The six holed, traverse, primitive flute called the fife had a profound effect on me. Having six holes sounds simple enough, but it has its serious limitations. If you fudge it a little, some extra chromatic notes are possible but not really reliable so keys and scales are in short supply. Non the less the fife played an important role in armies of the 1700’s including the early American army. I still find my self pondering how those young soldiers learned to play the fife without any previous formal musical training. Let’s face it, they were mostly settlers and farm boys scraping out an existence in the new world. Fast forward to the twenty first century.
About 10 years ago I was approached by a Berklee professor who was looking to put together a Revolutionary Fife ’n Drum Duo complete with full 18th century garb. Being a Berklee Alumnus that played sax, clarinet, oboe, flute and piccolo who lived in close proximity to Boston, he gave me a call. After talking for a while, I figured I’d give it a shot.
I bought a fife and a fingering chart and proceeded to practice. After all, how hard could it be. (Just six holes) We didn’t have any immediate gigs so I wasn’t worried. Since I had the coordination of 40 plus years on the afore mentioned woodwinds under my belt there would be “no problemo”. (Pseudo Spanish). Well “Au contraire mon frere” (French).
My first obstacle was the fingerings of the fife. Learning the fingerings carried a hidden surprise. If you were to take the upper register of the flute, separate the left hand from the right hand for each note, and throw them into a bowl, and shake them up, it created a mix ’n match situation. Ex: Left hand “E” with a right hand “F#” would give you ……..”E”. It took me a lot more than the expected month of three hours a day of practice to establish a solid foundation for quality performance levels. My first performance was four months to the day with authentic songs fully memorized.
The second pothole in the road was the lack of written music material to learn on the fife. Yes, I figured out many of the traditional revolutionary war songs in the proper keys (like most professionals can do), but what about the poor inexperienced beginners? What could they learn from?
That got me thinking. So I sat down and made a list of all the easy early American folk songs I knew and taught in elementary schools. I put them into the limited keys on the fife and before I knew it the fife in “the American revolutionary war” lead to the development of the “Yankee Collection.”
For months I focused only on fun music for the beginner fife player until I realized that I could apply all these songs in the same format for band and string programs in elementary schools, again in the best keys for beginners.
What started out as a problem for me on the fife had led to a solution for countless aspiring beginner musicians. Just give the “Yankee Collection” a chance.