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Outdoors: Ear Training

Paul Albertella

Have you ever resented having to take a required class and wondered if you would ever in your entire life have any use for the skills you were struggling to master? For me, that class was Ear Training and Sight Singing.

The sight-singing part was OK. It is nice to be able to read music or to look at a score and mentally “hear” the tune. But melodic dictation? Memorizing rhythm patterns? I still shudder.

And do I ever use these skills? Absolutely. This time of year, almost every day. I currently am involved in a research project documenting migrating birds on a Lake Michigan estuary. And migration is underway which is both exciting and frustrating. Birds are pretty good at staying hidden.

But while my colleagues search the trees, shrubs and marsh plants, trying to identify hyperactive warblers and other songbirds by spotting tiny eye rings or faint wing bars, I am listening to songs and calls….quickly memorizing progressions and rhythm patterns. Songs are often diagnostic, so I can identify many birds before I see them.

While the birders are pulling up cell phone apps to record bird songs, my internal solfège kicks in and before they have made their first recording, I am already recording my data.

And when they come up with a questionable call, I find myself asking: Are you sure? The timbre doesn’t seem right for that species. And don’t you hear the minor third?

I should be more patient. Of course, they don’t hear timbre or overtones or rhythm patterns or intervals, much less remember them. Most birders have never had the privilege of taking a class called Ear Training and Sight Singing.

"Outdoors with Coggin Heeringa" can be heard every Wednesday on Classical IPR.