I Can Hear You Callin’

Black-Capped Chickadee

Black-Capped Chickadee

I think I was hearing the music to “It Keeps You Runnin'” by the Doobie Brothers/Michael McDonald when I thought up this title instead of the Three Dog Night music which is where it belongs, but the phrase was inspired by two experiences I had this week on the way to the train in the morning through the snow and cold.

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As if to welcome the new year, I heard both a Black-Capped Chickadee and a Northern Cardinal singing on January 2. It seemed quite remarkable then, as it was already snowy and cold, but as the weather deteriorated further, it has been eerily quiet around the neighborhood through all the arctic chill. Wolf-whistling European Starlings, something I could always count upon in previous years, are a distant memory,

Thursday morning I was in a general funk on the way to the train. Every body part ached, piles of snow seemed almost insurmountable, layers of clumsy clothing further impeding whatever is left of my agility, and I was not looking forward to going to work and was generally tired of even trying to deal with it.

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Then when I was perhaps three blocks from home, a distant Black-Capped Chickadee started to sing, immediately interrupting my misery. I  tried to respond – my whistle not being very whet – and he sang back. My whistle improved, and we continued like this, back and forth, for a moment of another block or so until I got out of range. Donald Kroodsma so aptly describes the song, “Hey, Sweetie” – and I realized the Chickadee had come to my rescue and completely dispelled all my negative, self-absorbed thoughts. It was almost as if he heard me calling out for help and responded in the only way he could, by offering song, since he was too far away for me to hear his call, “dee-dee-dee.” How wonderful for him to be there to remind me that music is the most important thing in life.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

And yesterday morning, again on the way to the train, albeit the weather forecast improving slightly and my mood much improved by the fact that it was Friday, a Northern Cardinal began to sing with a bit of reserve. I whistled back, almost under my breath, and that must have inspired him because he started to sing louder, more elaborate phrases. I do not in any way attribute this to “countersinging.” He knew I was not another bird and he was not trying to out-whistle me. Indeed, I think he was glad to have an audience and was inspired by my response to his singing because then he knew someone was listening. And this gets back to the very first times I started playing music for birds and listening to their response. We began to communicate in this way: we were listening to each other. It’s not all about territory and attracting mates. It’s about the sheer joy of making music and offering communication to the universe. The birds have known this for millennia. Through them I again come to realize music is the defining force in my life.

As I sit here brewing another pot of bird-friendly coffee, my indoor birds call and sing, back and forth, and the radio is playing infinite Strauss waltzes and polkas. Outside, a considerable melt is progressing, now with a forecast for flooding. Walking home through driving rain, deep puddles and melting snow and ice last night was an adventure I don’t care to repeat. Although I welcome changes in weather as they dispel monotony, now a little monotony would be appreciated.

But the birds never stop paying attention, and to them, every day is new, and now, longer than the last. They are attuned to every nuance in the climate because they live in it. Most likely the extended daylight has triggered the singing responses of my avian friends in the morning. And I am thankful that I was out walking early enough to hear them. I am also convinced my responses to their singing were almost as important to them as their expressions of life were to me.

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A Return to In-Keyness


waterfall in Peru...


What does it mean? What is the significance of the birds singing in key with human music, with people unwittingly responding the same way, talking in the key of the music in the background, or of the music ringing in their ears after a performance? It’s not hard for me to imagine the vibrations left by the instruments still wafting in the air. Is it just a natural phenomenon, a matter of course, something to be taken for granted, or is there some significance to it? Is there perhaps something right in front of our eyes, or our ears, or our entire beings, that we are missing by ignoring it? We certainly ignore a lot of things that we take for granted. Heaven knows we’re too busy to waste time reflecting on or paying attention to natural phenomena when we have work to do, dinner to cook, phone calls to make and receive, social networks to attend. To try to slow down your day long enough to listen, or to look, fully with the senses you were born with, is the equivalent of an altered state. Why is this? It seems to me we shouldn’t have to be unusual, deranged or distracted to pay attention.

                When I began to think about everything or everyone being in key, naturally, without having to do anything except be alive and present, it was tempting to make analogies to universal language, harmony (which connotes peace), and all those symbols that give hope to a chaotic existence. I wondered about the mechanics of it: if baby birds are born begging in key, what about human babies? If there is music at birth, is the child’s first cry in key with it?

The flip side suggests that where there is discord, perhaps we are then out of tune. In any range of the spectrum, from a simple argument to acts of aggression, will we still automatically be in key because we have no control over it, or in the alternative, will the friction render us out of key?

The next conclusion is that there must be some way to measure, on a cellular level, the effect music has on our well-being. If you’re skeptical about musical vibrations on a minute level, listen to a recording of the sounds made by yeast.  If exposure to noise rearranges our molecules enough to cause us harm, what of the opposite effect? There are plenty of proponents of music therapy. Can this be measured? Are there better ways to treat more illnesses with music than we know? Is the act of playing music or singing restorative? Music used to be a much bigger part of our lives than it is now, people participated more often than being passive recipients of music. On the bright side, due to enhanced methods of communication, we are now being exposed to other musics more often than those we consider our own, as “world music” becomes popular. Is there any way that sharing music can become a metaphor for peaceful coexistence?

I will return to this subject from time to time because it fascinates me, but I also tend to veer off in divergent directions. I cannot stay up all night so I will leave you with this thought: whether you realize it or not, music is all around us and within us, even in silence, as John Cage was so apt to point out.

