Usually schools are bustling with activity, especially during the morning hours. Children are getting off the buses, making their way down the halls, and chatting with their friends. Teachers are taking attendance, quieting their noisy classrooms, and getting started on the day’s lesson.
However, at Union Intermediate School, things were much quieter this past Monday morning, all thanks to Paul McAuliffe and his collection of flutes.
As the students sat on wooden bleachers in the gym, McAuliffe’s gentle flute music filled the room, immediately bringing a hush over the young crowd, inviting them to relax and take a deep breath.
McAuliffe, a flute player and flute maker from Panama City, Fla., shared numerous songs, all originals, with the students. Each time he selected a new flute to play, he educated the children on the flute’s name, the country it hails from, how it was made, and how he plays it.
Students had the opportunity to see and hear a wide variety of flutes because McAuliffe plays bamboo and wood flutes from all over the world. He plays Native American, Japanese, Indian, Eastern European, Australian, Norwegian, Nigerian, and South American flutes, to name a few. He also enjoys playing West African hand drums.
“My favorite flute is this replica of a very old Native American flute,” shared McAuliffe, holding it up for the children to see. “It is made out of red cedar. It’s a quiet flute and has interesting tones.”
With each flute and each song, McAuliffe had a story to tell the students. He shared with them how he especially liked to play his flutes for animals. He said he often visits zoos and the Bear Creek Feline Center in Florida to play for bears, wolves, and big cats such as the endangered Florida panther. “I serenade them,” McAuliffe said. “All animals have their own preferences just like people. Some animals like a certain flute while others don’t.”
McAuliffe recounted for the children one specific visit to a zoo and a bear who was particularly fond of his music. “I remember playing for some bears in the zoo, and this one bear, he was just laying over a big log. It seemed he was kind of down, like he’d rather be out roaming in the wild than be in that cage. I began to play and he got up and came over to me,” explained McAuliffe, using his hands to show the children how close the bear came to the side of the cage where he was. “He was watching me play my flute. Then he stood up on his hind legs and put his front paws on the cage, and he had some big claws. Then he started doing this.” McAuliffe raised his hands in the air and began swaying back and forth, imitating the bear “dancing” to his music.
“When I finished the song, he ran off and played with another bear,” noted McAuliffe. “I was glad I could brighten his day. It’s something I’ll never forget.” From that experience, he wrote the song “Grandfather Bear” which he then played for the Union Intermediate students.
McAuliffe has had many such experiences, ones he never would have dreamed about 10 years ago when he started playing flutes at the age of 48.
“It was an unexpected blessing,” McAuliffe said of his introduction to flutes. “The earth just shook and my life changed. I don’t really know why I started playing flutes. I just had this vague notion about it. When I was young I played string instruments, the guitar, and was in some rock bands. Years later, I visited a Native American shop in Florida, picked up a flute and started playing. It was like an epiphany; I’ve been crazy about flutes ever since. I plan to play the rest of my life.”
Amazingly, McAuliffe only took three actual flute lessons; most of his learning has been on his own. He has read numerous books, done hours of research, and attended some Native American seminars on flute playing and the art of crafting flutes.
Currently, he has a student who he is teaching to make flutes. “He’s made some that are better than mine,” said McAuliffe who has made around 200 flutes. “I’m really proud of that. It’s ensuring that the traditions live on.”
Keeping traditions alive is one reason McAuliffe loves visiting schools like Union Intermediate and sharing his music with young children. “It’s important to show them that there’s more out there musically than what they hear on the radio. It all helps keep these traditions, many of them going back thousands and thousands of years, alive,” said McAuliffe.
Plus, he feels that children need the peace that comes from his music. “21st century kids have so much stimulation from TV, radio, video games, the computer. I just like to create music that can soothe their soul, help them relax, and find a moment of peace if they need it,” said McAuliffe.
Along with his music, McAuliffe loves to share stories with children. “Storytelling, even before there was any real language, was the first form of teaching. It’s a great way to teach and entertain kids,” explained McAuliffe, adding that many of the stories he tells are personal and involve animals. “I like telling the kids about the animals like the big cats. I want them to understand that they are not terrible animals. They’re powerful and I respect them. They are part of God’s plan and the circle of life.”
Before ending the program, Union Intermediate principal Jim Workman took the opportunity to reminded the children that, even though McAuliffe didn’t start playing the flutes until he was in his late forties, he was drawn to and involved in music from the early age of 12. “Music is something that is beautiful, soothing, and can make you happy. Think about that. It is something that can stay with you your whole life.”