One of the common experiences with piano tuners is our interaction with the variety of furry, feathered or finned creatures that share a piano’s abode. I serviced a customer’s piano last week where the dear owner was the proud caretaker of a feathered friend named Filo. This beautiful little creature was an African Grey parrot, the smaller and calmer of the two varieties, or a “Timneh” Grey. At the moment we were introduced, I could sense a pleasant curiosity from Filo. She turned out to be somewhat of a flirt. “She likes men”, I was told. My mind flashed back to an interaction with a male Congo Grey about 20 years ago. He was definitely not the “calmer” of the two varieties.
After this brief recollection, I began to wonder how the next 1 ½ – 2 hours would go. My previous encounter left me quite frazzled, like I had just survived a Hitchcock movie, one on one, with a sociopathic bird. The first mistake was not foreseeing the conflict that was to ensue from a larger than average, grumpy old bird. He was placed strategically about 2 feet behind the piano bench. The second mistake was agreeing to be left alone for about an hour while the piano-owner went out to run some errands. As soon as I heard the key turn in the lock when the homeowner left through the front door, he began.
First, a low grrraaakk sound as if a gauntlet was being thrown down. I thought, “this could be tricky”. But I had done pre-concert tunings and many school gymnasium piano versus kids-with-basketballs tunings. Since at the time I was solely an aural tuner, I viewed this as just another challenge to my ability to filter out extraneous noise. As I proceeded to insert the temperament strip and listen to my A440 tuning fork, the ‘ting’ of the fork was met with a SKRAAACH that made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I cautiously turned around to see 2 beady eyes locked onto mine and I found myself visually assessing if the latch on the cage looked secure. After feeling I would be safe to turn my attention back to the task at hand, I thought I would be able to continue by just focusing on the piano sound between the sporadic avian noises. This was a clever bird however.
I was in company with a master mimic. The piano owners obviously liked European crime shows with their fluctuating police car sirens. Another favourite was the first measure of Beethoven’s Fur Elise. But the worst was a periodic, abrupt, lewd vulgarity presumably taught to the poor creature to entertain the piano owner’s friends? After trying to aurally navigate through the barrage of vocal landmines for about 30 minutes, I found myself progressing at about half the speed I normally would. I wondered, “how on earth does the piano get played in any kind of peace without duct tape?” “Should I….?” No, I couldn’t risk losing a digit. I was desperate. This was before the time that most everyone has a cell phone. Otherwise, a call to the owner may have helped. Even an electronic tuner would have been of little help in this situation.
Then I happened to notice a neatly folded blanket on a shelf above the great bird. Aha! As I reached carefully around the back and upward I was met with a cacophony of protest. ’Big Grumpy Grey’ seemed to know what was coming. The darkening blanket seemed to have a calming effect on both of us and I was able to proceed. I found myself feeling some pity as an infrequent whimpering low Graaaw was spoken. And then I began to fear what the piano owner would think of me covering up her pet? I’d cross that bridge later. As I pushed through the remainder of the tuning, I began to admire the skill of this beautiful bird. Human impersonators would likely never be able to match the perfection of tone and pitch the big parrot possessed.
Here I was again before such a creature. The little Timneh, Filo, was very sweet. She was deeply attached to her owners. Every time they walked in the room she would make beautiful welcoming sounds of recognition and affection. Poor Filo was a cancer survivor. Having her maroon coloured tail feathers removed, she flew across the room in a floppy side to side manner, somewhat like a drunk would attempt to walk a straight line. The most endearing expression she spoke was a simple, genuine-sounding “I love you.” It reminded me that beyond their skill at vocalization, a bird can use the special gift of sound to express attachment and affection. Something perhaps not heard enough amongst people.
Finally, the piano, music, speech, the words of a parent to a child, a husband to a wife, the sounds heard in nature can all have something in common – the ability to touch the heart and stir feelings. Mostly good feelings we hope. A lesson that I had reinforced by a bird named Filo.