How has your family shaped you?

Photo by: Ryan Gwyn

Photo by: Ryan Gwyn

The Tone of Twins: Nissim’s Musical Roots

By: Lia Salvatierra

Ethan Nissim’s fingers confidently tread the golden keys of his saxophone as the melody spills through the bell of the instrument. Each key produces a colorful sound complimenting

a track in the background, demonstrating the hours of practice that crafted this talent. As the savory notes buzz along, they set the tone for the musical past that brought Nassim to where he is today.

Nissim can often be seen sporting his Palo Alto High School debate team sweatshirt and a pair of earbuds, playing electronic or jazz tunes from his favorite artist, Gerry Rafferty. If you were not to know him well, it may be untold that Nissim has a carbon copy of himself that walks on boarding school grounds almost 1,000 miles away; Ethan has a twin brother named David. The two grew up similar in looks and habit, but a divergence became apparent around the age of eight.

His brother began to act differently in social situations.

“He never seemed to grow up from the immature tendencies of a younger kid,” Nissim says. Days continued to fill with his brother acting out, and thus Ethan began to distance from his only sibling.

Looking back he recalls the difficulties of his brothers extreme actions. “It was hard being the brother of the kid knocking over desks [at school],” he says.

His frustrations towards David’s behaviors started to normalize, up until a diagnosis of Aspergers. Although to some a relief, Nissim says he found it hard to adjust to the diagnosis because redirecting the blame for his brother’s actions took a while.

“As the diagnosis occurred, I didn’t know what was going on,” Nissim says. “I was confused why my parents were acting so differently, why everyone around [David] was acting so differently. I wasn’t really sure what Aspergers meant.”

As the challenges of Aspergers became more prevalent, in December of 2015, Nissim’s family decided to send his brother to boarding school in Heber City, Utah. “He is doing a lot better, there and is part of a good community” Nissim says.

Although an important aspect of Ethan’s life, his brother’s story is not his own. The twin’s tales however, intertwine on one key note, music.

Saxophone is not quite where Nissim’s melody began; he can pinpoint that his interest sparked at his brother’s piano lessons. He would not have attended these lessons if his father had not  been away on business trips. Without another parent to stay home, he accompanied David.

Nissim recalls listening to the scales from different songs while waiting in the lobby. Eventually he tried out the piano at a friend’s house by fumbling through some tunes.

With those influences and experiences, an interest in music stirred inside of him. Nissim recalls his thoughts of the possibility this could bring, “I really think I can put a lot of time into this, I think I can do this.”

From that point on, Nissim’s musical journey had begun, and it brought him to the instrument he plays today. He never officially played piano, but he did play the clarinet, which gave way to the skills he needed for alto saxophone. He “enjoys the origins and the culture that [the saxophone] brings.”

Nissim uses music as both a distraction and motivation. He invests himself in the practice of the saxophone, which drives him to become a stronger musician, he also uses it to distract from any other stresses that might occupy him.

Music has also brought him accomplishments and friendships along the way. He played with a choir at a boarding school in Switzerland.

“It was something I had really never done before,” Nissim says.

Very importantly so, Nissim also remains connected to his brother through music. His brother only comes home once every few months, and so an easy way Nissim keeps in contact is through messaging songs suggestions.

“Because [he is at boarding school], and the fact that he has Asperger’s, a lot of the things we tend to talk about involve music,” Nissim says.

Nissim has found other ways to talk to his brother, for example, letting the melody speak for itself.

“Sometimes when he’s here and doesn’t want to talk we just play some music in the background” Nissim says. “It helps set the tone for things.”


By: Ethan Nissim

“And now,” says a man in a crisp black suit, standing behind a podium onstage. “I’d like to introduce you to a young lady who just started a Let’s Bring Change to Mind club at her high school in Palo Alto. She understands the consequences of stigma and silence. Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome…Lia Salvatierra.”

The crowd claps as a tall girl in a dark, slim dress makes her way to center stage. Barely leaning on the podium, a sheet of paper resting on the slanted wood, she leans into the microphone and begins to speak.

“Mental Illness. Two words, many assumptions.”

Lia Salvatierra is one of many activists across the world working to bring awareness to the victims of mental illness. She co-leads a club at Paly, a local chapter of a national organization called Bring Change 2 Mind, focused on drawing attention to this traditionally overlooked issue. However, as all activists know, you can’t reach acceptance without a struggle.

“Even with all this advocacy, there’s still a lot of stigma,” she says, touching on the grueling task of bringing awareness to an issue that most would prefer to leave untouched.

Salvatierra says that mental illness has always been an issue her family has struggled with, and that, among other influences, the loss of her father was key in influencing her activism.

“Less than 15 people knew that my dad was suffering from the time he was diagnosed until the time he died, and I wasn’t one of them,” she says. “15 people is way too few…we need to be the change for those suffering in silence.”

Her path through the world of advocacy has been a long one, but when she talked about her many successes, Salvatierra recalls what she describes as one of her proudest accomplishments: a speech given at a conference for mental health awareness, in New York City.

“It was last year, in October.” she says. “I wrote this speech when I was 13, actually…I kind of knew I wanted to do it on mental health.”

The speech had been written more than a year earlier, as a school project.

“I gave that speech in eighth grade, and then I had this speech, and the board read it, and they wanted me to give it in New York.” She calls the experience “probably one of the proudest moments of my life.”

The story didn’t end when she left the stage. Salvatierra describes the surprise she found when she reached her seat once more.

“There was one woman who actually donated $200,000 after I spoke,” she says. “It wasn’t really about the money, she gave me a note after she donated, and that was…really incredible.”

She sounded more impassioned than ever as she described what sets her club apart from the others.  

“A lot of clubs focus on suicide, but it’s hard to be close to that,”  Salvatierra says. “People need to stem the roots. We need to de-stigmatise.”

Indeed, one of her primary goals is removing the negative baggage that the phrase ‘mental illness’ carries in order to allow victims to feel more comfortable coming forward. On the first day of her beginning journalism class, she began a simple interview project with a question near and dear to her heart: “How has mental illness affected or shaped your life?”

Salvatierra is proud of the progress she’s made de-stigmatising mental illness in her community, and says that she is very happy about the work she has  done in getting victims to speak up and seek support. As our interview wrapped up, Salvatierra concluded by drawing it back to New York, where her ideas took center stage.

“I saw how my words and motivations could affect people,” she says proudly, “and that was really incredible.”