Adults can head back to school and learn, too


Alexis Taylor is one of several students learning the basics of DJing in Bethesda at the Beat Refinery. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
September 1, 2011

Perhaps you’ve noticed the recent abundance of teens hunched under overflowing backpacks. Or maybe you’ve seen the sold-out shelves of composition notebooks and mechanical pencils at the drugstore. Fall is creeping up, and Labor Day is upon us. While most people will go back to work Tuesday for an abbreviated but otherwise un-extraordinary work week, the students of the world have entered that brief period at the start of school so ripe with anticipation and potential.

But wait! Why should only a select group be able to look forward to a time of learning and personal growth? Instead of being made to feel like an old dog no longer worthy of learning new tricks, why not ride that “back to school” wave and explore something new?

Whether you’ve been craving an opportunity to get your hands dirty, nurture your literary leanings, entertain your friends, find new friends or find your center, here are five classes with no prerequisites, little in the way of required reading and absolutely no grading on a curve.

— Jess Righthand

Get some peace of mind: Introductory meditation classes with Insight Meditation Community of Washington

Imagine a class in which all you really have to do is sit and breathe. Considering that I sit in front of a computer screen for the majority of the day and am, so far as I can tell, alive and breathing, I should have this in the bag, right?

Not exactly.

At Tara Brach’s Wednesday meditation classes at the River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Bethesda, the primary goal is to improve focused concentration among practitioners through mindfulness meditation, a nondenominational practice that involves focusing one’s attention on moment-to-moment experience. Brach, 58, who founded the Insight Meditation Community of Washington about 15 years ago and continues to lead the organization’s flagship Wednesday meeting, uses her calm, soothing voice to instruct participants to use the breath as a kind of home base, bringing the mind back to the breath whenever it wanders. And, oh, does it wander.

From the time I close my eyes in the large, open room of about 200 people to the time I open them again after about half an hour of guided meditation, it feels as though my inner monologue for an entire day has been condensed into a 30-minute span. Brach says over-thinking, sometimes to the point of obsessing, is typical for those who don’t meditate habitually. Don’t worry — she says it becomes easier (or at least easier to work with, rather than against, any thoughts and emotions that may arise).

Each evening concludes with a dharma talk, where Brach offers teachings on a broader issue related to living in a “mindful” way. Her manner of speaking is funny and relatable, filled with jokes and anecdotes to illustrate her overall theme.

Why meditate? Brach says that while people come to meditation for a variety of reasons, decreased stress and increased sense of self are two major benefits. “People find that one of the most powerful things that happens is they start feeling more of a trust in who they are,” she says.

After class, Brach helps students organize carpooling to the nearby Metro stations. Oh, and in case you were wondering, mindfulness and the Internet are not mutually exclusive — Brach also posts her dharma talks and meditations online for those who can’t make it to class.

The takeaway: So why spend time learning to sit and breathe? Despite becoming acutely aware of my rapid inner monologue, there were also points when the dust cleared and everything was quiet. I left feeling grounded and in touch with myself.

You might also like: The Insight Meditation Community of Washington offers classes throughout the District, Maryland and Virginia that vary in size and format. For a different experience, try the District’s Shambhala Meditation Center, which hosts an introduction to meditation class the second Wednesday of each month. (Note: In Shambhala Buddhism, meditation is practiced with the eyes open, which some may find distracting.)

While every Wednesday class is open to any level of experience, Tara Brach will teach introductory meditation on Sept. 14 and 21. River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 6301 River Rd., Bethesda. 202-986-2922. www.imcw.org , www.tarabrach.com. Suggested donation of $10-$15.

— Jess Righthand

Be the life of the party: Intro to DJing at the Beat Refinery

It’s easy to envy DJs, who get paid to work crowds into sweaty, dancing throngs. But breaking into DJing has long required roughly the same process as becoming a kung fu fighter in the movies: To learn the way of the DJ, you’d have to find a learned master of the ones and twos, and hope he or she would teach you something.

Enter the Beat Refinery.

At the DJ school, which opened last year at Bach to Rock (B2R) music school, working club DJs are the teachers — Chris Stiles (a.k.a. DJ Stylus Chris) and Brian Sadiarin (better known as DJ Geometrix) oversee the two schools in Bethesda and Herndon. No need to stalk them in a crowded club for a lesson; you simply sign up.

