Evidence of a changing world for performers revealed in Detroit Symphony negotiations

The musicians of the Detroit Symphony were hired originally to play only orchestral repertoire and at very high levels of quality. Yet they now face the possibility of having to professionally wear many hats. Future symphony duties beyond orchestra playing would include teaching, mentoring, chamber music concerts, public speaking, among others.

Most change is both good and bad. One criticism of the proposed changes is that the level of quality of their performances will go down. That fear is justified, and probably true. Yet, the proposed versatility of the musicians' jobs may, after a period of adjustment, improve their quality of life through that variety. Instead of the "assembly line" churning out of high-level orchestra concerts, the musicians will have the opportunity to perform more chamber music, which on the whole is more satisfying than orchestral playing. And their value to the community will be greatly enhanced. It is that non-monetary value which is the true spirit of music and music's expression. (Needless to say, musicians must earn a respectable income to continue to perform at high levels.)

I see musicians returning to the role of "healers", rather than distant performers on stage. Musicians are community "glue", not only through playing beautiful music, but also through encouraging others in their expression of it. Connections with people are more difficult to make through traditional concert settings.

Two good articles on the subject are worth mentioning here.

In a well written and balanced article: Money not the only issue for DSO- Proposed changes in work rules could have major impact, Mark Stryker clarifies the larger scale of change involved in the outcome of the Detroit Symphony's contract negotiations. I quote the first and last parts of the 4 page article, which outlines quite clearly both the history behind and the changes ahead for performing musicians in orchestras.

In 1987 the late Ernest Fleischmann, the visionary executive leader of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gave a commencement address at the Cleveland Institute of Music in which he famously said: "The orchestra is dead. Long live the community of musicians."

What he meant was that the traditional 100-member symphony with its 52-week season dedicated almost exclusively to European music written prior to 1930 had run its course. What was needed instead was a more dynamic, flexible and relevant model that could adapt to the needs of the population it served: An ensemble that could play traditional symphony concerts but also splinter into smaller orchestras and chamber ensembles, travel into the community to perform and teach, infiltrate the schools, advocate and address a much wider repertoire.

Orchestras have nibbled around the edges of the old model, yet not much has changed in 23 years. But the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's financial meltdown and contentious labor negotiations could lead to a version of Fleischmann's vision. If adopted, management's latest contract proposal would take the DSO further down the road toward the ideals he expressed than any other orchestra in the country.

Wholesale reinvention has been on the mind of progressive industry leaders and commentators at least as far back as Fleishmann, but inertia, union issues and management problems have conspired against innovation. Even before the recession, signs of unsustainable business models in some orchestras were clear, as was a tsunami of alarming issues -- the elimination of music in the schools, long-term drops in attendance, aging audiences and the virtual disappearance of classical music from mainstream culture.

Some orchestras, including Los Angeles, San Francesco and St. Paul, Minn., have experimented with bold artistic and education ideas, but a radical redefinition of work rules has been a non-starter. Led by president Ryan Fleur, the Memphis Symphony, a regional orchestra with a $4-million budget, has gone the farthest. The symphony has introduced a system in which the players are paid a base salary covering traditional orchestral performances but can opt in to a program broadening their range of work for up to four weeks of additional pay.

The work ranges from student mentoring and teaching to a musician-produced concert series. One player produces a radio program, another works on the symphony's Web site and two others do music therapy work. About 85% of the players participate and individual assignments are chosen in consultation with management. Lansing-born violist Michael Barar, chair of the orchestra committee, says the system was at first met with skepticism but that most players find the experience rewarding.

Several leading conservatories have already embraced the ethos that orchestra musicians of the future will be expected to do more than play traditional concerts. Outreach programs, residencies and interdisciplinary studies have been integrated into the curriculums at Julliard, Eastman and the New England Conservatory, which also opened a department of entrepreneurial musicianship this fall. The result is a new generation of musicians whose priorities and goals differ from veterans shaped by careers in major orchestras with acculturated expectations concerning pay and working conditions.

Recent graduates say that many of their peers -- though certainly not all -- see advocacy and outreach as central to their identities and part of the job of all classical musicians. Ross Holcombe, 22, a trombonist and graduate student at NEC, hopes to land a principal position in a major orchestra. He says that money is important, but it isn't everything; an inspiring music director, friendly colleagues, interesting repertoire and institutional stability also matter.

He says he would be more attracted to an orchestra if he were also expected to play chamber music, teach, etc. "The main consideration for me is that the organization that tries to incorporate those things into its mission is going to have a healthier future," he says.

Barry Johnson urges a little closer examination of some of the assumptions made in Stryker's article in his own: arts dispatch: The Detroit Symphony and the 'top-down' community. Johnson emphasizes quite reasonably that the musicians themselves have not been invited as equalsto the process of redefining the role they play in their community.

An orchestra as a "community of musicians," in the construction of the late Ernest Fleischmann, quoted by Stryker, may sound like a good idea. But an undemocratic, top-down management system that imposes duties and obligations on the musicians without their central participation in the process is not.

"DSO president Anne Parsons says that the orchestra has a large menu of artistic, education and community program ideas -- some of which have already attracted the interest of funders -- that are too expensive to initiate without a new contract. They include a chamber music series in collaboration with a community partner, contemporary music concerts, extensive in-school mentoring and adding chamber music to this season's Beethoven festival."

The "orchestra has a large menu." But that presumably does not include the musicians -- who ARE the orchestra. If a load of new responsibilities was about to land on my plate without my consultation, I'd resist, too, even if I thought they might be critical to the success of the organizations. That sort of change takes careful, detailed, even individual discussion: a general agreement to change the nature of the orchestra and a simultaneous discussion about what form that orchestra might take. That's a living, ongoing creative process, not a union v. management negotiation. And the musicians should be driving it, not having it imposed on them.

