Wednesday, April 15, 2009
PEOPLE: Lawyers and Judges Trace Their Musical Beginnings
By SHERRI M. OKAMOTO, Staff Writer
(Second in an Occasional Series on Lawyers and Judges Engaged in Musical Pursuits.)
In a profession notorious for billable hour requirements and long hours, a surprising number of judges and lawyers find the time to play music. With the pressing obligations of work, community and family, why would they take the time for music?
Los Angeles Attorney Nancy C. Smith of Nossaman says that music “really helps keep me sane.” Playing the violin with the Pasadena Symphony Orchestra or fiddling with Scottish Fiddlers of Los Angeles is “a release,” she claims. “If I didn’t have another outlet, I’d go nuts.”
‘Like Gefilte Fish’
Sherman Oaks solo practitioner Stephen M. Truppe recalls his parents “made him” take piano lessons as a child, and quit as a teenager only to resume his musical studies about a year and a half ago.
“Music is like gefilte fish,” he says, “if you have enough exposure as a child, you miss it once it’s gone.”
Most members of the legal community who are musicians began playing an instrument when they were children.
Pacific Palisades entertainment law attorney Robert Eatman says that everyone in his family played an instrument when he was growing up.
“It was a part of the upbringing,” he said with a shrug as he leaned back in his chair during a recent conversation at his office. “I inflict it on the kids as well.”
Eatman recalled he started learning to play the piano, but “I wasn’t doing so great, so I thought I’d escape that and go to this,” he says, gesturing toward his French horn.
“I feel so sorry for anyone that doesn’t play the horn,” he proclaimed. “We all feel that way about our instruments, but I happen to be right about it.”
He said his parents “never intended for me to play professionally, just for culture,” so it “really freaked them out” when he majored in music in college and went on to tour the world with various orchestral groups.
While he initially enjoyed the excitement of travel, after about five years of it he admitted, “it just became a job.”
Eatman eventually earned his law degree from the Kent School of Law in his native Chicago and established his own entertainment law practice. “I’m trying to mix entertainment and law,” he said. “I don’t know how successful I am at it, but I’d like to think my clients recognize that I bring something other than just a business side to the table.”
And music is still “very much a part of my life,” Eatman said. He plays and performs regularly with the Palisades Symphony Orchestra as the principle horn player.
For some judges and lawyers, musical ability and training is so prevalent within their families that they attest to the existence of some sort of “music gene” passed on from generation to generation.
Music genes definitely seem to run in the family of Glendale appellate attorney Greg Ellis of Esner, Chang & Ellis.
Ellis says his mother, Josephine Canzonetti, was “an amazing, virtuoso singer,” and that he and his siblings grew up listening to her records.
He majored in music composition in college, and later became a professional singer and guitarist touring up and down the East Coast.
In 1975, he began doing musical arrangements for a musical comedy called “Stage Nine Revue” in Dayton, Ohio. “That’s how I met my wife,” he recalls. She was the one who hired him.
When the show moved on to Las Vegas, Ellis and his new bride, Sheila O’Neill Ellis, formed their own band and toured the country for the next four years.
Eventually the couple settled in California, and Ellis began “piecing together a living” doing some performing and musical arrangement work, and was persuaded by a friend to try his hand at law.
After enrolling at UCLA School of Law in 1982, Ellis says, “I was totally jazzed up, no pun intended, about being an attorney.” Although Ellis continued to work on weekends as a musician for the first two years of law school, music eventually fell by the wayside.
Although he plays occasionally for his daughter Molly Ellis, a singer, and with his wife, he no longer plays professionally. But “I’m thinking about getting back into it,” he says.
For Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Helen I. Bendix, music is inescapably intertwined with her memories of her mother. She says her earliest memory is of listening to her mother play in the string quartet that gathered at their home every Tuesday night.
Bendix says she and her twin sister would be “banished” to their bedroom while the adults played, but “there was always cake, and we got to come out when the cake was served.”
Her mother was a refugee from Nazism who was forced to flee to Palestine as a child, and then again to the U.S. after the war began in Palestine. One of the few things she was able to carry with her was her cello.
“For my mother, [music] was one of the few happy things in her life,” Bendix recalls. “The only consistent thing in her life was the cello.”
Her mother made sure “music was always in our house,” and made sure her daughters learned an instrument, Bendix says.
Bendix began playing the violin when she was 7 years old, while her sister started taking piano lessons. Together with her mother and sister, they formed “The Bendix Trio” and would periodically give concerts.
As a teen, Bendix began playing the viola, buying her first viola with the $300 she had earned giving the neighborhood children violin lessons. Sitting in her chambers one recent afternoon, she talked about going to the music store with her grandmother to pick out her viola.
She misted up slightly as she disclosed that the viola was stolen a week later when her family’s home was burglarized. Although the insurance company gave her the money to buy a replacement viola, which she has today, she said she still wishes she had the original one.
Bendix is currently the principal violist in the Palisades Symphony Orchestra, which offers performances six to seven times per year at the Palisades Lutheran Church.
