Ed Dougherty, Tree of Life Designs

An Interview in Overtones! newsletter, World Flute Society, by Dr. Kathleen Joyce-Grendahl, November 2018

Can you give me a a paragraph to introduce the interview that sums up how you feel about the NA Flute  

Thanks so much for inviting me to share a little bit about me with your audience. I would have to say that I am a woodworker first. My interest started as a boy pestering my Grandfather in his shop as he worked as well as sweeping up the sawdust he made. It’s been in my blood ever since. I came to the Native flute after moving to North Carolina in 2000. Like so many people I “heard the call”. Mine was at a Holistic expo in Raleigh where an elderly Native Woman was playing the flutes that she made. It wasn’t long till I purchased my first flute, a rather poorly constructed one that I struggled with. About to give up I acquired a High Spirits cedar A that taught me that I could actually play. I was hooked at that point and set out in earnest to learn the instrument.  

What was your occupation before the NAF came into your life? Are you still doing this?  

My background is in Industrial Engineering with a specialization in fluid power systems. I gravitated early to the sales side and landed in the Welding Industry in the late 80’s. I currently hold a full time position with a manufacturer of Electric Welding Equipment and accessories where I manage the Central and Eastern North Carolina sales territory.  

Do you have any prior musical background and/or music education? Do you read music or TABlature?  

No, I have no formal music education. After taking up flute making I endeavored to learn basic music theory with the idea that it would help me to be a better instrument maker and to communicate better with my musician customers. Most of my playing is improvisational but I do also play from TAB.  

When did you start making flutes?  

I made my first few flutes in 2006. In spring/summer of 2007 I dove head first into learning the craft.  

How did you learn to make NAFs?  

An internet search led me to Russ Wolf’s book “Flute Shop. A Guide to Crafting the Native American Style Flute”. I also found some other resources such as Lew Paxton Price’s books which are very heavy on the physics of the craft, I read every single one and still have them in my library. Eventually I found the Flute Making group on Yahoo forums which was very active at the time. It was a pool of experienced makers willing to share their knowledge. The real answer though is that I learned from making flutes and I made lots of flutes. I also made lots of mistakes, took lots of notes and asked lots of questions of the guys with experience.  

What were your first flute attempts like?  

My first attempts were much what you would expect, mediocre at best. They were though, good enough to propel me forward and encourage me to continue and improve.  

How did you learn to tune flutes?  

Russ Wolf’s book and the Paxton-Price books helped tremendously at first as did the advice that I received from experienced makers. Eventually I found the early versions of the tuning software that were out there as open source programs. The guys that put them out were easily accessible and open to questions and I asked more than my share.  

Are you a full-time flute maker?  

At this time, no. I still rely on the steady income and benefits of a full time job. At certain times, like when I am preparing for a Flute Festival or event it is much like having two full time jobs. It’s much more than a hobby and has consumed the best part of my evenings, weekends and vacation times since about 2010. It’s a major commitment but one I make willingly and find incredibly rewarding.  

What is your favorite wood to use and why?  

I really enjoy exploring the variety of woods, especially in combination. I can’t say that I have one that stands above the rest but my favorites include Eastern Red Cedar for its beauty, workability and sound. Maple for it’s variety in grain and pattern and appearance. Perhaps mostly black walnut for the way it looks and finishes but primarily for its consistency. A well-made walnut flute just seems to improve with age.  

How many different Native American-style flutes do you make?  

I make a full range of flutes in the contemporary minor pentatonic tuning. I have made from a high E to a low bass E and everything in between. I make flutes in a wide variety of woods as well as bamboo which I really enjoy working with. In addition to the block and fipple flutes, I also make the southwestern rim blown style flutes and folk style transverse flutes and have dabbled in some vessel flutes as well.  

What is the most difficult aspect of making flutes?  

For me, the most difficult part has become finding the time to do it while maintaining the standard that I have set for myself. My personal goal is incremental but consistent improvement in all aspects of my craft.  

