For the birds

birdies play

Every once in a while a coincidence presents itself that is so delightful, you can’t believe your good luck. But as it turns out, an exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum just happened to coincide with our bird studies in the pre-kindergarten class I teach.

The PreK teachers believed that a trip to see the exhibit FreePort [No. 007]: Céleste Boursier-Mougenot would be the ideal celebration of our thematic study, and so booked a trip to see it on January 29. What follows is a (8-minute) film that I created to immortalize our memories and to help others learn about our adventure. I interviewed the children the morning after our visit, when we were refreshed. As one might expect some children found it OK to reflect on the experience at PEM, despite the camera. Others found it more difficult. But wanting to include the voice of all twelve little visitors, you will see the range of responses without voiceover.

If you have a chance to visit PEM before this exhibit is dismantled, (April 13th is the last day) DO go! Your child can now be your personal docent.

Perhaps you heard about this surprising installation for it has been the talk of the town since its opening on January 18th. Céleste Boursier-Mougenot is the artist who conceived of putting a flock of finches, in this case zebra finches, in a large room with amplified electric guitars and brass cymbals containing seed and water. The result? Finches perching on guitar strings and finches landing on cymbals, creating what might at first seem to be random twangs and pings. But then, as one watches these sweet little birds flit from one part of the room to another, one begins to wonder if in fact at least some of the sounds were made with intention.

I asked one of the revolving caretakers of the birds if she believed the zebra finches understood somehow that there was a connection between the birds’ movements and the sounds those movements created on the guitars. Her response was quite interesting. She believed they had not yet discovered that connection but would in time, through repetition perhaps. What she had noticed was that the sounds did not seem to disturb or worry the birds at all. They seemed quite content to go about their daily “chores” (building nests, attending to mates, eating food and gravel and drinking water and flying among all these activities) without paying much notice to the compositions, or sounds they were making.

In pondering whether or not Boursier-Mougenot’s hopes were realized when our dozen four and five-year-olds visited, I have to conclude that they were!  Were we surprised? Oh my, yes — very much so. Were our former perceptions of music altered somehow by the event? Again, yes. One had to wonder, what is music? What is song? Cannot a bird create both even if one of the two (playing guitars) seemed random?

It’s quite fun to link the experience to those I have had with children who discover the magic of sound when they tap stones together, or tap a spoon against the side of their cereal bowl. At first the sound is random and without rhythm, but usually this soon leads to a composition of sorts. Perhaps it can even lead to playing a tune they have internalized, like the singing of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.

Could these little zebra finches experience this to some degree? Only the most patient of observers will ever know the answer to that, if an answer can even be determined. But what we do know is that our trip was for the birds, and the birds did not let us down.

Tim JohnsonTim Johnson is an early childhood teacher, writer/artist, puppeteer and curriculum specialist. He currently teaches PreK at the Pike School in Andover, MA. An expanded version of this post first appeared in the Pike Perspectives blog.

One Comment

  1. bryanne says:

    thank you! I have noticed on the several visits I have been privileged to make to the “birds” that I have as much fun watching the birds as I do the people. I wish I could have been there with your class!

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