Some Strings Attached by shauna chung


In his book Electronic Monuments, Gregory Ulmer contends that humans have an often-untapped reservoir of important insights: our biographies. He explains that getting to know ourselves—the inner workings of our upbringing, beliefs, delights, experiences, etc.—helps us better understand and address problems that exist beyond us, since many of these external issues can be traced back to something that's common to our own stories. To start this process, Ulmer suggests exploring the following discourses, looking for recurring patterns: family, community, entertainment, and school. This Spark page is a brief portrait of my life, retold across those discourses.

"Let's get started!" says childhood me.

Family Discourse

One big breath: that's what it took for my 2-year-old lungs to belt out the first line of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." I'd sung it on repeat for weeks after hearing my mother's music students play it on their violins. The tune would change as I listened to their new assigned pieces and, a few months later, would turn into a Christmas ornament-sized violin under my own chin.

Snapshots of childhood: an early family Christmas photo (top left); me at a group Suzuki violin lesson (top right); me with my grandmother's piano (bottom left); my brother and I feeding a bottle to our youngest brother for the first time (bottom right)

When I think of my family, I see the violin and its close and distant relatives: cello, viola, guitar, piano. I was raised with these instruments, whether through lessons or second-hand concerts I'd hear on my parents' vast collection of classical music CDs. They became the unofficial soundtrack of my Korean American childhood, which involved navigating the contours of a rural town in Georgia where we seldom encountered faces that looked like ours. People were never surprised when I told them I played the violin. Wasn't that what all Asian kids were forced to do by their immigrant parents striving for the "American Dream"? Wasn't this just a rite of passage—the first step toward building a profile that would get me on track for medical/dental/nursing or law school?

"Teaching" my brothers how to play the violin in our Sunday best

Another big breath: that's what it took for my 5-year-old self to tell my parents that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up: to teach just like mom taught violin and grandma taught piano. To me, stringed instruments weren't burdensome routines or capital to round out my life portfolio. They were melodies that I couldn't get out of my head, the sound of my mother instructing her students, a voice that let me express what words couldn't pinpoint, and opportunities to listen to the world around me.

Community Discourse

Eventually, these dual interests of music and teaching blossomed into more organized, collaborative, community-centered activities extending throughout childhood and into adulthood. I remember my fingers sliding around like nervous ice skaters on my violin's fingerboard as I joined an orchestra rehearsal for the first time in middle school. My heart beat a million miles per hour as my bow met the A-string, combining with my peers producing complementary sounds. In that moment, I went from kid-alone-in-a-practice-room to a real ensemble member, playing pieces that earned us applause from audiences. Gradually, I'd branch out with the piano and would take on multiple accompanist jobs with school groups and church choirs.

This involvement attuned me to the diverse ways humans expressed themselves. I learned that a person could be profoundly moved and shaped not just by words alone but also sounds—how various modes of communication could be employed to speak to an audience. To this day, certain classical pieces take me back to specific moments in time and remind me of these ideas. Dvorak's New World Symphony, for example, reminds me of when my orchestra conductor guided us through the second movement with tears streaming down her face, each note serving as a tribute to her late husband who she lost unexpectedly a few months prior to our performance. No one but her musicians knew of her tears since they stopped the moment she turned to face the audience to receive their thunderous applause. Our orchestra had never sounded better.

The orchestra years
Accompanying on the piano

My conceptions of music-centered community slowly extended beyond the classical realm. My friends roped me into gigs at coffee shops, talent shows at school, and volunteering events. These experiences helped me further expand my notions of collaboration and expression, attaching me to new memories, people, skills, and places. I was beginning to realize that there was no one-size-fits-all discourse, no "one way" to do or say things, no one ultimate "right way" to make music. Just lots of trial and error, listening, "jamming."