Keeping with her musical heritage, Bendix passed on her love for music to her children. Her two sons were in the Harvard-Westlake choir, and one also plays the drums, guitar and piano.
But she said her daughter is a painter, not a musician. “Her taste in music is hip-hop, Kanye West,” Bendix said with a smile and a shake of her head. “Not that I’m putting down Kanye West, but that’s not my training.”
Recently, Bendix, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Aviva Bobb and a friend have been performing as a string trio at local senior citizen centers.
“It’s nice to do something pro bono, if you will, but not in the law,” Bendix says.
She also plays occasionally with the Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic Orchestra.
Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ronald R. Schoenberg, son of famed composer Arnold Franz Walter Schoenberg, claims that whatever music gene his family’s bloodline carries, it “skipped a generation,” for him and manifested in his daughter, deputy public defender Melanie Schoenberg.
“She’s very musical,” he says proudly. “Her work has been performed at Carnegie Hall.”
Melanie Schoenberg’s piece, simply called “Percussion Quartet” has been performed by the SO Percussion Ensemble all around the world.
It is not a “rhythmic type drum piece,” Melanie Schoenberg explains. “It’s all pitched percussion,” played on drums, wine glasses full of water, xylophone, gong, marimba and harmonica.
“It didn’t sound like anything you’ve ever heard before,” she claims. “It was my best idea ever.”
Schoenberg says that everyone in her family had expected her brother, Randol Schoenberg of Burris & Schoenberg—who “came out of the womb arguing”—to pursue law, and thought she would pursue music.
She began composing when she was 7 years old, and wrote the school anthem for Harvard-Westlake while she was a high school student there.
“I never in a million years thought that I would be a lawyer,” she says, but while pursuing her doctorate in music at Columbia University, she says she was enthralled by her roommates’ law courses and decided to leave music academia.
“It’s a pretty depressing lifestyle to be a composer,” Schoenberg explains. “You just spend a ton of time alone…and I’d rather do something where I can actually help people and affect people’s lives.”
Not that Schoenberg has abandoned composing. “It’s nice to come home from work and sit down at the piano and write a song if I want to,” she says. She is working on a choral piece for her upcoming wedding in June.
While most musicians were inspired by their parents to begin playing music, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rand S. Rubin was inspired by his children.
He explains that when his children were in elementary school, the school offered free music lessons, so his son learned the violin and his daughter learned the clarinet. Realizing that the children could be one half of a string quartet, Rubin says he and his wife took it upon themselves five and a half years ago to learn string instruments to form the other half.
Because violists “are the butt of every joke,” Rubin says affably, “it kind of suited my personality,” so he chose the viola as his instrument, and his wife chose the cello.
The Rubin family quartet was broken up this fall by the departure of Rubin’s daughter for college, but the proud father boasts she was accepted to Yale University’s oldest student-run chamber orchestra in September.
While Rubin and his wife play in the Second Strings Orchestra—a group of adult music students who make the rounds at the senior homes—Rubin says his goal is to be able to play in a community orchestra like his fellow jurist and violist Mary House.
Considering the number of lawyer musicians in Los Angeles, it is not surprising that many are also members of the bench.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Brett Klein says that playing trumpet is “an effort to sort of recapture my youth.” He explains “for years I’ve been telling myself my goal is to play as good as I did at 15.”
Turning more serious, he explains that playing is “a terrific form of relaxation” and a way to “diffuse tension,” like controlled breathing exercises in mediating. He plays classical trumpet music in his courtroom, and says he occasionally plays in his chambers as well.
But he says the part of being a musician that he hopes carries over to the courtroom is “listening,” because “that’s what judges are, professional listeners.”
The jurist is a member of several community orchestras and a group that rehearses in the Stanley Mosk courthouse called the Seventh Floor Brass Quintet.
He also plays with the Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic Orchestra, Traction Avenue Chamber Orchestra and USC Thornton Concert Orchestra.
‘Form of Expression’
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Aviva Bobb says music is “just a part of the language that I speak.”
She began playing the violin when she was only 5 years old. “Because I started so young, it became my form of expression” she explains, “it’s just a part of who I was and what I did.”
As a child, she says she played in a string quartet with her brothers and father, and with fellow jurists Helen Bendix on violin and Mary House on viola, she has almost found another string quartet at the Stanley Mosk courthouse.
Bobb jokes, “we’re looking for a cellist.”
The jurist admits that she never liked practicing. “I don’t like being in a room by myself,” she says. “Playing with a group is the most fun there is.”
She currently plays with the Palisades Symphony Orchestra, alongside Bendix, and in the Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic Orchestra.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Craig F. Veals recalls that when he was a seventh grader growing up in Compton, there was an elderly man who offered music lessons to all the children in the neighborhood for free. Veals remembers the man only as “Mr. Lee.”
Both of Veals’ older siblings had taken lessons from the neighbor, and “when it was my turn, I remember going there for the first time and wondering if this guy was really going to pay any attention to this bratty kid, or if I was just going to be bothering him,” Veals says. But Veals says Lee was “so devoted,” to his pupils. “He really listened, he really cared.”
