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. Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach - they were all the same to him, and elicited the same sweet tones again and again.
But one evening my mood called for something different, and without giving a thought to Harpo, I broke into a rolling Scott Joplin rag called "The Cascades." Within a few bars I was aware of something different in the air. It was Harpo. He had suddenly shifted gears, there was a new flutter in his voice, and, to put it in the vernacular, he seemed to be "groovin'."
I stopped playing and went over to the cage. Harpo had fallen silent. He looked up at me, puffed out his feathers, and then preened. I stepped back and intoned the opening bars to Mozart's Clarinet Quintet. Harpo responded with a series of peeps. I switched to Haydn's Emperor Quartet, and Harpo continued to peep, throwing in an occasional squeal for interest.
Then, without warning, I hit Joplin's sweet, lively rag "Leola" ("Respectfully dedicated," in one of Joplin's trademark annotations, "to Miss Minnie Wade"). Harpo immediately hunched his feathers, shook his head, and let go with a potpourri of peeps, cheeps, and whistles. And so it went all evening.
I played as many rags as my embouchure could sustain: "Peacherine Rag," "A Breeze From Alabama," "Palm Leaf Rag," "Eugenia," and the lovely "Bethena" ("A Concert Waltz - Respectfully Dedicated to Mr. & Mrs. Dan E. Davenport of St. Louis, Mo."). Harpo sang along without letup, each rag seemingly a fresh invigoration.
As for Alyosha, he would still rather have a bird that's a chatterer instead of a hepcat. But I think he appreciates the singular talent of his beloved pet, who can tell the difference between a minuet and a syncopated ragtime march.
Now that spring is coming on, I look forward to being able to throw open the windows on warm evenings so that my neighbors can share in our avian largesse. In the meantime, I continue to practice away, with Harpo as my tireless accompanist. (Or perhaps I am accompanying him?) I still can't get over it. Ragtime. He really likes ragtime. But then again, who doesn't?
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society