Shocking double life of ‘genius’
The audience gaped in amazement as the orchestra struck up a beautiful, mournful tune that sounded a little like the soundtrack to Titanic.
What no one realised was that these violinists, cellists and flautists were not playing a note, and the heart-swelling music that filled the room was coming from a CD.
This was how Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman realised her dream of becoming a musician at the age of 20, touring the world with a fake band. At first, it was fun soaking up the adoration from the crowd, but gradually, the yawning gap between appearances and the banal reality took a terrible toll.
The group sold millions of CDs, performing on National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service - but their performances were a scam, led by an eccentric and charismatic con artist.
Jessica, now 37, first arrived in New York City from West Virginia's Appalachian Mountains in the early 2000s to take Middle Eastern studies at the prestigious Columbia University, with high hopes of making it - if not in the music world, then as a correspondent.
In the meantime, she needed cash, so after donating a job and trying "all sorts of terrible jobs people do to try and make tuition", she saw a advert for violinists to perform on PBS and NPR for $150 a day, three days a week.
Jessica had loved playing the violin in high school, although she knew she wasn't the best, and sent off a tape. She was called into an office and handed the job with no audition.
"I was completely shocked," she told news.com.au. "I thought there had been a mistake and it wasn't until the weekend when I went on my training that I realised, actually, the microphones are off."
The training took place in New Hampshire, six hours from New York. "I'd been picturing something super fancy but it wasn't like that, it was this craft fair," said Jessica, who has written a book called Sounds Like Titanic about the bizarre musical deception.
As the orchestra began to play, the music was deafening, and she was amazed at their skill. But as she sold CDs to audience members, she finally caught on.
"It took me, even with years of violin, it took me a few hours to realise I'm not hearing anything," she recalled.
"They really are playing but they're being completely drowned out by this music, it's the perfect optical illusion. Your brain sees the violinist and ears the music and thinks it's the same thing, because why wouldn't it be?"
Not a word was spoken about the scam, but when the student picked up a violin, she knew for sure that her real abilities would not be an issue.
"I messed up completely, I couldn't find my place in the music, I really wasn't playing at all and everyone in the audience applauded.
"I felt really relieved in the moment because I knew that if it was a really fancy concert I knew there had been some mistake in hiring me. This made sense and I really needed the money, and then there was also something about all those people looking at me like I was some amazing violinist."
The man in charge of the operation, who she only refers to as "The Composer" since he still performs at New York's top music venues, was a rail-thin and handsome, with a wild mop of hair and a reassuring manner. He praised her performance, asking her simply to smile - and play more quietly.
It felt degrading, says Jessica, but she needed the money. And as The Composer flew the several dozen orchestra members around the country to perform for thrilled audiences in America's heartland, from Oklahoma to Arkansas, she began to thrive on the attention.
"I kind of over time developed this unhealthy relationship with the audience applauding me and going 'you're so talented', even though I knew it wasn't true. It's like anyone wants to hear that, especially when you're like 20, 21, a woman who's been doing s***ty jobs."
She started to relate to the troupe's wacky leader more and more. "I think one thing that brings you to it is just not being that talented. So what do we do when we're not a genius?
"How do you make it happen? I kind of feel like a lot of people are in similar situations you know, where you have this passion and you really, really want to do it and you'll work around the obstacles."
They embarked on a three-month, 54-city "God Bless America" tour, appeared at Shanghai's biggest concert venue during a series of shows in China and performed to great acclaim on PBS television. Their lies didn't seem to matter.
"At one point, a sound tech guy came running out to say, 'we're not getting anything, we're not getting anything' … and everyone on that stage knew why.
"The flute player said to The Composer, 'just tell them' … and then they called a break so I don't know what happened. But obviously PBS knew, because you can't do that live without realising there's no sound, all the microphones were off.
"I think probably what happened was it was all already set up and it was a really expensive production and everybody was already there and it was like, OK, just shoot it.
"And then what happened is it was wildly successful and raised all this money for PBS and they were like, 'let's do it again.'"
Now a creative writing professor living in Kentucky, Jessica believes the scam sums up our society today, filled with "fake news", double lives and an increasingly blurred line between reality and fiction.
That fuzziness began to eat away at her without her even realising it. "I started having panic attacks. At first, it was just like stage fright but it got worse and worse and worse, to the point where I was having a lot of delusions, like the stage lighting was going to fall on top of me or I was going to throw up in front of everyone or pee my pants, just embarrassing delusions but they were very real and in my body.
"I really felt like I was going throw up or pee myself or I thought my legs were going to detach … as I was putting the book together, I realised that what mental illness is losing your sense of what is real and what is fake."
At the end of the God Bless America tour and four years in the job, with her hopes of a Middle East correspondent role over, Jessica left New York and went to live in her parents' basement, too afraid to even go outdoors.
She began seeing a psychiatrist and getting to the heart of her issues. After six months, she took a role as a Columbia admissions secretary, allowing her to take its writing course for free and eventually become a professor.
"When I came to New York, I did not think I would end up living in Kentucky as a professor, and the funny thing is, it's a total dream come true," she says. "I love my life there and really love my job … it actually ended up being much better."
The city, the orchestra and the music all looked so perfect. But the flawed reality, however imperfect, may be even better.
Sounds Like Titanic will be available for purchase from March 1 in Australia at $40.95. Online booksellers can take pre-orders.