Lucia Micarelli: Balancing life on the concert stage and the scoring stage

Violinist and sometime-actress Lucia Micarelli not only adapts well to change, she thrives on it. Born in Queens, New York, to a Korean mother and Italian-American father, by 3 she was already immersed in dance, piano, and violin. After moving to Hawaii at age 5, she debuted as a soloist with the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra a year later. In 1994 she left Hawaii and returned to New York to attend the prestigious Juilliard School of Music, where she studied violin for seven years. Following her education, Lucia was asked to join a number of tours and is known for her performances with the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Jethro Tull, Josh Groban’s “Closer and “Awake” tours, and with Chris Botti. In 2010 she obtained two union cards, joining both AFM Local 47 and SAG-AFTRA. In March, Lucia spoke with Overture’s Linda A. Rapka on a break during her live tour promoting her PBS Special, “An Evening with Lucia Micarelli.”

Your PBS Special has been airing all month. That’s pretty exciting.
It is super exciting. I’ve been thinking about PBS a lot because I just did this press tour to promote the special, and I realized not only did I grow up with PBS but almost every musician I know has some memory, whether it’s watching Itzhak Perlman on “Great Performances” or watching somebody from “Live at Lincoln Center…” I even have professional musician friends who are like, “The first time I ever saw a cello was on ‘Sesame Street.’” Then you start talking to everyone, even non-musicians, and you’re like, oh my god, PBS has really impacted a lot of people’s lives in terms of bringing music and bringing awareness of instruments into everyone’s home. Everyone grew up with PBS. I was born in New York, but when I was 5 my family moved to Hawaii. At the time [the Honolulu Symphony] had quite a few artists coming through, but it’s not like New York. I remember so many concerts that I saw on PBS, watching Anne-Sophie Mutter and Yo-Yo Ma. It’s amazing they are able to get that content out to so many people who may not be able to get it any other way. It was really important for me.

What led you to pick up the violin at age 3?
My mom made me do it (laughs). My mom is Korean and she really wanted me to play an instrument. I think she wanted me to play an instrument before I was even born. I started so young I don’t even remember starting. I just remember I liked having a thing to do, and I was very serious about it. After a couple years I remember I was so emotional about playing. I don’t know that I understood the music intellectually, but I was really moved by music. I guess I was a dramatic child.

That really speaks to the power of music and how it communicates in so many ways, and on so many levels.
Across all boundaries, even age. My mom tells me when I was little she was like, “I don’t even know if you were any good, but whenever you would have to play a concert you would look so emotional and you’d make all these faces, it was very convincing.” I’ve always been so moved by music, and I think everyone is. I think about that a lot too — why does music even exist? It’s not something we need to survive, but it obviously feeds all of us. Not just all of us that do it professionally — it feeds everyone in some important, primal way. There’s something important about it. I think it’s that — connection. Sometimes you can get to things that maybe you can’t get to otherwise.

What do you find most rewarding about being a musician?
Being able to play music with your friends or with your family, that’s such a beautiful thing. I wish more people would realize that. Sometimes people just get so goal-oriented and it’s that thing like, “Well I wasn’t great at it.” It’s not really about that. It’s not about being perfect or being the best at something. It can give you so much in any capacity, whether it’s a professional capacity or it’s just you’re playing with your friends or playing for yourself. And you can have it with you throughout your whole life. Obviously things could happen, but once you have music in your life it can always be in your life, really.

Separately from being a career, it has fed me so much. It’s not just going and playing a show for people. It feeds me in my everyday life, separately of career. Just being on the instrument I think helps me in my life. Being able to play music with your friends or with your family, that’s such a beautiful thing. Like, last night, there were a couple moments during the show where I was looking around at my friends, and I just thought, this is so cool. We all get to hang out and play music, which is what we love to do — people came and they’re listening, and they’re into it, and we’re sharing this music, and for an hour and a half it’s this little room full of good vibes. That’s what I love. That’s what makes me happy.

You’ve been doing a lot of session work lately, working some of the top motion pictures (“Coco,” “The Greatest Showman”) and TV shows (“The Handmaid’s Tale,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”), and for major recording artists.
I haven’t been doing sessions for that long, but a few years ago I started doing it and I really love it. What I love the most is that I really like all my colleagues a lot. I toured with Josh Groban and Jethro Tull and Chris Botti and was always just sort of alone in a hotel room, and the only people I knew were my tour family. And you know, that’s great, but it’s been so nice to come to L.A. and then to be welcomed in to the session world. I’ve met so many great friends and so many fantastic musicians, and so even now when I’m doing my own show, basically my entire band is people that I’ve met through the session world. And the audience, afterward when I do meet and greets and things like that, I get so many comments about the other musicians in the band. I’m so happy that I’ve met all these people because it’s really fed me, it’s really challenged me. In the session world, people come from all different backgrounds and everybody has different strengths, and when you put together a group of that kind of diverse talent, everybody is challenging me and teaching me all the time. I’m learning from these people all the time. Which is what I want. And also, when we work with an amazing composer on an amazing project it’s very exciting.

