“Seeking violinists and flute players to perform in award-winning ensemble that has performed on PBS and NPR and at Lincoln Center. Must be able to work every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. $150/day with potential bonuses. Send résumé and demo tape….”
This sounded like a great opportunity to then-college student and still-aspiring violinist Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman, even though it was decidedly odd for a professional ensemble to be advertising on a student LISTSERV. Hindman was even more surprised when she was offered the gig, and before long was touring the country in the employ of a popular American composer, one whose schmaltzy music was more than a little reminiscent of the soundtrack to Titanic, the blockbuster 1997 film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
Yet the job wasn’t exactly what it seemed, for Hindman and her fellow performers were charged with playing in front of dead microphones as a CD recording of other musicians was piped out to the adoring crowds. It’s this experience—as a fake violinist for a real artist—that forms the foundation for her coming-of-age memoir, “Sounds Like Titanic” (Norton), whose cover, fittingly, features Young Woman With a Violin, by seventeenth century Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi.
In the following Failure interview, Hindman—now a professor at Northern Kentucky University—discusses the book and her experience working for an artist she refers to only as “The Composer.” Among other things, she addresses why she accepted and stayed with the job, whether audience members could detect the fakery, and why she believes The Composer used recorded music for what were ostensibly live performances.
What was your reaction when you found out you got the gig?
I thought there had been some horrible mistake. I really do play the violin and was a decent violinist for a small, rural high school in Appalachia, but [at Columbia University] I didn’t even make the last chair of the college orchestra. I knew I wasn’t going to cut it as a music major, but in my quest to make money for my tuition I saw the ad on the student LISTSERV. It said to send in a demo tape, which is so weird because orchestras usually hire by audition. But I got a friend to help me record a tape and I sent it in. Within a few days they called me, and I thought: This is when they’re going to have me sight-read music and realize I’m not good enough.
But I was hired without an interview, let alone an audition, so I decided to go with it and see what happened. I assumed I wouldn’t make it past the training weekend—that as soon as the other musicians saw me they would be able to tell from my cheap violin that I wasn’t a real professional.
It was on the first day of training I started to realize that I wasn’t hearing the music that the musicians were producing. But it was an extremely good illusion. I had thirteen years of violin lessons and it still took me several hours of looking right at the performers before I realized that the microphones were off or nearly off. I was kind of relieved, actually, and realized it was why they didn’t care whether I could play.
Aside from the money, what made you stay with the ensemble?
The money was the largest part of it. Going on tour with The Composer also allowed me to travel, which I had always wanted to do. But there was one other benefit; the praise I received from audience members. When I performed for the ensemble, I was seen as a professional young woman with enormous talent. Audience members would come up t me to congratulate me on my successful career as a violinist. As someone who had only worked menial jobs—as a waitress, an office assistant, et cetera—being seen as a successful musician was extremely alluring. I developed an unhealthy relationship with the praise and standing ovations I received.
So the audiences weren’t aware that you were pretending?
No. With a few exceptions, audience members had no idea. In the rare instance when someone asked if we were playing, we could answer, truthfully, that we were really playing. But the microphones in front of us were turned off. As I write in the book, when the eye sees a violinist playing and the ear hears violin music, the brain doesn’t stop to wonder if those two things are related. You have to have someone who knows how to play, but it’s not that difficult an illusion to pull off and it’s very effective.
In fact, for my book launch event I hired a violinist to play along to a recording of a violin playing the Titanic theme and it really clicked for people how this works. You hear this Titanic violin music and your brain doesn’t separate the two. I’m sure most people in the audience knew she was faking because they had read about my book. (Also, I had been teasing on social media that there would be a fake violinist.) Yet everyone kept applauding for her. We’re all trained to clap and act like it’s a concert even though we know it’s not.
Is that why The Composer chose to “perform” this way?
I can’t speak for him but I have some theories. I think it’s very possible it started out organically—that it wasn’t some devious scheme. He started out going to malls and craft fairs by himself, and people bought his CDs while he was playing the piano. Then he became so successful that he was able to have multiple groups go out to play at once.
I once read in a newspaper that he had as many as twelve different groups going to twelve different venues on a weekend to play his music and sell his CDs. And I don’t think he had the skills to audition everyone like a normal composer. So he probably ran into a question of quality control.
Also, when I was first hired the musicians were playing along with backing CDs, but around that time management was making the switch to using CDs with full instrumentation and turning off the microphones completely.
The Composer also may have realized that people think they want live performance but what they really want is the perfect sound of a studio recording with the illusion of a live performance.
Typically when a musician is asked to lip sync—or play along to a recording—it’s only for a song or two. What were some of the challenges of faking an entire concert?
It was a physical challenge, and some of the gigs we played at malls would go on for six to twelve hours. Imagine playing along to a looped CD and acting like a musical machine. In the book I compare it to dribbling a basketball for eight hours. At first it doesn’t seem that hard, but doing it for eight hours is really hard. After those gigs we were physically wrecked.
Does it matter that the performances were fake?
On the one hand, I think it does matter. People would have been mad if they found out they weren’t hearing the music live. But I think it’s really natural for people to listen with their eyes. Even the way we talk about musical performances; we’ll say: “I am going to see the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra,” or “I am going to see Beyoncé,” or “I am going to see Itzhak Perlman.” So much of how we experience music is visual.
On the other hand, there were so many audience members who loved the music and came to the concerts and had a great time. As for the concerts for PBS, the tickets were given as gifts for donations, so it wasn’t like the concerts themselves were scams in that way.
I understand that you developed anxiety during your time with The Composer. What was behind the anxiety attacks?
It’s hard to say. With mental illnesses it’s hard to narrow down the root [causes]. A lot of it had to do with being up on stage with the microphone off. By that time I had all the music memorized and there was a lot of time to think.
Also, the challenges of getting a career started and simply trying to make a living can produce a lot of anxiety.
I think we preach a false narrative to children, teenagers, and young adults: if you work hard and do these three hundred steps perfectly, you can achieve any dream. There are so many problems with that narrative, but just to name a few: It fails to account for the systemic flaws in the American path to upward mobility. School systems are vastly unequal, college is increasingly unaffordable, a middle-class life is increasingly difficult to obtain or sustain because of rising education, health, and housing costs. I am now a professor and I see college students who have done everything “perfectly” fail all the time for reasons that have very little to do with how hard they work.
In addition, we tell children who grow up in poor areas like Appalachia that they have to leave their communities in order to be successful. So you have to be perfect, you have to leave everything and everyone you know and love to chase your career, and if these steps don’t lead to the achievement of your dreams, it’s your fault and your fault alone. That is a perfect recipe for anxiety.
Do you still play the violin?
I do, but not as much as I used to. Every once in a while one of my friends or family members will be getting married and wanting a wedding violinist. I always play for free so they don’t feel scammed, because I’m not that great. So I am mostly relegated to weddings these days.