When I approached Irena Schultz about a potential interview, I couldn’t help but share my admiration for her multi-faceted life and background: she is one of the most fascinating people I have met.
Irena previously studied Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease as a molecular biologist at Rush Medical Center, and later trained a lab of 15 neuroscientists at the University of Chicago. She states she loved being in the neurosciences, but decided to take a different path after she had her son in 2004. She began rescuing birds thinking that it could be a part time adventure while she raised her son.
(italics, from Irena) A part time adventure became a full time job as I realized just how many birds needed to be rescued, rehabilitated, and rehomed. And then came Snowball. His fame was an accident. We never intended for him to become famous when we took the initial video of him dancing to the Backstreet Boys. It just happened. And my nice part time job which turned into a full time job turned into TWO FULL TIME JOBS. I rescued, rehabilitated, and rehomed parrots while being Snowball’s manager and becoming involved in music cognition studies with Dr Ani Patel (initially of the Neurosciences Institute in California and then later with Tufts University in Massachusetts)…the music cognition studies then lead me to perform for memory care patients so I could observe their behavior. I have always enjoyed observing behaviors of all animals, insects, people…and I am especially fascinated with observing behaviors among those suffering from neurodegenerative disorders.
1) When did you begin making music?
I began singing when I was around 3 yrs old. I used to sing along to “45s” (records) that belonged to my older brother and sister. As they would watch American Bandstand, I would watched how the singers would move and behave and tried to mimic them.
2) As a multi-instrumentalist, which is your favorite way of making music?
My favorite will always be the voice, but the keyboard and guitar are tied for second place. Since keyboards have evolved with the ability to produce very real sounding instruments (drums, bass, brass, guitars, etc), it’s become my favorite instrument to create songs.
3) What led you to your love of birds?
My mother had parakeets when I was a baby. She used to sing me to sleep and the birds would join in with their chirping. She ended up finding a new home for them when she had me tested for allergies and it was found that I was slightly allergic to down feathers. That was sad because even as a toddler I loved the birds. I always felt euphoric when I heard the birds singing outdoors.
My father used to sit in a lawn chair in our back yard which backed up to a forest preserve. He would sit still and enjoy the sun, the breeze, and the wildlife. I’d watch from a window how the birds would land near my dad and just sit and look at him…they were never afraid of him. Maybe they thought he was a harmless statue since he never moved. Or maybe they were just as curious of him as he was of them.
Both of my parents appreciated and respected wildlife and that became concentrated in me as I grew up. I would end up feeding birds and squirrels from just a foot away from them.
4) How did Snowball come into your life?
He was relinquished to us by a wonderful and caring gentleman back in August of 2007 because Snowball had become too aggressive. Dane Spudic, Snowball’s previous owner, dropped him off with hopes of him being adopted by a good family. Snowball had other plans. He ended up bonding with me and viciously bit three potential adopters in one week. That was his way of telling me that he didn’t want to leave with any of them. We quickly took him off the adoption list because we didn’t want to get sued from his terrible bites.
5) Snowball has garnered quite a bit of fame, and has played a major role in the study of music, language and the brain. How did you two get involved with this research?
We were approached by two scientists in September of 2007, shortly after Snowball’s video became viral. Dr Ani Patel was the first to email me so I agreed to collaborate with him on the studies. I began as a molecular biologist studying Parkinsons and Alzheimers in the nuerosciences and was happy to transition to music cognition studies involving Snowball since it was a win/win situation. It involved science, parrots, and music – three of my favorite interests.
6) What has fascinated you the most in this research?
The level of intelligence in parrots is what I found to be most profound. Engaging in the dance studies allowed me to get close enough to observe him as he examined and analyzed music. As we danced more, Snowball would create more and more dance moves. And he became better at analyzing rhythms. We played a song called “Take Five” which has a 5/4 time signature. He used to only dance to distinct 4/4 rhythms (very little syncopation). For the first half of the song (Take Five), Snowball attempted different dance moves he’d created but would abandon them as he determined that they weren’t working to the 5/4 rhythm. Finally, he came upon a dance move that did work and he seemed to come alive with excitement as he danced heartily. He would sway his entire body like a pendulum back and forth. Watching him pause to analyze music and then jump in with his dance moves would send chills up my spine. We weren’t looking at an inferior animal, we were looking at a very intelligent being that exhibited joy, boredom, anger, excitement, arrogance, pride – emotions and behaviors that are not unique to humans as many had thought, including myself.
7) As a student of molecular biology, it seems this is a beautiful crossover into your academic background. I’ve read you enjoy recording and analyzing Snowball’s reactions to different songs. What have been some of your most surprising observations on music and responses of birds?
