Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

My Fine-Feathered Accompanist

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

My Fine-Feathered Accompanist

Article excerpt

Two years ago, when my son, Alyosha, was 12, I gave in to his request for a parakeet. While I was cool to the idea at first (anticipating that care of the pet would eventually fall to me), I immediately took to the young bird with its plumage reminiscent of clouds passing against the bluest of skies.

My son, for his part, envisioned his new pet sitting loyally on his shoulder and carrying on a running dialogue. Both Alyosha and I commenced the language instruction without delay, talking to the bird at every opportunity, repeating stock phrases like "Pretty boy," "Good bird," "Hello! Hello!" But all he would do in return was whistle or chirp or peep. This inspired my son to christen his new pet "Harpo." And true to his namesake, he has never spoken a word.

But Harpo is highly animated, a veritable acrobat within and outside his spacious cage. The variety of his vocal emanations has also increased. There is the roosterlike screech at dawn, his almost cooing whistle of contentment once the day is under way, the whoop that constitutes his call for attention, and - perhaps most satisfying - his response to music in the form of a panoply of squeals, pips, and squeaks.

I first became aware of Harpo's musical aptitude when, one day, I was practicing the adagio to Mozart's magnificent Clarinet Concerto. As I piped my horn as passionately as the acoustics of our small library/den would allow, I became faintly aware of a change in Harpo's vocalizations.

At the beginning of my practice he had been cooing amicably in his cage, but several bars into the adagio he seemed to be modulating his tones and marking time. It was very pleasant, and I suddenly realized why composers like Boccherini had written pieces incorporating birdsong.

I immediately called Alyosha's attention to his pet's songfulness, but he paid it only passing attention, as it didn't involve rock 'n' roll. But I was fascinated by Harpo's taste in human music. Little did I suspect at the time, however, the interesting turn his preference would take.

It wasn't long before I came to look forward to my impromptu duets with Harpo, even though he didn't seem able to discriminate between composers. …

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