How I started playing music for birds

Recording made 7-5-2011, Bach A Major English Suite excerpts

When I went back to playing piano years ago, I never dreamed I’d be playing music for birds. But the birds were listening. This blog will be about my discoveries from sharing music with birds and all they have taught me. It’s an ongoing project: I’m still learning music and from my association with birds.

It all started when I renting an apartment on the third floor of an old six flat. I had not played for years, and I couldn’t play music for my own enjoyment because my expectations were too high: I had no technique, had forgotten how to read music, and I wanted to sound like a concert pianist. Yet I had talked myself into playing again purely for physical reasons; I was losing strength in my hands to arthritis.

The first frustrating time I sat down to play I could remember only the prelude to Bach’s B-flat major Partita, and it seemed like a place to start. I turned on my Fender Rhodes piano, leftover from almost 8 years on the road playing Top 40, and started to play. The window must have been open, because I recall a Mourning Dove landing on the sill. He started to sing along. I was horrified and shut the window on him. I don’t think he gave up that easily, he was back on the sill on the other side of the closed window.

Fast forward a few weeks, months, I began learning the Partita again, and the music was beginning to call to me. Now that I was starting to play, I wanted to share the music. Music is not meant to be played in a vacuum, it is an expression to be experienced by others. I bought a tape recorder so I could make tapes and send them to friends. But that soon became a lonely, frustrating business, driven by the impossible quest for perfection. I couldn’t balance my joy in being able to make music again with what I perceived to be other people’s expectations of it.

The next step was to find another musician through Classical Music Lovers Exchange; we carried on a whirlwind long-distance affair for nine months that he cancelled, but he left me with the idea that the birds were singing along with the music. I might have been peripherally aware of this, and left with nothing but his pronouncement, I decided to check it out myself; after all, if they were singing along, they must have been listening, so I would play for the birds.

I had no idea who was in the chorus. In the true spirit of adventure, I put things I thought birds might eat out on the window ledge to draw them in. And in they came. House Sparrows, European Starlings, Mourning Doves, Northern Cardinals, House Finches, Blue Jays, even Dark-Eyed Juncos and eventually an American Crow I named Elvis.

Once I got used to the birds, it was like being in heaven to play for them. They became the ultimate audience, because they were drawn to the music, and they participated in it.

Inspired by Vladimir Feltsman’s rendition of The Goldberg Variations which he played in recital in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, filling in for an ailing Rosalyn Tureck, I decided to learn the Goldberg. It was while practicing the opening aria that a Mourning Dove–possibly the same one I had shut the window on a couple years before!–started singing, intent on being able to sing along with the piano. But I knew his song to be in C. The Goldberg was in G, at least most of the time. It was difficult to listen to the bird and play at the same time but I had the sense he was singing in key with the music. I got some microphones and started taping the birds singing along with my piano practice. On playback, it turned out the birds were always in key with the music.

I have been taping my piano practice with bird accompaniment ever since. I have a lot more to say about all this and it will take me many posts as I go through hundreds of tapes, journals, correspondences.

Warning: This is not about my piano playing, it is about the birds singing along with it, so I ask you to please pardon the mistakes and stumblings. The birds also have a tendency to talk or sing a lot more when I’m first figuring out something, I suppose because the newness of it (after hearing the same thing over and over again for weeks) intrigues them. Unfortunately this means I will put listeners through the excruciating first readings and stumblings on my part.

I have inserted excerpts from a recording made this morning. We’re learning Bach’s A major English Suite presently. The birds in the background (and if one lands on a microphone, in the foreground) live with me in my house.  I am no longer equipped to play for wild birds (although I will be going through the old tapes to find some remarkable examples). The indoor crowd consists of Budgies, Zebra Finches, Scaly-Breasted or Spotted Munias commonly known as “Spice Finches”, and a couple of Society Finches. The Budgies are rappers. The Zebra Finch males each have distinctive songs, and they sound a bit  like little nasal tin horns. The song of the Spice Finch is too soft to be heard over all the other birds, but I do have recordings from the first Spice Finch somewhere when there was less competition and I will be posting when I find; the Spice Finches do have musical whistling calls, however. The female Society Finch sounds like a turning ratchet, the male whistles and sings loudly when inspired to do so. I’m still learning the tape-to-MP3 program so this may sound a bit disorganized.

And it’s not all going to be Bach, there’s Mozart (thanks to the birds’ encouragement, I trekked through all the piano sonatas), some Brahms, Ravel, Schumann and probably more.

6 thoughts on “How I started playing music for birds

  1. This is the coolest! Synchronity with winged creatures, who truly seem to be enjoying and a real part of the gig!

    Happy Launching,

  2. Thanks for all the info. I have been improvising lately when I’m through practicing something and often riff off what my birds are singing. I only wish I could take a piano out into the wilderness… When I started all this almost 20 years ago, I was in a 3rd floor apartment in the trees. I miss playing for the wild ones. 🙂

  3. A song sparrow that lives nearby loves this. He sits in the tree outside my patio singing away whenever I have music playing that he like. I played this for him this afternoon, he is just singing awat!

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