Playing "Super Mario Bros" on the piano at a school talent show
Learning how to play the ukulele with friends
Performing Korean folk songs for residents at an assisted living facility
Experimenting with the guitar

Entertainment Discourse

The trial-and-error process of composing both music and life experiences intrigued me, especially when I digested various forms of media. Though I often found myself fully immersed in movie plots and TV shows, I also found myself thinking, "How did they do that behind the camera?" As a result, I was obsessed with behind-the-scenes featurettes, blooper reels, and cast interviews. I never failed to pore over the Wikipedia page and related articles of a movie I'd seen because I wanted to know the process, the way things fit together, the motives for various stylistic decisions. Sometimes, I'd watch certain shows or movies just so the "extra" content (i.e. the making-of and/or the director's commentary) would make sense. Pursuing these lines of inquiry revealed similar insights uncovered in my community discourses: there is no "one way" to do things, and multiple modes can be used to convey meaning.

Here's an example of this behind-the-scenes content from Bong Joon-ho's film Parasite:

Acknowledging the behind-the-scenes was important for me because it helped me remember that production didn't occur in a vacuum. That musical theme in the animated film Up wasn't there in the background to please my ears; it was a character in and of itself that developed as its human counterparts did. Those colors and that camera angle in Spike Jonze's Her weren't arbitrarily selected; they gave us a specific emotion or perspective to interpret the story. Those list of names in the credits at the end of every movie weren't just things to fast-forward through; they were the team that made my viewing experience possible. There was always something beyond what met the eye.

School Discourse

Though music was and will always be a passion of mine, and while the production end of media intrigued me, my school discourse led me down what I thought was a completely different path: English. In high school, I read Lord of the Flies for class and grappled with big, existential questions and concepts for the first time. It wasn't so much the book that engaged me but was more so the conversations surrounding human nature that left me wanting MUCH more. As a result, I decided to pursue English as a course of study, never once feeling deterred by the question I got asked on a regular basis: "What are you going to do with that 'useless' major?" To me, the field of English was far from useless; it explored what it means to be human, how to commune and communicate with others, and how to think, dream, and create in different environments. This is what I wanted to learn as a student and to teach as a future educator.

During one semester, my school journey took another surprising turn when my writing teacher gave us an assignment that would radically change my view of English: she told us to create a video. Until her class, I'd only written five-paragraph essays or longer, text-based research papers. For this assignment, I knew I wanted to tackle the subject of online body shaming but didn't know where to start. Thinking back to my casual interest in film production, I started watching videos online and asking myself, "How did they make that?" I also wondered, "How might I visually represent concepts I've only seen in print?" In class, my teacher showed video essays and broke down the rhetorical strategies we saw, which helped me understand that I could write not just with text in a Word document but also through a series of images, strategic musical transitions, and my own speaking voice. This was my "aha!" moment: I could use all of my passions—music, teaching, behind-the-scenes production—to write. They all met each other in my English classroom! Click here to see the final video I made for this class.


In each discourse above, one pattern repeats: strings. They were physical strings in my family discourse, hovering over a soundboard and pressed down by my uncoordinated, two-year-old fingers. They were relational strings in my community discourse, resounding together in orchestras, school club events, or garage bands. They were metaphorical strings in my entertainment discourse that tied people together through a shared goal or an artistic project. They were strings—sequences—of images, sounds, and words working together in video editing software to convey an academic essay's thesis. The image of strings helps me realize that I am not an island unto myself. I am and will forever be connected to things, people, places, and ideas.

My violin

Like on a violin, these strings can get out of tune. Some might snap because they're worn and may need to be replaced. Others may need help from another instrument to reach a key where the violin cannot go. My job as instrumentalist, thinker, writer, student, teacher, human is to not just take these attachments at face value but is to be conscious of the sound that I'm making, cognizant of the other players in my vicinity, critical of our present and/or potential impact, and open to new voices, new ideas, new attachments, new strings.


Created with images by Paul Volkmer - "untitled image" • Avel Chuklanov - "On set" • Nathan Dumlao - "untitled image" • Desola Lanre-Ologun - "🚀" • Faye Cornish - "Fairy Bonsai"