I get to pop into sessions from time to time, onto the scoring stage, and it’s always a thrill. There really is some magic that happens.
It feels like so secret (laughs). Before I came to L.A., before I met people who did session work, I literally didn’t even know that world existed. It never even occurred to me that there was this pretty small group of musicians that played on almost all of the recordings and films and television. So when I first started doing that work I was like, wow. It felt like I was invited into a little secret club to get to see how it’s all done.

How did you get your foot in the door?
It’s, again, one of those things. I had come through L.A. quite a few times on tour with other artists as a guest soloist or something in other people’s shows, and so whenever we would do that those artists would pick up an orchestra or at least a string section. There were a few people that I met that way. Then are people that I met in that string section who now I see all the time. I think it was just kind of word of mouth. I mean I never really set out to do it. Also, my husband has been a session musician for a really long time. I was in L.A. and had met a couple people from touring and just kind of word of mouth, it wasn’t much work at all in the beginning, and then it just kind of picked up organically over time.

What prompted your move to Los Angeles?
I moved to L.A. maybe like eight years ago. I didn’t intend to stay there (laughs). I was touring a ton, and my base had been in New York and I gave up my apartment ’cause I wasn’t using it and I was just kind of freewheeling it being on the road all the time. I had made some friends in L.A. Actually I was on tour with Josh Groban and I met Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, the cellist, and we became really good friends. She was telling me how great L.A. is and I was meeting her friends and we had a little break from the Groban tour for a couple of months, and I just thought, well maybe I’ll just sublet a place in L.A. and see what that’s like. One of the things I noticed when I first moved to L.A. was, musically, I sensed this feeling of more open-mindedness in terms of trying to do something a little out of the box. That’s not to say that there aren’t many open-minded and creative people anywhere else, it’s just that in terms of actually trying to execute something, I felt it was easier in L.A. I don’t know if that’s because maybe it’s a little more progressive, or it’s such a big city that there are so many venues and spaces… and then obviously there’s a plethora of talent and amazing people. There were a lot of people trying out creative, slightly off-the-beaten-path things. That really encouraged me to stay, and I just kept staying a little bit, staying a little bit, then I started dating my husband, and then I married my husband [Local 47 member violinist Neel Hammond], so now I’m all L.A.

Speaking of our musical community, there’s a lot of talk about how music-scoring work is going overseas or moving out of L.A. What do you think can be done to keep our music community thriving here?
One of the huge strengths that we have in L.A. is the musicians are just so talented, and also have so much experience. That world has been based in L.A. for so long. It’s not to say there aren’t great musicians elsewhere, but I don’t think you’re going to find people with this much experience — 30, 40 years — doing this kind of work. I’m always amazed watching how quickly problems get solved, how quickly things can get under the fingers… It’s a very, very specialized type of work. It’s a very specialized talent. I don’t include myself because I haven’t been doing it for very long, but when I see the other musicians that I work with, that’s always what I’m just blown away with. They get it done fast, they get it done well, they’re flexible, they problem solve. They’ve been doing it in L.A. longer than anywhere else. So I do think that that’s a big strength. What do you guys [the union] think is the answer?

One of the things we’re working on right now is a music-scoring tax credit for the state’s Film and Television Tax Credit bill. We have a campaign going on right now called “Keeping the Score in California.”
That’s exciting. That usually does a lot. I know that does a lot for bringing work into cities, just from the acting I’ve done and then all the friends I have in the acting world, that that’s a big deal.

Having belonged to two unions (AFM and SAG-AFTRA), what does it mean to you to be a union member?
It’s about community. I do think that in these creative fields you can feel really isolated, like you’re just sort of grinding away, and you’re all alone. I love that feeling of being part of a creative community and having a support group to go to when you’re like, How do I deal with this? I need health insurance. Because as a musician, we’re all just sort of freelancers. And actors are the same — you’re going job to job and you hope for the best. In that world of there not being stability, and often working alone and being a free agent, it feels so good to have a community and have people you can turn to and call for help and for advice, to be able to meet other artists in that community, whether musicians or actors, or whatever. We need that kind of structure and support and community. It’s great to have people have your back, because it’s easy for us to all just get caught up with just trying to play in tune or trying to learn lines. It is really helpful to have a team of people who are checking out that big picture and helping out.

