Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Transubstantiation of Nature

(I'm so glad I've been studying the Bible and religion this year!)

Emily Dickinson’s poem “I taste a liquor never brewed” articulates the poet’s experience of inebriation, not from alcohol but from the natural world. With her abundant use of dashes, she recreates the experience of drunken stumbling as well as the slurred speech of a drunkard. Nevertheless, I would argue that her metaphorical drunkenness here is not as much a comment on the joy of enjoying nature as it is an expression of the poet’s connection with the spiritual.

The foxgloves that we might normally see as flowers in a field are recreated by Emily Dickenson almost like the name of pub for bees. When the bee gets too drunk, the proprietors (or “landlords”) of the Foxgloves inn kick him out. The butterfly, on the other hand, realizes his drunkenness himself (as do so many people who have realized they had become too inebriated) and swears off drink forever. The poet, however, has no plans to sober up. Instead, she bellies up to a bar serving the metaphorical liquid of the molten blue sky. Instead of the “fine Rhine wine” alluded to in the first stanza, and instead of the nectar of the insects described in the second, the poet becomes drunk on air and dew--that is, on nature. She will imbibe summer’s exuberance until the snow falls from angels’ hats.

With her use of the reference to the Rhine, the poet suggests that her inebriant is a replacement not just for alcohol but specifically for wine. Writing in an era when Christianity was central to the experience of community, Emily Dickinson would have been keenly aware of the religious resonance of images of wine as the transubstantiated blood of Christ. She chooses to end the poem “leaning against the--Sun--” suggesting perhaps that she was leaning against the core of her religious faith, or Jesus. The Sun, set off by the poet with dashes perhaps to indicate its deep significance, becomes the Son.

Although she appears to be alluding to Christianity in this poem, Dickinson utterly rejects the more formulaic religious practices of her time. While the saints inside their churches look out the windows at her (perhaps in surprise or shock), the poet experiences religion directly and personally outdoors in nature, unencumbered by the formal beliefs, rituals, and hierarchy of the church. Here she seems to support the almost Whitmanian trust in nature, freedom, and direct experience.

Rather than the eucharist's communion wine turning into the blood of Christ, nature here transubstantiates into the spiritual. The poet drinks deeply, filled with a uniquely modern kind of religious experience. The lack of a final period perhaps suggest the openness and inclusivity of her kind of faith as well as, perhaps, the eternal nature of Christ.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

"Evo Devo"

Recently I watched a PBS documentary about evolutionary developmental biology (“evo devo”).  The video talked about new advances in life sciences.  Because of the scientific discovery of DNA, we can explain and prove many of Darwin’s hypotheses in ways he could not dream of.

It is quite amusing how few of the discoveries of how life works were made by people trying to find out completely unrelated things.  Often people researching subjects like genetic diseases stumble across information hidden in DNA that helps us understand not only the genetic diseases themselves but larger question--questions like why are we the way we are, and what defines human.

In one notable case, a doctor studying muscular dystrophy found a mutation in a human gene that should have caused a massive muscular disorder.  He compared the DNA to chimps and found that they did not have this mutation.  After doing more research, he found that the gene in chimps coded for this massive jaw muscle, something humans do not have.  Because the muscle is so strong, the plates in the skull fuse early.  This prohibits chimps’ brains from growing any larger than it is at the time of skull fusing.  Work like this allows scientists to begin to understand what makes humans different from their ancestors.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Play Day

I’m so excited that the Takoma Park Play Day 2012 is coming up soon! I look forward to it every year.

Instead of performances strung together, the festival is interactive. The Play Day festival brings together the people of our community, both young and old, to enjoy each other’s company while playing board games, engaging in imaginative role-playing, or running around in intense games of freeze tag. I love watching attendees play newly-learned strategy games, successfully navigate through an obstacle course, or finish a round of “Simon Says” with local senator Jamie Raskin.

One of my favorite things about Play Day is that children, teenagers, adults, and elderly members of the community all come to celebrate together and get to know each other. I remember playing chess with a retiree at a Play Day in 2009 when I was ten years old. Although I was a new chess player, the experienced woman with whom I played seemed very excited to share her knowledge and skill with a beginner. Her love of chess inspired me to learn more. I’ve continued enjoy playing the game ever since.

This year, Play Day takes place on September 22, from 10-1 at the Takoma Park Middle School. You can find out more about this amazing day at

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Becoming a Young Musician

I was asked to give a talk at the Takoma Park Folk Festival about how and why I became a young musician.  Here are my notes:

(Start by playing Twinkle Theme)  This was the first piece I learned to play on the violin. 