A few weeks ago, I found myself at the Beat Refinery, in the first session of its four-week Intro to DJing class. With the swiftness of one Speedy Gonzales, Artit Sriboonruang (DJ As-One) efficiently ran through the basics of DJing — and DJing, according to Beat Refinery founders, means learning the much-used DJ software Serato Scratch Live. Thirty minutes later, our teacher had shooed us to the turntables.

Were we ready? Not really, but it was moments before Sriboonruang, a nationally ranked battle DJ, was by my side with suggestions.

Kim Venetz, 24, was a shy newcomer to Washington when she signed up for the Beat Refinery as one of its first students; a year later, you might find her at the Georgetown Madewell, Eden, Science Club or on the roof of Public, spinning as DJ Alkimist. When I caught up with her after class, she tells me it clicked for her because “you can learn by doing.”

As my class wound down, I rummaged through my electronic music “crate,” determined to try out my new skills. I picked two songs with roughly the same mellow beat, and listened as Slick Rick’s “La-Di-Da-Di” flowed into my headphones. When I heard my opening, I let the other record fly — in came the opening drum salvo of a Tribe Called Quest’s “Oh My God.” Somehow, it worked: I had managed to mix 10 seconds of a perfectly decent club jam.

The takeaway:I may never be hired to DJ at a club, but I could easily see learning enough in the intro course to have some fun at a house party, even if I’m just an iPod DJ. That’s because technical skill is only part of the equation. DJing is about listening to the beats and gauging the room . . . and recognizing that two very different songs might make for one awesome mix.

You might also like: There’s not anything quite like this DJ class in the area, but if you want to take up music, the area is teeming with music schools, including the Levine School of Music, that offer classes aimed at adults, even beginners.

The next sessions of Intro to DJing start Sept. 19 and 20 at two locations: 4819 St. Elmo Ave., Bethesda, 301-913-5757; and 465 Herndon Pkwy., Herndon. 703-657-2830. www.beatrefinery.com. $175.

— Lavanya Ramanathan

Add some spice and brine to your life: Preserving summer bounty: naturally fermented pickles and kimchi at Common Good City Farm

Along with knitting and canning, the fine art of pickling has swiftly shifted from an activity for “Little House on the Prairie” enthusiasts to a bona fide trend (not to mention something of a hipster calling card). If you’ve been wondering what to do with the cucumbers proliferating in your garden — or the ones stocked at your local grocery store — you might try a hands-on lesson, such as the one on a recent Saturday morning at Common Good City Farm in Ledroit Park.

The charming urban Shangri-La, devoted to educating low-income District residents on the values of sustainable farming and healthy eating, holds periodic classes covering a range of topics, from autumn herbs to drip irrigation.

The recent pickling workshop (future pickling class dates are yet to be announced) was led by amiable amateur pickler David Pinney, who began experimenting with fermentation six years ago with beer, before making home batches of yogurt and kimchi — the Korean staple of fermented cabbage — not to mention cucumbers dunked in salt water. The class was a low-key affair, and the dozen people who showed up, sitting in plastic chairs shaded by a pergola, kept an amusing banter alive, giving the class a community feel.

The first half of the workshop consisted of a Food Network-type demonstration with a dose of food safety trivia, health claims — admittedly unfounded and otherwise — and surprising tips, including how to maintain pickle crunch. The secret is tannins, which can be found in grape leaves, although one observer wondered whether red wine would do the trick.

“Then you can get a buzz and eat at the same time,” she marveled.

Afterward, participants were invited to the demo table and given a mason jar to practice making their own batch of kimchi as a take-home treat. (It takes a couple days until it’s ready.)

Among the lessons learned: Pickled cabbage, especially the spicy samples supplied by Pinney, makes an unexpectedly tasty breakfast.

The takeaway: Between the sunshine, salt and good company, classes at Common City are worth setting a Saturday morning alarm for. But be warned that once you try the simple and quick act of making your own pickles, you’ll never be satisfied by a Claussen again.

You might also like: Farmers markets around town also offer periodic events and classes. For another look at extending the life of summer foods, head to D.C. Greens Farmers’ Market (at Wisconsin Avenue and 34th Street NW) at 9 a.m. on Sept. 24 for a class about preserves and canning ($25).

The next class at Common Good City Farm is the autumn herb walk on Sept. 24 at 5:30 p.m. 300 V St. NW. 202-330-5945. www.commongoodcityfarm.org. $25; free for those earning less than minimum wage.

