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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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"