Musician visits lab to tell stories through music, talk with students


Matthew McGehee

Keith Bear sits in a music classroom and talks to students about his music and storytelling. He crafts flutes and uses them to create musical compositions that tell stories.

Zara Siddique, Audience Engagement Manager

The airy sound of the flute floats across the room. A soft inhale, and the windy sound of the instrument fills the space again, slightly stronger this time. As the song progresses, an intricate rhythm and pattern is created. These notes tell a story, a story inspired by a man coming home from work, eager to see his wife. 

The next song tells the story of the birth of a child. The next is the story of a young couple in love. Countless experiences have been told to the musician, and he has transformed them into song. 

Keith Bear is a Mandan-Hidatsa storyteller and musician, who has dedicated his career to weaving the two together and traveling across the United States and Europe, spreading his knowledge to students of all ages. He visited U-High and middle school classes April 17-19. 

Mr. Bear never planned to pursue music; it pursued him. He said many people approached him urging him to compose or play for them. 

“I asked a family, I said ‘I made this for you, can I use it?’ and they said no, so I don’t use that song. It’s their song now, it’s for them,” Mr. Bear said.

Alongside composing he also crafts his flutes. This has added  to the meticulous nature  of his music career where he believes that for every song there is a specific flute which must fit the song. 

“I can’t read music. I have to listen to it and ask ‘How does it make me feel?’ and then I have to choose a flute that matches, or sometimes two or three flutes,” Mr. Bear said. “I find that flute that fits.”

Motivation isn’t linear for Mr. Bear. He draws his inspiration from all around him. From his wife, kids or even from the stories of others. He said his creative process was constantly changing. 

“It depends on where I’m going, how I’m feeling,” Mr. Bear said. 

People will often hire him to compose a song based on a personal experience they share with him. Mr. Bear emphasized that these songs belong to the people for which they are made and are no longer his once they are created, and how he also believes that these songs are seasonal and must only be played at a designated time.

“When the ice melts, and the river — boom! — breaks, then I can’t play them anymore,” Mr. Bear said. “There’s a time for every song.” 

Mr. Bear travels to schools and classes around the country, and he explained that the impact of his music does surprise him at times, but he also understands that for some people music is medicine. 

“I have seen people cry, I have seen people celebrate, I have seen people fall in love,” Mr. Bear said. “They’re very powerful in what they do.”