Back to the wild

Immature American Robin

I’ve been trying to go through some of the older tapes, recorded when I was still able to play for wild birds. But it is the wild birds that beckon, making it hard to sit for hours at the computer when fall migration is underway outside, and the weather has been beautiful the last two days, so I have been out in the forest preserves searching for migrants. I was hearing the invention from the Bach A Minor English Suite in my head yesterday and every bird I listened to seemed to be in key with it. However this morning I was less aware of any particular musical background, perhaps due to the weather change; we had dropped 10 degrees or more. And the chill winds were keeping the birds from singing too; I don’t remember hearing much more than chip notes today.

One thing recording the birds has done for my playing, such as it is, is it taught me how to listen. I don’t know why it’s so difficult to listen, or pay attention, to yourself when you’re playing, but it often seems you might as well be doing something else. I don’t think I heard half of what I was playing until I started taping the practice sessions. Then it became impossible to not listen back to my playing as well as the singing of the birds. Usually I’m listening for a painful faux pas, to the point where I can often anticipate it, but I have also gained a lot of insight into a piece and where I wanted to go with it. And because I was doing all this with the purpose of listening to the birds and not obsessing about my playing, I’d like to think I could approach listening with a more open mind, if you will, rather than with the crippling criticism of a perfectionist. I imagine the birds have given me license to play imperfectly but as musically as possible. I would like to play as sweetly as they sound.

In the attached recording the birds are unfortunately a bit far away. This is Mozart’s C Major Sonata K 309, and a robin starts singing toward the end of the Adagio and into the third movement, and he sounds rather ethereal. The hardest thing about playing music for birds is that I want to listen to them instead of to what I’m playing. So listening has become a circular dilemma after all.

There’s Noise, and then there’s NOISE

Recording of Haydn C Major and Constant Budgies

Recording of Scarlatti C Major Sonata with Budgies

Attached is part of a Haydn sonata I was apparently reading through (please accept my apologies, although I warned you in the beginning this was NOT about my playing), with my budgies carrying on constantly. It reminds me of their “cocktail hour,” which is something they used to do with regularity in the early evening: just break out into constant commentary. Also attached is part of a Scarlatti sonata which was part of the same session; they’ve calmed down quite a bit, but I included it because it’s pretty music that I’d forgotten about and was delighted to find.

One talks, the other listens

Budgies carrying on while I play piano may sound noisy. In some respects, they are. But compared to the vast array of human-created noises (including my piano), they barely contribute to the pollution of the aural airspace.

Listening to birds made me more aware of my hearing and what I was and was not listening to. As I strove to hear more birds, I wanted to hear less and less of the human noise that drowns them out. That I live in a suburban area and work in an urban environment doesn’t help.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to go on a naturalist tour of the Burren in Ireland, and I can remember waking up mornings thinking the bird song was incredible. Nobody considers Ireland a top destination for birds and so this may be hard to imagine, but by comparison to where I live, with traffic noise constant, whether loud or a low murmur, planes flying overhead, not to mention booming car stereos, lawn mowers or snow plows–depending on the season–leaf blowers, what-have-you, a rural town in Ireland is a very quiet place, so you get to hear the birds sing in the morning. And realize what you’ve been missing the rest of your life.

I work downtown and the noise is deafening. At any moment a car horn can blast in your ear or an emergency vehicle siren ricocheting off the concrete canyons can make your ears hurt, if your ears are still able to feel and not permanently dulled from hearing loss. Here I had discovered birds late in life and I want to hear them, but if I continue to subject myself to the urban noise, I wouldn’t be able to hear at all. I had to do something, not always having hands free to plug up my ears with my fingers (which is by far most effective). So I started wearing earplugs, fashion be damned, from the moment I get on the train in the morning, because the train too is noisy, and when you get off in the station it’s a whole other experience of idling engines spitting, arriving trains clanging their bells and screeching their brakes, not to mention the distorted, ear-splitting announcements over the PA system that are still too loud even if I press my fingers against my ears. Earplugs cushion your ears against harm but you can still hear, and if it’s too loud, the earplugs are only making the decibels a little less detrimental. Conversely it’s quite possible to go to a rock concert or a hockey game with your earplugs and be able to hear everything just fine, including your un-earplugged friends yelling to you over the noise.

There have been plenty of studies about how all this noise pollution is dehumanizing us, affecting our health, contributing to our demise. But nobody seems to think about it. I cannot recall seeing one other person with earplugs. Occasionally I will see someone’s hands go up to their ears, but for the most part, people walk through the city stopping only their conversation as ear-blasting noise like a fire truck or ambulance approaches and drives by.

The best antidote to all this damage, of course, is getting back to nature. The birds remind me of this all the time. My birds at home will never be so tame that they’ll allow me to watch TV with the sound on. Not that I am much of a TV watcher anyway, but the budgies shout over it in their “noise” voice, the same one they use to communicate or to try to drown out the vacuum cleaner, which is probably the worst noisy appliance I subject them to (the blender and food processors are short-lived noises, so it must be the droning-on that gets them). Yes, believe it or not, their “noise” voice is harsher than their “rap” that goes along with the piano.

Something about the tinny sound of the TV just drives the budgies crazy and they immediately have to drown it out. So I have learned to live with closed captioning, although I don’t know how anyone who cannot hear makes sense of it since half the interpretations are phonetic and the words often come out completely unrelated to the subject at hand. Only if there’s something I really want to watch do I go to another part of the house where the birds don’t hang out. But I don’t feel deprived. I don’t miss TV, and I’m glad, because now there are studies saying the more we watch TV, the more years we take off our lives.

The birds taught me how to listen to them and a lot of other things I used to blot out along with noise. I don’t want to be incapable of hearing them, or anything else I want to listen to. Hearing loss is not a necessary result of aging. It’s due to noise pollution.