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November 1, 2021IM -
“I’ve been everywhere,” laughs Lily Ling, member of Local 149 (Toronto, ON). A self-described “double immigrant,” Ling first moved with her parents to Vancouver, British Columbia, from China as a young girl. With them came Ling’s accordion, which she began learning at only three years old. “I have these photos of me,” she recalls, “where all you can see is this giant accordion and just my head and two tiny hands.”
In the 1980s, the influence of Russia was still prevalent in China and Russian folk music was popular. The most commonly played instruments at the time were the accordion, violin, and piano. It was her accordion teacher who first recognized Ling’s natural ear for music and suggested to her parents that she try the piano. “For the longest time,” she says, “I was much better on the accordion than on the piano. It wasn’t until I immigrated to Canada that I really started learning piano.” She would go on to become a classically trained pianist.
Today, she is living and working in the United States, where she serves as music director for the “And Peggy” company of Hamilton, one of the juggernaut’s three touring troupes. Prior to taking on that role, she attended school in Toronto and Pennsylvania, lived for a time in New York City, and spent a year and a half as the associate music director for the first Chinese language production of The Lion King in Shanghai. It’s a life that suits her well.
“I love traveling and exploring new places,” she says. Hotels and Airbnbs are a perfect fit for her minimalist lifestyle. “I love Marie Kondo!,” she says. The tour’s schedule gives her time to seek out bookstores, coffee shops, and eclectic speakeasies in each of her temporary homes. “I think I’m in a place in my life where probably sooner rather than later, I would love to finally put down roots. But Hamilton is still incredibly fulfilling right now. And I could not hope to be working on a piece at this time in history that speaks more to an audience and to everything that’s happening in our society.”
Ling’s association with Hamilton began in 2017 when she joined “Philip”—another of the touring productions—as associate music director. In her current role, she sees herself as a quality control manager, explaining that it’s her job to maintain the vision of the show’s creators, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Alex Lacamoire.
“Hamilton is as much of a love letter to hip-hop and rap and Lin’s upbringing as it is a love letter to musical theater and its traditions,” she says. “For every rap reference, there’s a musical theater reference. And so my job is—and I’m still learning—to understand what was in Lin and Lac’s brains. I’m not teaching them how to rap. I’m not teaching them how to do hip-hop. All I’m doing is maintaining a level of quality and a level of continuity so that when the audience comes, they understand what they’re seeing and what they’re hearing. So, Hamilton is not hip-hop, it’s music theaterized hip-hop. It’s music theaterized versions of all these art forms that have influenced the thing that is Hamilton. And that’s my approach to Hamilton.”
Ling describes the composition as brilliant, intricate, and layered, saying that it has challenged her as a musician and has ultimately made her better. She often tells new members of the team that “Hamilton has a way of magnifying things. It will show you all your shortcomings as a musician, and it’s up to you to face them and work on them. And if you do, and you get through to the other side, you can’t help but be a better musician. That’s an amazing feeling.”
The “And Peggy” company boasts Hamilton’s first-ever majority female band, including its first female guitarist, Emily Rosenfield, of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA), who Ling describes as “amazing.” Ling herself is Hamilton’s first female music director, and women can be found in key roles like company manager, station manager, and head of wardrobe.
Ling says that the working environment within the company is one that thrives on collaboration and conversation, but stresses that while diversity is essential, hiring is based on merit rather than optics. As a woman of color in a field often dominated by white men, this is particularly important to her. She says, “I got the job because I’m the best person for the job. And I happened to be a woman. And then secondarily, I happened to be East Asian. It’s merit, then my gender, and then my race. That’s how I want to be categorized.”
In March 2020, Hamilton was the first US-based show to close its doors in response to the quickly worsening Covid-19 pandemic. The company is thrilled to finally be back on the road, albeit with all the necessary safety protocols in place. Ling says she was appreciative of the AFM for releasing a recommended list of Covid guidelines and considers herself lucky to be touring primarily in states that have followed similar rules.
During the pandemic, Ling was asked if, in the midst of illness and social unrest, did the arts really matter? Her response: of course! “What is Netflix?” she asks. “What is Spotify? All we do is turn to the arts. When you expose children, not only to the sonic aspect of the music, but to the stories and the backgrounds and the composers and where it was written, that’s when you start to have cultural understanding. You create empathy; you create critical thinking about why things were written and when they were written. And those things are the most important, especially now.”
Many of her colleagues were using the shutdown as an opportunity to go back to school, and Ling began to wonder what her next steps would be if she couldn’t go back to the theater. In August, she began coursework toward a doctorate in music education. Juggling academic work with her music director responsibilities has been a challenge, but also a joy. She hopes to focus her research on educational reform and on the infusion of music and arts education into the K-6 curriculum.
“I talk a lot with my colleagues and friends about how systematic changes take generations. I don’t often quote my own show but you know the line, ‘planting seeds in a garden you never get to see?’ When I was growing up and when I first started in this industry, I didn’t have anybody who looked like me, both gender and racially speaking. What became important for me was thinking about how I can invest in the next generation. With my experiences in Shanghai, my introspection during the pandemic, and my interest in community outreach, and now this degree—these all go hand in hand and I like to think of myself as a cultural translator.”
When it comes to community outreach, Ling believes that her upbringing as the child of immigrants provides her with a unique perspective. She says that too often “outreach” means going into schools and talking to the children directly. But many parents may discourage their children from studying music. “If you want to make headway, you need to have an understanding of cultural norms and cultural values. You have to go to the parents. As immigrants, my parents are only concerned about me having financial stability. You have to show them that this is a career that can sustain their child.”
The reality of music as a profession is made more attainable by the resources provided by the AFM. Says Ling, “As performers, we feel protected knowing that we can depend upon minimum salaries. We have pensions and good health insurance. And at a time when we’re all very aware of mental health and the need for self-care, we have things like personal days written into our contracts.”
Ling says that it’s important to lay the groundwork now for the world we want to leave behind. One of the best ways to do that is to learn from those who are more experienced and, in turn, be a mentor to those coming up. “I am a sponge and an amalgamation of all the different music directors who have come before me,” she says. “I take the things that work, and then I make them my own. And now I’m me, you know? And I’ll keep growing. I stand on the shoulders of the people who’ve come before me, and I hope people will stand on my shoulders. That’s what you do. You invest in the next generation.”