Native American Flute Player Gets Schooled (by a Wood Thrush)
It’s a stretch of woods that I had walked dozens of times. Before starting down the footpath, I usually greet the trees and offer a pinch of tobacco. My favorite part of this area is a grove of Oak and Tulip Poplar that adds a subtle, diffuse reverb to my Native American Flute songs. But on this day, I was there just to listen. I didn’t know that I was about to be gifted one of the best music lessons I have ever had in a lifetime of music study.
Mid-May is peak bird migration time in Maryland and many friends were returning to set up their households for the year. My favorite singer of the bunch is Wood Thrush. It’s not unusual on a mid-May morning in this stretch of woods to hear several of them at a time, calling out from different perches. I have heard dozens of wood thrushes for every one that I have actually seen. Even when they do put in an appearance, they often flit off again after just a brief glimpse.
So when Wood Thrush began a song nearby, I looked towards the sound hoping to get a quick look. Though not as flashy as some, Wood Thrush is a beauty - a less bulky Robin shape with chocolate brown upper parts, a heavily spotted white breast and large white-ringed eyes. He was sitting on a branch less than ten feet away, just above my eye level. I expected him to notice me and take off. Instead, he stayed for nearly fifteen minutes and improvised a masterpiece of song.
Wood Thrush’s usual song can be heard as having several distinctive elements. It begins with a couple quick “tchk tchk” sounds, a call to attention. These are followed by several flute like notes of remarkable purity. Then comes a metallic, buzzy trill that sounds like it could have come straight from a synthesizer. The resonance of this last sound contrasts so extremely with the other motifs that it often seems to be coming from a different place entirely, as though Wood Thrush can throw his voice. These elements combine into a phrase that lasts just a few seconds. The final element of the song is silence. The silences between phrases are often longer than the phrases themselves.
This description is misleading. It suggests that Wood Thrush’s song had just one phrase that was simply repeated over and over like some pop song hooks. But my teacher was a master composer, not satisfied with mindless repetition. Elements were continually varied in each phrase, occasionally even rearranged. The flute-like bit in the middle might be anywhere from three to five, even seven notes long. The notes were continually presented in fresh permutations and slightly different rhythm patterns. With each new phrase, the metallic whir at the end might change duration or be a slightly different color. It might move to another pitch midway through. Or it might be left out entirely. The silences were different lengths, sometimes so long that I thought the song was over until a fresh “tchk tchk” announced it would continue. Occasionally, the “tchk tchk” was followed only by more silence.
On and on he went, phrase after beautiful phrase. Always the same, but always different and endlessly engaging. Each phrase was the length it needed to be, never longer or shorter than what was required. His pacing was spot on, never in a hurry, always allowing the right amount of time between phrases. When he had finished, he stayed through an especially long silence, then flew off, quickly disappearing into the surrounding trees. I stood for several moments not wanting to break the spell, then thanked him and went on my way, a changed flute player.
Many biologists would accuse me of anthropomorphizing when I describe Wood Thrush’s song as beautiful and thank him for a music lesson. It’s true that as a trained human musician, I was probably listening differently than my Wood Thrush teacher was. For him, the silences may have been an opportunity to hear responses from other Wood Thrush singers in the area or to notice that Ovenbird had arrived overnight or that Pileated Woodpecker was drumming on a new tree today. For me, the silences were perfectly timed pauses between his phrases. But I could hear the rest of the soundscape, too. So his silences were also a continual reminder that Wood Thrush was not performing a virtuoso solo. His song was part of a rich symphony composed fresh every day by all the members of what natural sound expert Bernie Krauss has described as “The Great Animal Orchestra”. Wood Thrush’s voice occupied a unique niche within the soundscape, ensuring that what he needed to sing could be heard by all those who needed to hear it.
I say that Wood Thrush gifted me a wonderful music lesson because his song offered an exquisite model of the kinds of things human musicians aspire to achieve. Beginning improvisors and composers are continually encouraged to use variation techniques to create as much interesting music as possible from as little musical material as possible. Louis Armstrong spinning out an improv from a tune fragment. Joseph Haydn making an entire string quartet out of one small musical gesture. Annie Clark choosing just the right moment for a great guitar lick. These are inspiring examples from human musical masters. Wood Thrush using a handful of contrasting elements to generate endlessly varied phrases for nearly fifteen minutes is an equally inspiring example from a non-human being master musician.
Wood Thrush offering his unique voice within a rich soundscape is not unlike jazz players trading eights or each musician knowing their role in a Gamelan Ensemble. The freely shifting phrase lengths remind me of traditional Cherokee song, Shakuhachi music and Gregorian Chant. His use of silence is a lesson for all of us. The next time you are jamming with friends, encourage everyone to realize they do not have to play all the time. Notice how much more compelling the music becomes if the texture is always changing. A quintet suddenly becomes a duo, becomes a different duo, becomes a fresh quartet. Now it means something when everyone plays together.
The music making of human beings has so much in common with the music of non-human beings that it is easy to believe our music making began as an attempt to fit into an already existing soundscape. We are the new kids on the block. Like all kids, we learn by watching, listening and imitating. Wood Thrush singing in the woods, Wind over the tundra, Water gurgling in a stream - all are great music teachers. Every ecosystem has its own soundscape filled with inspiring music. Find one that calls to you. Visit often, approach with respect, make a small offering. Listen with your ears and heart wide open. Listen for how you can fit in. Eventually you may be offered a gift. Be sure to say thanks.
Years later, this experience guided the track “Wood Thrush Greets the Dawn” on my album River and Circle. Next time, I’ll share how that happened. In the meantime, here is a link to a YouTube video of that track.
You can also the album on Spotify, iTunes and many other streaming sites. Search for Ron Warren or the album title.
Forest Path by David Bruyndonckx at Unsplash
Wood Thrush by Steve Maslowski, courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
The Great Animal Orchestra / Bernie Krauss / Little, Brown and Company
Sumac Found Stick Flute in C crafted by Colyn Petersen, photo by Ron Warren
River and Circle CD cover / Ron Warren