“Songbirds don’t sing to be the most accomplished songbird. They sing because it’s an innate thing that songbirds do because they’re alive.”
One of the speakers at a conference I attended this month said this during his talk. I was struck by how it removes intentionality from a core action of being a bird: to sing. Birds don’t need any more of a reason to sing than that they are alive and so they are true to their nature. The speaker truly knew his audience when he unleashed this little gem on us. This was a conference of highly accomplished technical artists with big hearts and a healthy dose of imposter syndrome and Drive. We all struggle to remember the joy in doing what is innate to us, especially when the storm kicks up, whatever that storm may be on a given day. The audience knew, deep down, that while it is innate to many of us to want to accomplish our goals and operate at a high level, there is a deeper meaning of ‘innate’ that songbirds tap into. But what did that mean for us?
For those who have been on a zoom call with me while I’m at home in Philadelphia, you know that for six months of the year my sonic landscape is characterized by very loud birds. In fact, I had to remove the bird feeder outside my window a few months into the pandemic because every time I got on a call people would ask who was attacking who in the background. (side note: mourning doves are bullies when it comes to sunflower seeds). Point being, birds make tons of noise, not just song, because noise, too, is an innate part of being a songbird and being alive, but that’s not the same as singing. In addition to all of their fight-or-flight sounds that might, indeed, be geared toward sending a message of superiority to the other birds, songbirds sing for any number of reasons. So, what’s the difference? How can birds go from noise to song and back again without conflating the two? How do these two innate ways of being exist in harmony? Why is it, I wondered, that my own version of “singing” as an artist is so convoluted sometimes? I wondered if I was capable of separating noise from song in my own practice.
I think one of the challenges is that I undervalue ‘song’, both literally and metaphorically. This taps right into my fears of being self-indulgent in my work at the expense of connection to an audience, but to stick with the literal interpretation for a moment, the day after this conference ended I went on a weeklong backpacking trip with my sister-in-law at Isle Royale and Voyageurs National Parks. Isle Royale is the least visited National Park in the lower 48 (and requires a 2-9 hour boat ride to reach) and at both parks we were rarely in shouting distance of other humans. We fell asleep most nights to the sound of loons and hermit thrushes (hermit thrushes are my favorite birds. To me, their song is what very thin stained glass would sing, if it could). The bird songs that week had a profound effect on me. Not only did they put me to sleep faster than I’ve fallen asleep in years, they also, dare I say it, relaxed me. I hardly need to tell anyone reading this that relaxation does not come easily to me.
Moreover, in connection with last month’s post, these songs gave my ears, which are usually strained and overwhelmed from living in a city, a reason to exist. They gave purpose to my sensitivity. I found myself crying one afternoon of the trip because I realized that I hadn’t put earplugs in all week. Not only did I not need to protect myself with a sonic barrier, my ears were, in fact, stretching their abilities to listen for the distant rumble of thunder, the soft wind through the trees across the bay, and the calls of birds far in the distance responding to the ones in the branches above the tent. If the birds had not bothered to sing because they were afraid their songs weren’t as good as other songs, I would be decidedly worse off.
It is a huge relief that songbirds don’t sing to be the most accomplished songbird. It is a gift to all of us that they sing because it’s an innate thing that songbirds do because they’re alive. In short, songs matter for, among other reasons, the pure aesthetic joy they provide. They reach a human audience, in addition to a bird audience of one or more, in ways birds don’t anticipate, and they do it because singing is innate to them. They weren’t singing to put me to sleep, it just worked out that way. I hope to do the same with my own work and I find it hard but worthwhile to grapple with doing work that matters and trusting that the audience will be with me when the work comes from a songbird state of mind. My job is to ensure I’m up in the branches, singing. Some of my favorite moments in the last month have been telling impromptu ghost stories around a campfire. This isn’t, strictly speaking, “what I do as an artist,” but also… isn’t it? I am a songbird in my own right and while telling those stories I didn’t get in my head about them being the best ever campfire story, I did it because I wanted to, right then, because I love not knowing where a story will go and having it sort itself out along the way. I love holding the audience in my sight and story and crafting something new, just for us. I love surprising myself and others with a narrative that clicks into place over time. For me, it is an innate part of being alive to practice art improvisational and communally.
I’m not saying that I’ll never again enter the Most Accomplished Songbird of America Competition – that still feels like a lifelong challenge to let go of- but I hope to continue to orient around song rather than accomplishment; to let go of my love of ticking off boxes on a to-do list and let there be poetry and lyrics and music notes on the page instead. So can I tease out noise from song right now? Sometimes. A bit. But my goal right now is not to get the answer to that question right, it is simply to climb up into the branches and sing.