What advice can you offer to other musicians?
Everything for me has always kind of been pretty organic. I’m pretty focused on my own path —not in a career way, but just in a musician way. I’m always trying to just get better and learn more things. I love being uncomfortable and out of my element, and I love meeting people who are also musicians but have a different background or have a different path than I do. I just think that the more information that I come cross and the more people that I meet, we can just absorb so much. So I’m learning and trying to learn all the time, and through that you meet so many people and you can collaborate with people. And also that’s how opportunities happen. Music is about connection, and I think similarly the music quote-unquote “business” is also about connection — and not just in a weird, networky, “I gotta meet the right people” way, but really just, if you love what you’re doing and you love this music and you wanna share it, or you just love music so much that you are interested in what other people are doing, and you go and you see stuff and meet people and you keep growing your community… first and foremost, you’re growing your own awareness of what’s out there, and so it feeds you in your craft, and then as a byproduct it ends up feeding you in your life because it exposes you to more and more.

I’ve been so lucky that things have been super organic. I got my first touring job because a friend of mine mentioned in passing when I was like “I need to make some money” when I was in New York, my friend who was a cellist said, “Oh, Trans-Siberian Orchestra is doing auditions this weekend for a short tour, they need a violinist, you should do that.” I didn’t even know about Trans-Siberian.So I did that and I got that job. Then while I was on the road with them, literally the last week that I was on that tour I’m in the back of the tour bus and my cellphone rings and it’s Josh Groban. He’s like, “Hey, I got your name from so-and-so, I’m looking for a violinist. If I send you some music will you make a tape of yourself playing this music and send it back to me?” I made a tape in the back of the tour bus and sent it to Josh, and then he called me back and was like, “Can you come on my tour as soon as you’re done with Trans-Siberian Orchestra?” And then I was on tour with Josh and Chris Botti came and opened for Josh, and Chris Botti saw me play with Josh and then came to me and was like, “Will you play with me?” So everything has always been kind of like that.

I really feel strongly that you’ve got to be open to doing things that you never, ever in a million years thought you would do. When I was at Juilliard I never thought that I would be knee-deep in fog playing electric violin in front of a crazy pyro show with weird metal Christmas music. I was, like, hoping I would be Sarah Chang (laughs). But hey man, it’s cool, I was open to that. And being on tour with Josh, I never thought I would play in a jazz band, I never thought that I would be playing with Chris Botti and a super-legit jazz band. I’m always scared to do these things, because nobody wants to make themselves look silly and feel out of your element, but at the same time it’s like, OK, worst case scenario I look like an idiot, but even if I look like an idiot I’m gonna learn some stuff. I think I’m pretty comfortable looking like an idiot (laughs). Be open to putting yourself in different situations, and grow your community. And as you’re growing your community, you’re growing your ability, too. Or at least your ears. You really don’t have that much to lose. I know that people feel like the further along they get in their career the more and more is at stake and the more they have to lose, but I think there is just so much to gain that it’s worth so much more than anything you could potentially lose or be embarrassed about in the moment.

I love that. It’s like they say, growth stops when you’re comfortable.
Yeah, I think so. I’m always trying, even with my own show — obviously to a certain extend I want to be comfortable because I want it to go well and I feel like there’s a lot at stake because it’s my name, but at the same time I really want to be challenged, and I really want to be continually challenged. And I want that for all of us, for everybody that I’m playing with. I don’t ever want us to walk into a gig and be like, “yeah, we got this, no problem, super chill, I don’t even have to think.” I do want a little bit of that, “Who knows what’s gonna happen?!” (laughs). Because I think that’s really, that’s not just part of how you grow, but that’s also I think directly linked to how fulfilled you feel. Not only do you learn from those situations where you’re uncomfortable or challenged, but afterward I’ve noticed that we’re so much more fulfilled when we feel like it was a big step, or we weren’t quite sure but we did it. And that feeling of fulfillment is just really important just for all of us just in our lives in order to keep doing it. We have to be excited, and we have to have those moments of feeling like, wow, we really did something, otherwise what’s going to motivate you to be in a room practicing for six hours a day?

After the PBS tour, what’s next?
I’ve got one more show tonight in Vegas, and I’ve got these shows this summer. I’m finishing up an album that I think should come out later this year, I’m hoping. It’s a solo record. Hopefully that will come out in the fall. Then I’ve got a bunch of dates in the fall and the winter all over America, so I’m super excited about that. The PBS pledge just ended for March but there will be more drives in June and in the fall so hopefully the special will get aired some more. I just want to reach people and share the music that I love with them, and hopefully people like it. And then we get to see them, and they’ll come to shows, and we’ll just make music and have a good time.

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