Navajo jazz musician Vince Redhouse is teaching Native flute in San Juan County schools

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Students at Bluff Elementary School attend a Native flute lesson with Vince Redhouse in October 2019.

Bluff • “Start from silence!” third grade teacher Sarah Burak repeats, raising her voice above the din of 10 elementary school students playing traditional Native American wooden flutes. Her class, sitting on a mat before her, is unable to resist sneaking in a few more assorted notes before finally settling down.

They turn their attention to a projector screen in front of them, where their instructor — Grammy-nominated jazz musician Vince Redhouse — leads them through “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” It’s a song they’ve played before with Redhouse, who video conferences with Bluff Elementary School classes twice per week.

The sessions are part of a Native flute education program Redhouse has developed in schools across Indian Country over the last 10 years. He’s taught Native flute to over 1,000 students on the Navajo Nation and beyond, which he says helps them develop confidence, focus and a sense of identity that serves them beyond music and school.

Most of the Bluff third graders keep in time and hit the right notes on the carved, six-hole flutes. But when it’s time to move onto the next song, “Ode to Joy,” they’re less successful. Some students play “Mary Had a Little Lamb” again. Others play random notes. Frustrated, some set their instruments on the ground.

The class’s attention seems lost. Both Burak in the room and Redhouse on the screen are unable to get it back — until Redhouse begins playing through a classical piece on his own instrument.

The students are instantly silent, their eyes locked on the screen as the haunting notes of Redhouse’s melody come through the scratchy speakers.

“How does he do that?” one student whispers to her neighbor. When it’s time to practice again, the class returns to “Ode to Joy” with new resolve.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Third grade teacher Sarah Burak and musician Vince Redhouse co-teach a Native flute lesson at the Bluff Elementary School in October 2019.

Redhouse’s family roots in the Four Corners are deep. Redhouse’s father grew up in the reservation town of Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., just south of San Juan County, Utah. He left to serve in World War II, and in the early 1950s, he became the first Native American to graduate from Santa Clara University, a private Jesuit college in California.

Redhouse was raised in Monterey, Calif., a city where there were few Native Americans.

“Being raised in the Bay Area in the ’60s and ’70s, I was really affected by prejudice,” he says, “and I left the whole thing about being Navajo behind.” As a young man, he toured as a jazz tenor saxophone player, and struggled with his identity.

Years later, he picked up the Native flute and it helped him begin to come to terms with his conflicted feelings about his heritage.

“It sort of settles the issue of self identity when a Native individual picks up the Native flute,” Redhouse says. “What they’re saying is: I own what I am right here. I’m accepting who I am. I’m Native American.”

But even as he connected with an indigenous musical tradition that goes back hundreds or thousands of years, Redhouse decided he also wanted to break down stereotypes associated with modern Native flute music.

“Often, when I see a Native American pick up the Native flute, I know what I’m going to hear,” he says. “It’s so much a practice and a learned sound. I said, ‘I’m going to change that.’”

It’s common for Native flute players to carry up to 12 flutes, each in a different key. Redhouse wanted to use a single instrument to play any type of music, and he spent 20 years developing a chromatic method in order to play a single Native flute across three octaves in multiple keys.

He has used the method to teach over 1,000 mostly indigenous students.

“Now I play classical pieces and jazz all over the world,” he says, including performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before Major League Baseball games and playing at the Vatican with former students.

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Vince Redhouse (right) teaches Native flute to Christel Tsosie and Tanner Tsinigine, students at Monument Valley High School in October 2019.

But one focus of his work for the last decade has been music education. He’s led classes across the Four Corners and at schools with majority-Navajo populations in San Juan County, including in Blanding, Bluff, Montezuma Creek and Monument Valley.

In addition to teaching the interactive video classes, Redhouse makes several in-person visits to the schools each year. He tells students to dream big and stay dedicated to their passions, and he said he is looking forward to watching the third graders in Burak’s class progress as they get older.

In a place like remote San Juan County, where some schools don’t have enough resources and staff to support dedicated art and music teachers, Redhouse’s efforts can have a big impact.

Bluff Elementary School principal Barbara Silversmith noted the cultural connections the program offers to her 87 students, the vast majority of whom are from the Navajo Nation. Silversmith said Redhouse’s video lessons have allowed a level of teaching that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

“We may not have a music teacher that comes specifically to our school, however, this is another way to do that through technology,” she said. “I think it’s amazing.”

Redhouse’s wife, Diane Redhouse, is a professional photographer who documents the efforts of their nonprofit WindPeople Music. Redhouse’s father-in-law, Ernie Harrell, is a woodworker in Washington state who handcarves each of the flutes, which are donated to students and schools.

In addition to helping with issues of self identity, Redhouse speaks frequently about the benefits of music education on brain development and character formation for youth.

“There’s a tremendous focus that’s required,” Redhouse says. “You’re using the side of the brain you use when you study foreign languages. You see that development of character. You see when they perform what happens to them — the raised confidence levels.”

He’s watched his students go on to pursue careers in music and to use the Native flute to help process stress as they’ve moved off the reservation and into difficult graduate programs in medicine and law. One student from Monument Valley was able to convince judges at a state classical music competition to let him play his Native flute instead of an orchestra instrument, and he went home with an award.

“The Native flute was very helpful to me, and I get to share that with these students,” Redhouse says. “There’s something that is transferred to them just in holding the instrument and being given the opportunity to play it. You can see the smile in their eyes.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.