I was walking my dogs near my house the other day, when I was stopped by a small group of starlings flying close over my head. I watched them as they flew towards a large flock not far from me. The place I was standing was overlooking a small valley with I-40 running right down the center, and houses all around as far as I could see. It was dusk, and people were all rushing to get home for dinner, and this flock of about a thousand birds was performing aerial acrobatics in the turbulent air above the interstate completely unnoticed by the human traffic on the ground.
What these people were missing, listening to their radios and talking on their cell phones, unaware of anything but the cars in their immediate area, was one of the most beautiful, intricate dances I’ve ever witnessed. The immense group of participants wheeled around a large area of the sky, all turning in unison, different sections breaking off here, and rejoining there, and all of it coordinated perfectly and synced up so that the group moved as a single unit across the sky. More swifts were flying in and joining this mass of birds all the time, seemingly coming from all over the city to take part in this dance and then roost together when the daylight is finally gone. As soon as they reached the main flock, the small group of four or five would immediately fall into sync with the main flock, as if they were performing a three-dimensional dance that was rehearsed for months.
It was not rehearsed in any way, though. Scientists have studied this flocking behavior, and have come to many conclusions about its purpose, but nobody can know for sure what these birds are thinking. When I look at this behavior, as a musician, it seems clear to me that regardless of the reason for it, what they are doing is dancing. They might be dancing as a way to determine the hierarchy of roosting or to scare predators, but the fact remains that they are all moving together as one using a form of instantaneous communication that is unknown to science, but very well known by musicians. It is this same form of communication that we use on stage every night when we improvise, when verbal communication and body language are not an option. The most that we can do on stage is yell out a word or two or give a look with an eye, but this is not in any way sufficient to communicate the intricacies of music. All the time we have to be aware fully of everything that is happening around us, while then figuring out how best to add our sound to this, and then listening to the whole of the group and make any changes that need to be made, at the same time we employ all of our years of accumulated theoretical knowledge about what notes to play, how to play them, and how to achieve this technically. It takes much more than lifetime of practice to master this, and I can say for myself that I am just beginning to learn how to dance this dance of music and artistic expression through group performance.
These birds have mastered this dance. It is clear to me watching them that while there might be some underlying survival technique related to this dance, they are finished feeding for the day and are dancing as one; a whole society of swifts coming together for one last improvised salute to the fading daylight. This is something that we, as a different species of animal living in a much larger flock, should learn from, and something that we musicians should study very thoroughly, and try to imitate with our own dances.