Bellbirds are among the treasures of the New Zealand bush. Perhaps not the most spectacular of birds in appearance—they are small, green and quite hard to spot in the forest—but, wow, can they sing! I always feel I’m on holiday when I hear bellbirds, and (I just can’t help myself) I often find I’m working out their melodies and imagining a piece of music I’ll co-write with them.

Last weekend we went away for a much needed break from screens and routines. We took our campervan a few hours drive from our home to a restful area called Peel Forest. We knew of the lovely bush walks there, several of which we hadn’t done before. Bellbirds are heard throughout the bush there, with their melodies varying from one area to another. As soon as we entered the bush on one particular walk one of the locals sang its melodious song. I managed to record it on my phone:

It was echoed by other bellbirds around the walk: some sang the complete tune, some seemed to have only learned 1 or 2 notes of the main theme, and others had added a simple coda to it. Every now and then they would sing one after another in an antiphonal style. This reminded us of the time on a walk much nearer home, when we stopped awestruck at the symphonic beauty of a chorus of bellbirds singing the same melody in unison and other bellbirds across the bushes answering them.

Robin thought the song sung on last weekend’s bush walk was reminiscent of the melody a couple of my pupils learned on violin and cello respectively this year – Minuet 2 by Bach.

 

In our western music we don’t include birdsong as part of our diatonic scale system, but I remember learning in my ethnomusicology studies about some cultures that absolutely include birdsong as part of their music system.

Nevertheless, many classical composers over the years have been inspired by birdsong. Respigi’s “The Birds” comes to mind as just one example.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0YJ55DWCc-s

And every child’s music book seems to have a ‘Cuckoo Song’ in it somewhere.

 

It’s not surprising that bird songs are popular. Birds are natural singers and they do it so well as part of fulfilling their role in the grand scheme of things. The dawn chorus is an especially inspiring soundscape at the start of the day. For me, it is as though the birds begin their day encouraging any listeners to thank the Creator for the new day like they do: with a heart bursting with song.

We all have a song, as it were, in life. Sometimes we know what it is, but some of us are still trying to work out the notes. Whatever stage your song is at, don’t stop singing it. Someone near you needs to be encouraged by your tune.

 

Isaac, one of our sons, said to me as a young lad, “I could never play the piano as good as you, Mum.”  I remember my response too: that not only could he be as good as me, but he could become even better. At that age he didn’t know what was possible. But the seed of possibility was planted.

I recently attended a seminar on building cultural awareness. We were hosting the folks taking the seminar in our home and I wanted to support what they were doing. One of the comments that came up in our discussions at home was: “People don’t know what they don’t know.” I confess that I thought I was pretty good at cultural awareness having lived and worked a good number of years in Asia, but figured there was always more to learn or contribute, so I went along. I learned some things I had not thought about—some helpful things to see my own culture better. I realised that I had been unaware of what I didn’t know and, from that, initially made the assumed conclusion I didn’t need to learn more.

I’ve seen this outworked in teaching music too. I’ve put together a course for parents who need help teaching their own children (Click here to purchase this course). In that course I have quite a bit of information that is vital to success when teaching one’s own children. You don’t know likely pitfalls until you have been through the process of actually teaching your own. Learning from someone else’s pitfalls can save a lot of time and heartache. Of course there is also value in learning from your own mistakes.

From a teacher’s perspective, I have seen so often how incredibly well a pupil does when they follow my suggestions on how to practice something, and how very poorly they do when they don’t.

The logic goes like something like this:

  • She told me what to do.
  • I understood what was supposed to happen in the music…
  • therefore I know how the music goes…
  • therefore I won’t need to practice it.

  But the actual result is:

  • I can’t play it in the lesson a week later.

I explained to a pupil this week that it is a bit like showing your maths workings for the teacher’s reassurance. We teachers want to know that you know how you got there. For me, that you can count out the beats, so you can work out where the note values go—not that you got the hang of it by playing it by ear, yet have no clue how to decode what you are doing.

There is a place for using your ears and some folks who play by ear struggle to have the patience to persist in learning how to read music.  They don’t see the point in it. But I have come across a good number of folks like this who wish they did know how to read music. They have come to realise it actually is a valuable skill, even for someone who has reached a significant ability in playing their instrument without it.

There is so much to gain in learning to read music at the piano. Playing with independent hands takes time and your brain works hard. Having the stamina to work through the basics progressively to become skilled is an uncertain journey at first and seemingly impossible for the beginning player. They don’t yet know what I know: that if they persist and keep up the consistent, accurate, slow, careful, repetitious practice, they will look back one day and realise they have attained so much more than they imagined at the beginning.

That’s what happened to Isaac. He ended up studying classical piano through to obtaining a degree in jazz piano. He now has many skills at the piano that I don’t have. Only by looking back now can he testify that the seemingly impossible became a reality.