The only instrument Lee happened to have available at the time was a trumpet, and he loaned it to Veals. “I certainly didn’t have the wherewithal to afford one,” Veals recalls.
“The man was a saint,” Veals proclaims. “I don’t know if I ever would have started a path to musicianship, but for him. He had a tremendous impact on me.”
One of the first pieces he learned was an excerpt from Antonin Dvorak’s Symphony No. 9 in E Minor, “From the New World,” commonly known as the “New World Symphony.” This piece “gave me the epiphany that there was a method to my musical madness,” Veals says “I knew it was going to work. It took off from there.”
He explains that the “sense of accomplishment” he felt once he was playing note progressions and recognizing the tune he played was what hooked him for life on music.
“When you play [a song] a thousand and seventy times, and you finally get it, oh, what a feeling,” he says, “especially when it’s something you never thought you could do.”
Veals says he spent a year taking lessons from Lee before moving on to join the junior high school and high school bands.
And Veals never stopped playing. “I play every chance I can,” he says, although he admits his instrument is “somewhat problematic” because “the neighbors don’t appreciate all the noise.”
Over the years, Veals says he lost track of his musical mentor after Lee moved out of Compton, adding:
“Mr. Lee, if you’re out there somewhere, thank you.”
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mary Thornton House admits that viola players such as her are “a little bit maligned.”
There are a “million” jokes out there, she says. For example, what do a viola and a lawsuit have in common? Everyone is happy when the case is closed.
“I didn’t plan on being a member of two groups that are teased,” House says, “but there you go.”
She explains that “viola parts are not extraordinarily difficult,” and often just provide “filler” notes for a song, as opposed to the melodies that the other orchestral string sections play, but she maintains that the viola section is “kind of an unsung hero,” because “if we weren’t there, you’d miss us.”
While attending elementary school in Dallas, Texas, House recalls the school offered a free string program to its students, and she picked the viola “without really knowing what it was.”
She says she stuck with it throughout the years because her family moved around a lot while she was growing up, and the orchestra “was an instant group I belonged to,” after each move.
Although she confesses that she earned more in one year playing at weddings, bar mitzvahs and parties than she did her first year as a lawyer, she maintains that she made the right decision by pursuing law rather than a career as a musician.
“Happiness is to do something the majority of the day you feel you’re good at and have room to grow,” she opines. “I was never going to be a concert level violist, I felt I’d reach a certain level and not be able to go to the next.
“The reason I play now is just for pure enjoyment and relaxation,” she says. Sometimes she admits “I have to drag myself to rehearsal” with the Pasadena Community Orchestra each week, “but I always leave feeling great.”
Music lets her “concentrate on the moment,” House explains. It’s a “non-decision making activity” and a “respite” from the decision making she does all day.
Shaking hands with retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Richard Denner is a tricky business because the nails on his right hand are nearly a quarter of an inch long.
While visiting him at his home on a recent afternoon, he gave a feminine flourish of his right hand and asked:
“See my pretty fingers?”
The nails are acrylic, professionally applied at a nail salon, he says.
“It took a lot of guts to walk in there the first time, let me tell you,” he admitted, but now he goes about once a month to have them redone.
Classical guitar is played with the fingernail, Denner explained. Because his own nails were too brittle to handle plucking the strings, Denner says he resorted to fakes.
“I had numerous disasters with the drugstore kind,” he continued. One time, he said “I was three measures into a song when the nail went…” as he traced an arc through the air. So the acrylics work best, he says.
Denner claims he “went through a middle age crisis” when he turned 38, and wanted to “do something.” Learning guitar appealed to him, he says. “My first thought was ‘Hey, I’ll be a rock star,’ but I think I said that just to bug my wife.”
His first instructor encouraged him to learn classical guitar, and Denner said, “I can’t sing a hoot, and one thing you’ll never see is a classical guitarist sing; that’s why I got into it.”
He said used to keep his guitar in his chambers in order to practice, and to threaten lawyers. “I used to tell the lawyers, ‘Settle this case or I’ll play music until you do,’” he joked.
Retired Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Michael Berg says that his parents forced him to take piano lessons as a child, but it developed into “an obsession.”
Music is “sort of my religion,” he says. He reads books about composers, songs, and instruments, and forayed into cyberspace with his new iPod.
“I’ve discovered some interesting classical music on iTunes,” he says. His favorite discovery he says are the works of American pianist William Kapell.
Kapell died in a plane crash in 1953 at the age of 31, Berg explains. Kapell never became very famous, but Berg opines he was “one of the greatest pianists ever.”
Although Berg is happy to discuss musicology and claims to have had had “early fantasies” about becoming a “great performer and composer,” he is very shy about playing. “I get a little nervous about performing,” he admits. “I haven’t rented a hall in my entire life.”
The only place he plays is at home, on the baby grand piano his parents bought when he was 8, and with the windows closed so the neighbors won’t hear, he says.
Music is his “private escape,” he says, and his own personal joy. He says he tries to play at least an hour each day, for the “repose, excitement and escape” of playing. But he concedes with a laugh, “I might have to have a little recital before I pop off.”
Copyright 2009, Metropolitan News Company