Litigating and singing have a lot in common for Ingrid Schroffner.
Her notes for developing an argument and her notes for composing a new song often resemble one another, each with handwritten ideas and edits. An accomplished attorney and musician, Schroffner, BC ’92 and BC Law ’95, said that for her, singing and allocation are the same kind of act.
“I think, you know, putting together a performance, putting together a setlist is not so different from preparing for a trial or preparing for a hearing,” Schroffner said.
Schroffner transforms her messy handwritten notes with edits and crossed-out lyrics into music, and she recently organized a collection of 50 of her original songs—accompanied by photographs and artwork—into her book titled Karma Bank to Following by Listening, which was published in February.
Music has been a constant in Schroffner’s life since childhood, she said, as she has been singing for as long as she can remember. Growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii, one of her first musical influences was her fifth grade music teacher, who complimented her singing voice one day after class, which led Schroffner to start singing at chapel. In addition to choral singing, Schroffner was named Miss Teen of Hawaii in 1987, and while serving under the title, she performed in both English and Hawaiian for charity events and fundraisers.
Schroffner performed the first song she ever wrote, “Steps to Find,” at her high school graduation in 1988. Schroffner also conducted the choir, which she said was difficult, so she dedicated her free periods to learning and practicing conducting.
“I used to write things in a book and on a little piece of paper, but I would call them Chiemi fragments,” Schroffner said. “And I would kind of pull them out every so often like, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about this phrase, that could be a bridge somewhere. I have to figure out where it fits. Where does that concept fit?’”
After high school, Schroffner left Hawaii and came to Boston College, where she studied English and philosophy in the honors program. She then went on to attend BC Law directly after her undergraduate studies.
At BC, Schroffner was a member and frequent soloist of the University Chorale of BC, which was under the direction of C. Alexander Peloquin at the time. During one of the group’s Spring Break trips to Rome, Schroffner said she got to perform the female angel solo in Joseph Haydn’s “The Heavens Are Telling.”
“There was a real sense that, you know, she was a very important part of the musical experience,” friend and fellow BC and Chorale alumn Mike Phelan said. “For example, I don’t think she ever missed Chorale, and once she did. … And Dr. Alexander Poliquin, you know, he was concerned and wanted to know why she wasn’t there.”
Living in Shaw House, Schroffner had a friend upstairs who had an Alvarez guitar. He let her borrow his guitar until sophomore year, when Schroffner asked her parents for a guitar of her own. She named her first guitar—a Guild—Amelia.
“My instrument that I really connect with is the guitar,” Schroffner said. “Not that I’m a great guitar player, I have all kinds of bad habits—I mean, I’m self-taught.”
Schroffner said she began writing songs more frequently when she started working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. When MP3 files were too difficult to email, Schroffner said she started posting her songs on SoundCloud so she could easily send links to her friends and family who were also working from home.
“Some of my friends who were also working remotely started sending me pictures and paintings and stuff that they were doing that was artistic,” Schroffner said. “And so I started getting inspired by some of those paintings and pictures and writing songs that integrated them.”
One of these weekly artistic exchanges was between Schroffner and her sister-in-law Leah Salow, a painter, author, and veterinarian whose artwork appears throughout Schroffner’s book. Salow suggested to Schroffner that she should publish her lyrics alongside the photos, sparking the idea for the book, Schroffner said.
“She actually really thought that the lyrics were worth something, you know, that they’re worth reading,” Schroffner said.
Schroffner, however, said she did not plan on making a book, but after posting songs about every week, she realized she had more than enough content for one. She said it is nice to have her lyrics preserved in this way and that the book is helpful for those who are more visually inclined and can connect with her lyrics better through reading.
“I said her songs were lovely and sounded like poetry and she should put them in a book, and that was really a very throw off, off-the-cuff comment, but she took it to heart and did it,” Salow said.
In the book, she organized her songs into five chapters with 10 songs each, beginning with the chapter “Collection from the Karma Bank” and concluding with “Following by Listening.” Next to the lyrics of each song is a photograph that Schroffner matched with her written words. Pairing her songs with images of pink and orange hues of a sunset or Schroffner posing with her guitar, Schroffner said more people are able to appreciate her music in a different way.
The book’s title stems from a conversation that Schroffner had with a friend in 2019 about feeling as if everything is going downhill or nothing is going right. But in the midst of this, Schroffner’s friend said that an act of grace happens, such as a stranger smiling at you, and her friend compared these acts of kindness to coins in the “karma bank,” Schroffner said.
“It’s not like, you deserve something good after you put it in there, but he said if he feels like the world is round, like things balance … you’ve got those coins stored in the karma bank—not that you’re looking for it, but sooner or later, something bright will happen,” Schroffner said.
The songs in her book were written from 2019 to 2021, including a song that she originally wrote when her twins were born in 2010 and revisited in 2021. Schroffner said this reflects her writing process of writing down a song or thought and revisiting it later.
“I love that she makes you think and gives you ideas that you can take and apply to your own experience,” Salow said.
In her songwriting process, Schroffner said that she values the feedback of her friend Phelan. Phelan and Schroffner met during their time in Chorale, but Phelan said they became good friends later in life. The friends share a love for rock and heavy metal music, exchanging thoughts on ’80s rock and conversing about form. An experienced arranger and director, Phelan provides Schroffner with technical feedback on her music when it comes to form, phrasing, and rhythm.
“She can talk about something that’s happened in her life or in my life, and then her process is so quick that she’ll often have a song about it that’s like a fully formed song within, you know, weeks of that discussion,” Phelan said. “So she’s an incredibly productive musician.”
Schroffner is donating all proceeds from Karma Bank to Following by Listening’s publication to the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC). Based in Boston’s Chinatown since 1987, the nonprofit organization works to create and preserve affordable housing in Chinatown and the Greater Boston area. Schroffner said ACDC has a close relationship with the Asian Lawyers of Massachusetts, in which she served on the board for over 10 years, was the president of from 2006 to 2008, and is still involved with today.
“When I was first in Massachusetts, too, it [Chinatown] kind of had a personal connection because I was kind of, I guess I could say far away from home,” Schroffner said. “And I used to actually take the train to Chinatown and walk around because it … reminded me of home.”
Her connection to ACDC is also personal, Schroffner said. She said she worked at the development office at Boston City Hall while Stephen Coyle served as the director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority. During his time in office, Coyle discussed the gentrification of Chinatown.
“But the issue was like gentrification doesn’t always help everybody, it’s a certain type of thing,” Schroffner said. “And the way he talked about Chinatown, it’s like he didn’t understand that people live there. And it’s people’s homes.”
Growing up in Hawaii, Schroffner said people with mixed ancestry are the norm, and she did not identify herself as Asian until college when she began receiving mail about students of color.
“It was kind of that realization and that sort of reorientation that really caused me to be interested in doing work to, you know, raise awareness about diversity and the need for it,” Schroffner said. “And how boards should reflect the populations they serve, you know. Places of employment should reflect the population they serve. The judiciary should reflect the population they serve. I think raising that sort of awareness is really important.”
Now, with her favorite green guitar in her office, music and songwriting are a part of Schroffner’s daily life. Throughout her career and in her personal life, she said music has helped her to find her voice.
“Songs are kind of how I make sense of things,” she said. “I find hope, you know, how I put things together and playing guitar brings the words together. It’s like a self editing process. … Things change when you put them in music.”
Featured Graphic by Annie Corrigan / Heights Editor
Photos courtesy of Ingrid Schroffner