these cultures talk about the sacredness of the air the cultures that use nose flutes, such as Africa and in the South Pacific islands, believe the air you use through your nose is better than the air through your mouth because you can’t say anything bad about anybody with your nose.

“One of my favorite categories of flutes are clay vessel flutes known as Ocarinas.  They make nice necklaces when you put them on a string and wear them around your neck. An interesting period in Victorian England was when the Victorians thought they could teach baby birds how to sing better than the birds’ mothers. But it turned out that the whole experiment was a disaster. None of them learned their correct species song, none of them could attract a mate or reproduce and they all died. But what we have left from that are these little clay bird whistles which, when you put water in the hole in the top and blow through the hole in the tail, it chirps.

“You can always tell a Bansuri flute from India because they are not decorated. In ancient India a flutist dedicates his life to playing the flute. Now we use clocks but in ancient times the flute player  marked the passage of time by playing different sized flutes, starting out by playing the smallest flute before dawn and ending up by playing the largest flute at midnight. The largest one has about the range of our modern alto flute but without keys to help cover the holes. As the flutes get larger the holes get bigger and harder to cover as the spacing is more distant; so flute players were selected at a very young age and had the skin between the fingers cut so the fingers could stretch out as the flute player grew and their fingers would be able to cover the holes. (groans from the audience)

“Now let’s go to China. Chinese d’tzi were highly decorated.  They believe that the eye is to be delighted as well as the ear. They come in two colors, black and brown. Sometimes stories and poems are written on them as part of the decoration. In many cultures the flutes can be played to the right or the left. The right and left hands are in the same position so you can play it in either direction. Hand position is different than modern western flute; balance points are the chin and each thumb, not the cradle position that we use. There is an extra hole between the embouchure hole and finger holes where you place a membrane, called dimo, made from the interior of a bamboo plant. It's like very fragile tissue paper and causes it to sound like a kazoo. You can place the grain either horizontally or vertically over the hole, traditionally sticking it on with a bit of garlic juice. The d’tzi are smoked and when you get a new one they smell like ham. To maintain these instruments you need to treat them with mustard seed oil.  So, with ham, mustard and garlic, depending on their preference for lunch, your friends might want to sit closer to you or farther away. 

“Now we will go from China to Japan: the national flute of Japan is the shakuhachi. The name comes from ‘shaku’ which was a unit of measurement – originally it was one growing season of the bamboo from which it is made,  which can vary from year to year depending on the growing conditions. Each node represents one growing season and the bottom end of the shakuhachi is the bulbous root. Shakuhachi belongs to the notched flute family; it has five finger holes and plays the pentatonic scale. It is not decorated on the exterior as the Chinese flutes are but beautifully lacquered on the interior.  That is because the Japanese believe that spirits live inside the flute. In fact, you bring the spirits back to life every time you play. Additionally, the air you use is not yours to take at will but given to you as a gift by all those who have gone before. So it’s a heavy weight of responsibility to do one’s best with the air that is given to you only temporarily. After you play a phrase you must then audibly replace the air that you borrowed as a ‘thank-you’. In the show, you are required to follow these rituals if it applies to that country’s instrument.  

“Only the samurai warriers were allowed to play the shakuhachi.  Women and children were not allowed to touch it. Ordinary men were not allowed to touch it either. The samurai studied two things: sword and flute because they shared two elements - breathing and concentration. In battle if you were to lose your sword, you could whip out your flute and use it as a club against your opponent. 

“The ancient Greek mythological figure, Pan was half man, half goat. One day he was chasing after the wood nymph Syrinx, who wisely ran to the river’s edge where she implored the river god to help her and was changed into a reed, along with her sisters. Not being able to find her, Pan was very disconsolate so he gathered some reeds by the river and cut them into different lengths. He then made the instrument which we call the Pan Pipe and he brought Syrinx back to life by blowing across the edge of the tubes. The ultimate tragedy was that Pan killed that which he loved the most, but do not despair because every time someone plays on a pan flute, Syrinx will be brought back to life.

 “Lion King has the greatest flute part ever. I look forward to playing the show every day. I get nervous before every show and at the end I say, “That was really fun, let’s do it again!” so I get another chance to play it. That’s the great thing about it - you get the chance to play multiple repetitions. One thing I've learned is to never give up or get dissuaded by anything anyone says. I didn’t listen to anyone when they told me I couldn't do it. If you’re interested in something, just explore it on your own.”

After about an hour and a half of fascinating flute lore, we ran out of time for Kay to show us her crystal flute and many others, I suspect, but we came away with her deep love for what she does and her generosity of spirit in sharing her passion with others.

RIP, Kay and thank-you for enriching the world with everything you have given us.

1 comment:

  1. Flutes as canes and flutes as clubs -- fascinating! A wonderful lecture and wonderful tribute.