— Stephanie Merry

Talk the talk: Storytelling 101 with SpeakeasyDC

There are some people who have the confidence and conversational ammunition to walk into a party, bar or crowded room knowing no one and leave with 15 new Facebook friends. But most mortals could use some practice (and a glass of wine doesn’t hurt, either). That’s just one of the reasons people attend Storytelling 101 through SpeakeasyDC, a group that propagates the ancient art form of spinning a good yarn through open mike nights, performances and classes.

Speakeasy’s five-week workshop has a broader appeal than the course name suggests. Participants sign up to improve public speaking skills, exercise their creative muscles, overcome shyness and attain life-of-the-party status at family reunions.

The 12-person classes — typically team-taught by two Speakeasy performance fixtures — begin with warm-up exercises, which on a recent evening consisted of regaling classmates with tales of earthquake survival. Coming up with a story might be difficult, but giving voice to that tale in front of a crowd of strangers can be paralyzing. Luckily, the workshops promise a judgment-free atmosphere. The charismatic instructors, including Kevin Boggs and Stephanie Garibaldi (both of whom were in Speakeasy’s hilarious 2010 Fringe Festival production “Showcase Showdown”), offer critiques with kindness and humor.

Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but vocalizing personal histories — from the sweet chronicles of boy meets girl to the dispatches from a loved one’s deathbed — often leads to bonding. Classmates get to know each other, and many of the friendships are lasting, according to Garibaldi. And that no doubt helps during the final session, which is an evening during which each student presents his or her true tale onstage to classmates and their invitees.

The takeaway: There are all kinds of benefits to honing your storytelling skills, and it’s possible for even the shyest person to overcome the sweaty palms and heart palpitations induced by being the center of attention.

You might also like: Once you’ve mastered telling audiences a pre-planned tale, it’s time to take it to the next level. Washington Improv Theater offers lessons in off-the-cuff comedy. The eight-week course ranges in price from $240 to $260, but you can sample the goods during WIT’s biannual week of free classes, which kicks off Tuesday.

The next five-week Storytellling 101 class begins Sept. 19. Hillyer Art Space, 9 Hillyer Ct. NW. 240-888-9751. www.speakeasydc.com. $325.

— Stephanie Merry

Be the next Ken Burns: Writing a documentary treatment at the Writer’s Center

Writer and filmmaker David Taylor sits before a group of 10 students on a recent Saturday morning in the Zora Neale Hurston Room of the Writer’s Center in Bethesda. About half of the group — including a writer of romance novels, a poet/memoirist and a biographer — are experienced writers looking to break into the world of documentaries. The other half are, well, slightly less experienced. We all have arrived eager to explore the first step in capturing a true-life subject on film: writing what’s called a “documentary treatment,” a concise description of the primary voices, characters and story arc of a proposed documentary.

As it turns out, experience is a non-issue. Published or not, everyone seems equally in the dark when it comes to the initial stages of shaping our films. Kristine Crane, 35, the aforementioned poet/memoirist, who is also an editor at a journal about cancer research, has taken a number of classes at the Writer’s Center. She says that in her experience, “sometimes the best feedback you get is from people who are coming from a different perspective.”

Many writing courses, including a substantial number offered by the Writer’s Center, rely somewhat on discussing the work students produce between one meeting and the next; that is, outside the classroom.

For this 21 / 2-hour seminar, however, the only instruction was to bring an idea for a documentary. Ideas range from a documentary on world dance to an exploration of Jungian archetypes in film. Taylor takes students through a series of brainstorming exercises that apply universally, in order to help us think through various scenes, storytellers and visuals that could drive our stories.

Taylor, 50, who has been teaching at the Writer’s Center for five years, began there as a student 15 years ago in a fiction-writing course. He formed such close relationships with his peers that he still shares manuscripts with them today. This is not altogether uncommon — Taylor says many students make lasting connections at the Writer’s Center.

When it’s all said and done, Taylor says that “contact with other writers in the area” is what can really propel a budding writer forward.

The takeaway: You may not leave a two-hour seminar at the Writer’s Center with a fully formed product, but you will leave with a good idea of where to start. For a more in-depth experience, enroll in one of the weeks-long courses in fiction, poetry, nonfiction writing, screenwriting and more.

You might also like: Politics & Prose Bookstore offers classes year-round. The offerings lean more toward reading than writing; for fall, try the four-week class, “Knit Lit”; a seminar on reading the novel “Winter’s Bone” like a writer; and a class on the joys of keeping a journal.

Fall classes at the Writer’s Center begin the second week of September. The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh St., Bethesda. 301-654-8664. www.writer.org. $40-$100 for one-day seminars, $125-$360 for weekly courses.

— Jess Righthand

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