These issues are difficult, of course, but they are exacerbated by our inability to behave democratically -- not the voting part, but the discussion part, the time we spend trying to find the best ideas wherever they may occur and then sharpening them in debate and disagreement. We may agree with this approach theoretically, but in practice it rarely happens in American life, at least from my experience. It requires open-mindedness, and that's in very short supply in the culture right now.

I think the improvements will outweigh the problems in the long run. Musicians will have to adapt, and quality of performance may suffer some. However, musicians are already highly adaptable to be able function in perfect collaborative harmony while playing in an orchestra. My hope is that they will tap into those rich and subtle skills to creatively collaborate and benefit from the changes taking place in the traditional model.

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6 comments for “Evidence of a changing world for performers revealed in Detroit Symphony negotiations

  1. Don Kuehn
    February 18, 2011 at

    Let me give you another perspective on the ‘changing nature of orchestral musicians’ duties’. I’ve been a member of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra for almost 40 years. In what I call ‘the salad days’ we used to tour Europe on a regular basis, went to New York City several times each season, made recordings, and traveled by charter planes. Since 1990 we have endured two rounds of near-bankrupcy, and the longest (as well as the first real one) strike in the orchestra’s history – 13 weeks. In 1990 we had a 50 week season (in reality 53 when you include some optional pops weeks that were done during the evenings of our morning/afternoon public school concert weeks). We were within $1000.00 per year of the Cleveland Orchestra and about the same amount more than the Cincinnati Symphony in annual pay. We also had an Evening Overatures Series, where members of the orchestra, for extra pay, played chamber music works in pre-concert performances of our main series concerts. They were well attended and very popular. The orchestra also has arguably the most extensive educational programs (ranging from in-school solo performances for pre-school students all the way up to master classes for high school/ university students) in North America. These also include residency performances during our annual northern Ontario tours. Today, our 50 week season has been squeezed into 43 weeks (we have a lot of 10 service weeks and burning through three different programs in one week is not unusual). The Evening Overatures program was cancelled due to fiscal restraints. We haven’t been to Europe for years, self-produce recordings when the money is there (not very often), and travel mostly by bus. [In 2008 the members of the orchestra volunteered to freeze that year’s pay instead of insisting on the large increase we were entitled to because of the financial melt-down in North America. Like most other orchestras our endowment fund took a real hit. Our Management greatfully accepted.] Our current minimum annual pay is $80.000 and the ONLY fringe benifit we have is the AFM-EPW pension contribution. We are independent contractors (self-employed) and as such have no extra medical, dental, instrument or other insurance. A lot of our players perform chamber music in the off-season, and most of us teach privately or in universities or conservatories to supplement our incomes (Toronto is one of the most expensive cities in North America to live in). Today, most of our programs are done on just ONE rehearsal (Young Peoples Concerts, Pops, Light Classics). Some get two rehearsals, and a really big main series performance may get four rehearsals. The Toronto Symphony Orchestra players used to do a lot of studio work back when there were studios (Toronto was almost as big as L.A. and New York recording wise) and has a reputation for being a great reading orchestra, hence the one-rehearsal schedules. Our reality is a 50 week season done in 43 weeks, not enough rehearsal time, doing as much extra work as we can in order to earn a living wage, a lot more injured/burned out players at the end of the season, and the hope that one day,some day, we might re-gain the status we used to have; that of a top-ten orchestra in North America. On the flip side, we finally have a management team and board that realizes it was us, the musicians, that really saved the orchestra by way of all the sacrifices we made over the past 20 years. The members of the orchestra also realize that only when we work together with our orchestra’s association will we survive and thrive. Today we have thousands of young people enrolled in our Sound Check program that gives them discount prices for our concerts. Our average attendence during the past two or three years has been at or over 85% capacity wiith many performances completely sold out. We now work closely with those in our management, many of whom are personal friends. However, at the end of the day, we are professional musicians who play mostly great music at a very high performance level. And we play a lot of it every year. That’s our job and it’s all our audiences care about. This wonderful idea of a kinder/gentler orchestra model that some would like to see in Detroit probably ain’t gonna happen. Similar to a lot of other professions, our reality is assembly-line music making. It isn’t so kind or gentle any more, but then, it never was.

    • February 18, 2011 at

      Hey Don, thanks for the excellent comment. May I post it again on my blog? What instrument do you play? (I’ll go look it up as well…)

    • February 18, 2011 at

      Ahh, percussion. I found you. From Denver, studied in Boson, played in Baltimore. Love to fly. Very cool.

      • Don Kuehn
        February 18, 2011 at

        Sure David. Feel free to post it on your blog. I just thought people not familiar with orchestras would be interested in the realities of playing in one. One other thing, in spite of the grind we are privilged to be able to engage in what I tell my students is the ‘un-inhibitied pursuit of excellence’. Not many people are allowed to to that. Also, like the members of any major orchestra, we are very proud of our band. It’s one of the best. Cheers, eh.

  2. October 29, 2010 at

    Thanks David for a great post on the possibilities of the situation in Detroit!
    I couldn’t agree more that chamber music and teaching will and must eventually become part of many orchestral musicans’ jobs. Most musicians pursue such opportunities outside of their orchestras for creative fulfilment and extra income, whilst their employers struggle to raise funds for their salaries and mainstage concerts.
    In a world of lower job security and less funds for the arts in general, orchestral players may benefit from the extra versatility and extra job security through the extra revenue raised if more orchestras follow this model.

    P.s. Perhaps you’d like to follow my new blog about Australian orchestras if you’re interested?

    • October 30, 2010 at

      Thanks for your comment. I’ll follow your continued thoughts on your blog.

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