What is the most rewarding aspect of flute making?  

By far the most rewarding aspect for me has been the people I’ve met. The connections that we have made and continue to make, make the long hours in the shop and every little sacrifice worthwhile. The feedback that we receive heartens us to continue. The feeling that I get when someone picks up one of my flutes and their face lights up is just magical, incredibly humbling and extremely rewarding.  

What makes your NAFs unique?  

With little exception, each flute that I make is a one of a kind, stand-alone piece. I really enjoy pushing the limits of my wood joinery skills which has led to some stunning combinations. In addition, I have dedicated a lot of my time in researching wood finishing methods and have settled on a combination of eco-friendly, safe and natural oils that yield a finish that really shows the inherent beauty of the wood, are easy to maintain and improve with age.  

What is your philosophy about making flutes?  

My goal is to craft a well-made and tuned, finely finished quality instrument at a reasonable price. To be a flute maker with a reputation for integrity that stands above the product I make.  

What do you see in the future for the Native American-style flute?  

That’s a tough question Kathleen. Currently there is a lot of grey hair in the market place, min included. As makers, musicians and enthusiasts we have a big challenge and responsibility to engage with a younger and more diverse audience. I have seen firsthand how the instrument speaks to people and it is on us as the “Elders” of the community to make it welcoming and encouraging to a younger and more diverse audience.  

Do you play the NAF, other than for testing purposes?  

Yes I do. I am not one that gravitates to performing and mostly play for my own satisfaction and relaxation. That said, I try not to shy away from opportunities to play in public. My wife, Dawn, and I have offered some “learn to play” workshops in recent years and find them to be most rewarding.  

To date, what do you feel is your greatest musical accomplishment?  

My greatest musical accomplishment has to be the instruments that I craft. To have both professional and enthusiast players pick up my flutes and make beautiful music is both humbling and rewarding.  

How and when did you meet your wife, Dawn Leith-Dougherty?  

It was actually the flute that brought us together. We both attended our very first local flute circle meeting at the same time. We developed a strong and supportive friendship over the years and eventually fell in love. One of my finest memories is sitting together for the closing Saturday night performance at Native Rhythms Festival. It was an ideal fall evening as we sat on the lawn listening to Mark Holland and Autumn’s Child perform “She Who Weaves Light”. To top it off a full ‘super” moon shined above, it was truly magical. For the first time, we both felt that there was more to this than a simple friendship, it was a powerful experience and from that time forward she has had my heart. The Native Flute was present at the start and still plays an important role in our lives.  

What part does she play in Tree of Life Designs?  

Dawn plays a large and integral part in Tree of Life Designs. Most obviously she handles our website and manages our online activities. Far beyond that she provides to me the encouragement and space required to work at my craft. Literally, I cannot do it without her and would not be where I am today with her caring and loving support.  

Does Dawn play the NAF?  

Yes indeed! Between the two of us Dawn is the more creative player and the more natural musician. She creates all of the sound clips for the flutes that we list on the website. As a new and exciting development, Dawn is currently performing in a local acoustic band. Besides providing vocals and percussion she has brought the Native Style Flute into the group in a few songs. 

Can I get a little bio information on Dawn? 

Dawn is a proud mother of a former US Marine, a current student at UNLV who is supporting himself and taking advantage of the GI Bill to earn his degree. Dawn has worn many hats over the years including former office worker, medical transcriptionist, racetrack manager and anthem singer, IT worker, horticulturist and plant professional, Reiki Master-Teacher, musician, who runs our home businesses and cares for our vintage 1890 home with all its trappings and our menagerie of fur children and plants. Dawn is a self-taught herbalist and aromatherapist. She hand crafts a full line of natural herbal smudging products and body care products under the banner Tree Of Life Apothecary. Dawn has also authored a book, “Sage Advice,” about energetic smudging practices, available in her Etsy shop. She is a Chicagoan who has moved around a bit, and found North Carolina to be her forever home.