The most surprising observation was during our Two Tempo experiments. It’s difficult to describe on paper, but I’ll try. We would dance to the same song, however, the tempo that I was listening to in my headphones would either be the same tempo as the song playing through the speakers for Snowball, and sometimes my tempo might be 20% faster or it might be 20% slower than what Snowball was hearing in the speakers. During a trial where we were both dancing to the same tempo we were swaying back and forth. As I was swaying back away from Snowball, he would sway forward toward me…and when I would sway forward toward him, he would sway back away from me. This kept up for nearly a minute. Then he got bored and stopped but I kept going as the experiment instructed (I was not to stop dancing). He stood there, bobbed his head and watched me and then did the opposite of what he was doing with me. As I swayed toward him, he swayed toward me. As I swayed away from him, he swayed away from me. Dancing was as much a social interaction with his favorite human as two people who enjoy each other’s company. Watching him analyze music gave me goose bumps.
Another observation that surprised me was that he would become annoyed by my “dancing wrong.” This happened when I’d be dancing to the song with a faster or slower tempo (plus or minus 20%). He would begin dancing with me and then get frustrated because I was not dancing to the same tempo that he was trying to dance to. He would start out trying to follow me, but then stop because I was either dancing too fast or too slow. He was in a dilemma…should he ignore what he was hearing and dance in rhythm with what I was doing OR should he turn his back on me and our social interaction and dance correctly on his own. If my dancing off tempo became too annoying to him, he would turn his back on me and ignore me…he would dance on his own.
And Snowball LOVES an audience. He will stop dancing to check whether the people in the room are still watching. When he realizes all eyes are on him, he happily begins dancing again. If he is ignored, he becomes angry or agitated…he has screamed for attention at times.
8) What are some of Snowball’s favorite dancing tunes these days?
He loves Pink and Lady Gaga. We received a phone call from one of the morning programs (I think it was CBS) a few years back asking us to bring Snowball to dance with Lady Gaga outdoors. I explained that I wouldn’t want to risk having him fly away or become hurt in some way so I declined, but it was a hoot to receive the offer. I’m sure Snowball would have loved it though.
There will be a UK based documentary coming out next year (I think in the spring) called “Animal Symphony” which Snowball and I star in…it will be shown worldwide. There is also another documentary coming out in the spring produced in Canada by Musical Soul Productions for a science based series “The Nature of Things.” This particular episode is called “I Got Rhythm: The Science of Song” which will also be broadcast worldwide. Who would have thought that his 15 minutes of fame would last over nine years?
9) What are your favorite songs for listening and performing?
I have too many favorites – I love so many types of music. I love everything from classical and folk to techno-pop and heavy metal. About the only type of music that I don’t listen to is rap music. So I appreciate the audience requesting music because they truly come up with music that I used to love but forgot about over the years. I enjoy singing those songs probably even more than the people enjoy hearing them.
10) What is the most rewarding part of your life as a musician?
What I do now is the most rewarding part of my life as a musician. Some folks come to life when they hear a song that their spouse used to sing to them or when they hear a song that they danced to on their wedding night. One gentleman always requested “You Are My Sunshine” because he sang that song to his wife when he proposed marriage to her. She’d passed away on New Year’s Day and he stopped requesting that song. He couldn’t bear to hear it. But in the last few weeks of his life he asked me to sing it to him and I did.
Another gentleman requested that I learn “Harbor Lights” – for four months in a row he asked for it. I finally learned it and asked one of the caregivers where he was because I finally learned his song. She stated he’d had a massive stroke. He was weak and couldn’t swallow so he wouldn’t be able to come to the activities area. I asked if it was ok for me to go to his room after I performed so I could sing “Harbor Lights” to him. I got the thumbs up to do that. I took my keyboard to his room and began singing his song. About 3/4 of the way through the song I saw him cry…and so did the family member in the room. I choked up and couldn’t finish singing the last line of the song because I was crying too at this point. When I finished he thanked me profusely. He then explained why the song meant so much to him. He told me that he was in the Navy during the war and that this song was playing when his ship pulled in to the harbor. He passed away a few days later. I would have been sick to my stomach if I hadn’t learned that song and performed it for him before he died. Now when someone asks me to perform a Christmas song in August, I do it because it may be the last opportunity that they will hear it.
Then there are the instances where I see music soothing the savage beast in a manner of speaking. I’ve come across some very agitated memory care residents who pace and shout at the staff like a broken record. For three months in a row one resident shouts at everyone that her spouse dumped her off there and that she wants to go home. There is no soothing her verbally and it is difficult to redirect her to think about or do something else. The redirect sometimes works for a minute or two, but she’s soon back to pacing and shouting. However, when the music begins, she stops pacing and shouting. She would sit and you could see her calm down over time. I could see her mouthing some of the words to a couple of the songs as I was singing. After the music stopped, she was smiling and talking to the resident sitting next to her in a calm tone. She told her that she looked pretty. Three months in a row I observed this same pattern of behavior.
You may find out more about Irena, her bird rescue organization, and Snowball at BirdLoversOnly.org.
Alison Hughey, Contributor
Alison has been involved in performing arts throughout her life. She is a graduate of Converse College & a music therapist. She also serves as the Vice President of Carma, Inc. Alison covers Upstate Performing Arts stories for Upstate Exposures. Contact her at AlisonDTurner@Mail.com