Beethoven’s Mockingbird

When I was twelve years old my mother brought home a parakeet she named Polly, who, by the way, did not like crackers. Polly, I would discover, had an ear for music. She knew good playing from bad playing and made her opinions clear. It was not mistakes or wrong notes that got on her bad side. It was the character of the music she cared about. Tempo, phrasing, tone colour, all manner of expression had to suit her.

It took awhile for me to learn and appreciate her gifts and to take them seriously. But I did. As a result of this experience I learned to listen to Nature in a way I might not have otherwise.

Many years later when I was preparing Beethoven’s Piano Sonata, Opus 111 for a performance in San Francisco, a mockingbird landed on the chimney of the fireplace in the living room where the piano was. I was practicing the last page where the trills bring this masterpiece to a serene close. I had no problem playing the notes of the trill but the character of its sound was not as it should be. I just couldn’t get the sound to suit me.

I was playing the first appearance of the trill in the highest register of the piano when the mockingbird started to sing and imitate it. It tried to sing the same pitches but the register was too high, out of its range, and it was getting frustrated!

When the trills moved down an octave the bird began to sing the G and A alternations in perfect synchronization with me. The sound was glorious to hear and our duet gave me chills. The bird was singing the sound I knew Beethoven had in mind. Its notes were blended together and he was singing with a sincerity and abandonment and joy of life. It was a revelation!

After the recital in San Francisco a few months later several attendees came up to me and complimented the sound of the trills, asking how did I do it. All I could say was, “A bird taught me.”