Hollis Easter - Watson Fellowship Personal Statement

Monday March 17, 2003 Watson Statement

Thoughts of the future are dim, murky ones, full of glistening possibilities submerged in a fearful haze of uncertainty. After three years of wanting a Watson fellowship, wanting it so badly I could taste it, I am seriously considering throwing my application in the trash, for simple fear of the unknown.

And then something clicks. Memory and observation combine, and I notice that my room is silent. Well, not silent--the ever-present crickets in the trees outside my windows are singing to each other, and the overhead light hums its own droning note--but disorganized, chaotic, a mirror for my thoughts. A quick trip across the floor of my room sends the CD player into a quiet hum of activity, and then.

Music. Karen Tweed and Timo Alakotila, Scot and Scandinavian, accordion and piano twining and dancing together. Their CD, May Monday, is one that Susie Petrov, musical mentor and one of my closest friends, lent me for inspiration. Their playing has the things we strive to create in our own music--originality, good taste, compelling rhythm and drive, harmonic interest, good feel. The music flows from my stereo, and a feeling of peace and resolution overtakes me. Ordered music replaces the chaos of noise, and my fractured thoughts come back to me, repaired.

I guess you could say that bagpipes, and music in general, are in my blood. My mother was a prize-winning percussionist in high school, and my father was the first American choir boy at Canterbury cathedral in England. From before I was born, my parents always had music in the house, and it rubbed off, got itself lodged into the deep places of my spirit. I cannot remember a time when I didn't have a tune in my head, some fragment of music kicking around in my brain, waiting for me to tap its rhythm or hum its melody.

My introduction to bagpipes came early, at the wedding of a family friend when I was a year and half old. The families had hired a piper to play for the wedding, and he was tuning his instrument out of the audience's sight. We could, however, hear, and I apparently perked right up at the sound. I was very interested indeed! I looked around, trying to locate a source for this noise, and quickly hit on the answer--a stuffed buffalo head that hung above the main door of the room. "Doggie," I pronounced, pointing. I've loved bagpipes ever since.

There were, of course, no teachers to be found, and bagpipes were not taught in school. So I studied trumpet and voice, and contented myself by singing drones along with music and playing the one bagpipe recording we had, over and over and over again. It amazes me that my family can stand to hear the pipes today, after the trauma that my childhood must have been.

My break came just after my senior year of high school, when a friend introduced me to a piping instructor from Ontario, a scant hour's drive from my home. I signed up with the Spencerville Legion pipe band, under Brian Lawless and Karen Mahon's tutelage, and have spent each summer thereafter driving to Canada each week for band practices and competitions.

Scottish music started becoming clearer to me--where before there had been only the amorphous word "Celtic", I began to see and hear distinctions. I began to study the tinwhistle, and started doing Scottish country dancing when I arrived at Swarthmore. After my freshman year, I worked and saved my money--by the end of the summer, I had purchased a set of Highland bagpipes, and had won my first competition with them.

Since then, I've taught myself to play the traditional simple-system flute that is used for Scottish and Irish music, and have continued to play the tinwhistle. I've achieved some more competitive success on the big pipes, and continue to play all of these instruments for dancers up and down the East Coast. In the more classical side of things, I am performing the role of Sarastro in Swarthmore's production of The Magic Flute this year, and I continue to study piano as part of my music major.

When I go home, though, it's Scottish music that lives in my stereo, that keeps me going. The music, whether recorded or in my head, has seen me through joy and sorrow, papers and projects, good times and bad. If there is a soundtrack to my life, I won't be able to tell you the tunes, but you'll be able to dance to them, I guarantee you that. Music suffuses everything I do--it affects my mood, expresses my feelings, brings new friends to me.

At the beginning of my Project Summary, I quoted Neil Munro's poem about the making of a piper. It's true--I do lean a fond ear to my drones, and through my pipes, I feel a connection to a tradition that is strong and vibrantly alive. Much of what the future holds is a mystery to me, but I know that music will always play a large role in my life. Whether or not I am born to it, I feel deeply and profoundly right when I play. Music for me is a rejoicing of the spirit, a pure expression of its feelings.

I want to go to Scotland to learn more about this music that has captivated my heart. Today I stand at the start of knowledge, but my path toward that knowledge feels clearer now, and though the future remains dim, the glints in the dark seem far brighter than they did before. And so, in the end, I submit this application, because to miss this opportunity would be to deny the very core of who I've chosen to be. Against that knowledge, a little uncertainty about the future holds no power to frighten. I'm ready.

See also the Project Summary.

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