Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman is more popularly known as ‘Milli Violini’, the miming violinist who was the star in a world-class miming orchestra; yes, you read that right.
Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman is more popularly known as ‘Milli Violini’, the miming violinist who was the star in a world-class miming orchestra; yes, you read that right. At just 21-years-old, Hindman was living alone in New York and paying for her Columbia University tuition by selling her own eggs. She’s always played the violin, but was originally studying to be a war correspondent.
In 2002 a man who strictly referred to himself as The Composer hired Hindman to play in his orchestra. However, when she arrived on her first day on the job, she realized she wouldn’t actually be playing the violin at all, instead, she was told to “play” in front of a microphone that had been turned off while a speaker above her head blasted pre-recorded orchestra music. For four years she would go on to perform to a backtrack with the orchestra, and audiences never knew.
It’s important to note that performing under a back track isn’t illegal, as we know many of our favorite artists often lip-sync to their own music, however, like with famous singers, it’s more so just frowned upon. The Composer himself has sold millions of records and performed multiple times at New York’s Carnegie Hall. His past tours have raised millions of dollars for dozens of charities as well. However, according to Hindman, he was also an exploitative boss who was “surprisingly ignorant.”
“He was motivated by the desire to be famous and praised, to be seen as a very good person. But it can lead you down a dark path, to the point that you turn off microphones in front of really good musicians because you are so obsessed with perfection,” Hindman said.
Hindman and the orchestra traveled all throughout the country and played for eight hours at a time in an attempt to sell CD’s and promote the group. In 2004, she joined The Composer on a three-month tour that would hit 54 cities and play in packed concert halls. Hindman recalls that he always demanded unity among the musicians that worked for him. Meaning they all were supposed to wear matching jackets constantly and he would begin every performance by telling them all to smile more.
The Composer also trained his musicians to “mime” for their performances to make it look more genuine. Some of the musicians had actual PhD’s in the instruments they played, and Hindman often joked that she was the least talented there, even though that really didn’t matter.The Composer wanted experienced musicians who actually knew how to move with an instrument as they played it.
Audiences often said the performances “sound like Titanic,” which is also the name of Hindmand’s memoir. The book itself discusses Hindman’s life and experiences with things like millennial work culture, US healthcare, and many other larger issues that she endured as a mime violinist.
Hindman initially started playing the violin at eight-years-old. Her family was rather poor and would spend hours of their weeks driving Hindman into the mountains of South Appalachia, where they lived, for her 30-minute lessons. She loved the approval she received every time she played, and while her stage at the time was simply her elementary school gym, it felt like a sold out concert hall every time.
“After 13 years of lessons, [my] real strength was not natural talent but supportive parents, a gift more practical than celestial, more akin to a Dodge minivan than to a fiery-winged angel of music,” she recalled.
She received a partial scholarship to Columbia and studied in Cairo in 2001 when she received word of 9/11. When she returned to the United States she knew she wanted to give some comfort and reassurance to the citizens who so desperately needed it at the time. Hence, meeting The Composer and beginning her journey as the miming “Milli Violini.”
Hindman says that her goal with the book was to tell the story of the United States’ willingness to hire the most charismatic guy over the most qualified to entertain a country in mourning. Unfortunately, while touring Hindman developed an addiction to cocaine and amphetamines. She recalled buying them at first to stay awake and work more hours, but eventually the need to do them outweighed the desire to play. This led to a major spout of anxiety for Hindman, which then led to her leaving the ensemble to move back home with her parents at the age of 26.
“I survived the tour physically intact, I lost my grip on reality,” she recalls in her book. Eventually, Hindman found a job as an office secretary which then opened the door to attend graduate school. Thanks to her job she was now granted access to proper healthcare, something she didn’t have as a violinist, and was able to better manage her physical and mental health. She never reveals the identity of The Composer because she says the story she’s telling is simply not about him.
“I really wanted him to stand as his own character, apart from the person he is based on. Now I can see a lot of myself in him. We both had an enormous drive to succeed and a need to be praised. We were both born in a country that says you can do anything if you set your mind to it. And that just isn’t true, not just because of class, race or gender, but because of our abilities. He could compose, but only a little bit. And I could play violin, but I wasn’t very good at it. So what do you do, when you know what you want to do with your life and you aren’t very good at it? That’s what fascinates me so much – he found a way to be successful.”
Hindman currently teaches creative writing and Northern Kentucky University. She’s now the same age that The Composer was when he originally scouted her. While she rarely still plays the violin, she finds comfort in teaching others how to tell their own stories the way that she did.
Eric Mastrota is a Contributing Editor at The National Digest based in New York. A graduate of SUNY New Paltz, he reports on world news, culture, and lifestyle. You can reach him at email@example.com.
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