Hi.  I’m here to tell you a little about why I love playing the violin.  But first, I thought I’d play a piece I’ve been working on recently.  This is Gigue by Veracini. (Play Gigue)


Four years ago a friend invited me to his violin recital.  Performing were students from the age of 3 all the way up to 18.  All the performers were incredible.  The teacher (who I now know as James) sat on the floor and helped the youngest player hold her violin as she picked out the first few measures of Twinkle.  I loved seeing how the relationship he had with young children developed over the years.  Later in the recital, he cried when he acknowledged the high school seniors who were soon to leave his studio and go off to college.  At the end of the recital, James himself played a jazz violin solo and looked like he was having a lot of fun playing it.

On the way home from the recital, I asked if I could learn to play the violin.  Two weeks later, I had my first lesson--on my tenth birthday!--and have played almost every day since.


Although I was ten years old when I started, many beginning Suzuki students are much younger.  Students start with a “box violin” (show) made from something like a tissue box and a ruler.  With this, a student can learn to hold a violin, how to have correct posture, and how to coordinate the hand holding the violin and the hand holding the bow.  Soon, students graduate to their first real violin, a moment of great celebration.

At first, students learn to play particular rhythms.  For example, one rhythm is called “Mississipi Hot-Dog.”  (Say it again and clap it out.)  Students start playing Twinkle using these specific rhythms.  (Demonstrate.)  By the end of the first Suzuki book, students are learning Bach Minuets.  (Play Minuet 1.)
Suzuki students begin to learn these songs not by reading music but by ear.  Students listen to recordings of pieces as much as possible, then learn to pick out the tunes (with the help of guidance from James and from their parents).  By Book 4, reading music is a much bigger part of the experience of learning new pieces, although listening to recordings of pieces remains important most of the time.  The first piece I mostly by reading music was a concerto by Seitz.  (Play Seitz 1.)

Remember the rhythm “Mississippi Hot-Dog”?  Knowing it and the other early rhythms continues to be useful all the way through the Suzuki repertoire.  For example, a piece I am working on right now, a concerto for two violins by Bach, starts with exactly this rhythm.  (Play the rhythm on one note, then play the very beginning notes of Bach Double.)


In addition to weekly lessons with James, I practice every day.  Young musicians practice for different lengths of time.  Often students start out playing for twenty minutes or less at a time.  Practice time increases as students get older and more advanced.  I practice my Suzuki music about an hour a day.

One thing that is different about Suzuki is that parents are very involved in both the lessons and in practice.   

As students get older and more mature, parents begin to hand over more responsibility to them.  But even for advanced students, parents still attend most lessons and often help out in practice sessions as well.

Practice has a lot of parts.  In addition to learning new pieces, I work on:

Scales and arpeggios (demonstrate)

Workout: Working on a better tone, or skill building exercises for things like how to play chords, various 
bow techniques, and vibrato.  We often practice these things on earlier pieces.  (Demonstrate vibrato using Twinkle.)

A final part of my daily practice is playing all of my old pieces, from Twinkle forward.  The Suzuki method 
encourages us to build a big repertoire of music we can play at performance level.  This is also important because each piece helps us work on some new technique, so continuing to play old pieces helps us build on those skills. 


An especially nice way to keep up with old pieces is group class!  A few times a month, the whole studio gets together and plays many old pieces together.  The beginning Twinklers come as do more advanced students.  Often we play together, but sometimes we perform solos for one another to help us feel comfortable performing for people publically.  I’ve made many friends in the studio this way.

In addition to group class, I play in a youth orchestra, attend a music camp for a week each summer, and got to play in my first string quartet this year.  I’ve also played at the farmer’s market a couple of times and at a wedding.  (The bride and groom paid me with a gift certificate to the Kennedy Center!)

I also love to play fiddle music, including a lot of music I learned to love here at the Takoma Park Folk Festival.  You can hear Irish and Scottish music from the band Tinsmith, playing on the Grove Stage at 3:00.  (Play Rights of Man/Red Haired Boy/Sleep Soond/High Road.)  I also love old-time American fiddle tunes, and traditional English tunes you can hear at the Folk Festival from the Morris Men.  (Play Butterfly.)   I also love listening to the Klezmer musicians here and am eager to try playing some Klezmer tunes.

Here’s a gypsy-inspired piece in the classical music repertoire.  (Play part of Czardas.)


Why I Play

Practice is sometimes hard, but I love it.  It gives me a way to express my emotions, whether they are happy or sad or peaceful or angry.  Playing music can be very cathartic. 

I enjoy playing with other musicians and making friends through music.  I especially love when we are able to share our music with listeners and make them happy. 

At the beginning, it takes a while to get in the habit of practicing, but once you can see how much practice allows you to make the kind of music you want to make, it becomes second nature.  It is just part of my life.   
I don’t feel right if I haven’t played my violin recently.

Look around this festival and see all these musicians here today.  They are not here because they have to be.  They’re here because they love to play, and to share, music. 

 (End with Fiddle Tune and variations, then its ending.)