Nero's Violin

Last Tuesday night, I headed to LACO's first rehearsal of the week with a spring in my step.

My husband and I had proudly cast our ballots for Hillary Clinton earlier in the day. We were filled with optimism. I marveled at the possibility of our son (due in March) growing up under a female president. To think that he wouldn't know any different blew my mind.

My grandfather grew up on a street in New York in which hitching posts for horses remained. While using a urinal at work, he unwittingly revealed his Jewishness to a higher-up at an adjacent stall. This man proceeded to tell my grandfather he had "nothing against his kind."

Grandpa served as a naval Lieutenant Commander in World War II, lived through the Great Depression and the Civil Rights movement, and saw the moon landing. At the end of his life, he saw the nation elect its first African American president. He also had an active Facebook account.

What will equivalent watershed events be for future generations looking back on our time? Like many, I was fairly certain the outcome of November 8 would be one of them. As a woman, the nearing prospect meant more to me than I'd allowed myself to aknowledge.

Our ballots cast -- along with America's die.

Our ballots cast -- along with America's die.

LACO rehearsal began at 7:30 PM, Pacific Time. When break began at 8:45, we all whipped out our phones.

It was as if someone had died. Feeble statements like "it's not over yet" floated by every few minutes.

Our guest conductor -- Alexandre Bloch, a gracious and talented Frenchman -- stood near the podium, observing us drown in the news. While I admittedly may be projecting, It seemed to me he was feeling a strange mix of pity, awkwardness, fascination, and relieved detachment. 

Break ended well before the election call was made -- but not before the outcome was obvious. We put our phones away and attempted to concentrate on rehearsing Mendelssohn's Scottish Symphony.

Strangely, albeit unsurprisingly, the orchestra sounded ok. Perfectly lackluster, but still professional. After all: we are trained to play what's on the page regardless of what's going on in our heads. 

My limbs felt as heavy as I did everywhere else. I tried to summon the artistic integrity to believe that we'd need beauty in our lives now more than ever. But in that moment, feeling how powerless that sentiment was over my state of mind only made me feel worse. 

Virtually every member of the orchestra was in shock. I didn't know what to make of the echo chamber we had been, and were still, living in.

I thought of Nero playing the violin while Rome burnt to the ground. 


I woke up the next day feeling caught off guard and sick to my stomach. I couldn't wrap my head around the country's condoning of such indecent rhetoric and behavior. As a woman (a white one, at that), it made me feel like I didn't matter. I could only imagine how immigrants, Muslims, and people of color were feeling. 

That night's rehearsal felt slightly less surreal. The musicians' bubble was, as I suppose it had always been, one of social solidarity.

Although rehearsal wasn't scheduled for Thursday, I did have a recording session for American Crime. (An apt title.)

On Friday, LACO reconvened to rehearse Adam Schoenberg's fantastic piece, Scatter. Adam is a wonderful composer and friend. Scatter is his first concerto, written for a fun and dynamic group called Project Trio

When I walked into rehearsal, the Project Trio guys were casually warming up in the hall. They deliberately stopped to smile, say hello, and introduce themselves to us. (Normally, soloists keep their distance from the plebs.) I wondered if they were always this way, or if they were all the more determined to be so in light of current events. 

Like all Adam's music, the piece was sincere, groovy, fun, fresh, relatable, and satisfying to play. Coming together to play something friendly, warm, and normalizing: just what we all needed. Playing Mozart and Mendelssohn was fine and all, but there was something comforting about playing unapologetically American music that was both good and new. It was nice to tell him as much afterward, and to see other musicians in the orchestra doing the same. 

Stealth rehearsal shot during a rest.

Stealth rehearsal shot during a rest.

Later that night, Adam wrote:

"Joseph Polisi (president of Juilliard) always spoke about our responsibility of being artists as citizens. As a composer, I've always felt that it is part of my civic duty to help bring more beauty into our world. I knew the rest of this week was going to be tough, but I just returned from our rehearsal with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. I could not be more inspired by this group and their conviction."

A glimpse of the impact

So much has been said and written about the election. It's not my purpose here to add anything to the discussion beyond my experiences through music last week. I agree with so much of what I've read -- even contradictory arguments. As I've been telling my students (and myself): only time will tell whether we need to be more or less worried. 

On Saturdays, my last group at Colburn consists of four Asian-American young women. They are sweet, talented, and all near the end of their high school careers. Most intend to go into music. Of all my students, they seemed the most affected by the election results. We spent half of their last lesson time talking about it.

It's been quite a few years since I've felt like I can emotionally relate to my high school students. In this instance, the girls and I shared similar feelings about the message we'd been sent. But being older, and being white, gives me clear coping advantages.

I was heartbroken for them. I can only hope that their inevitably defeatist takeaways will be adjusted partially, if never fully, over the course of their life experience -- in the way I'd wrongly thought feminism had already done for me in mine. 

The girls then picked up their instruments and played Faure with intermittent bursts of steely determination, focus, and self-doubt.