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August 2004

August 26, 2004 23:48

One of the big difficulties facing professional musicians in the United States is the expense of buying health insurance.

In the United States, citizens are required to find their own way to get health care. For many, people with "good jobs," health insurance is subsidized by their employer. Some provide a solid plan that covers most of an employee's basic health needs while requiring a modest monthly payment from the employee. Other employers provide more expensive plans, with high monthly rates and high prices for prescriptions. Many people, though, receive no coverage from their employers. These include people with low-paying jobs, part-time jobs, an income that is divided between several different jobs...for example, a musician who teaches and plays!

One reason that people work hard, study long hours and go to college is so that, upon graduating, they will be able to get one of those “good jobs” that provide health care benefits. Reality introduces itself in a nasty manner when a musician graduates from a top school (or any school, for that matter) with a graduate degree and, say, $45,000 in student loans, only to find that “good jobs” simply do not exist for any but a tiny number of performing musicians.

I'm happy to say that Southern California is one of the few places in the United States that provides a bit of a safety net for such a musician, though you still must work many hours and for the right employers to qualify.

I'm learning more about heath insurance as I'm serving on a negotiations committee for the Redlands Symphony, one of the orchestras where I play in Southern California. In negotiations, musicians and the union that represents us (American Federation of Musicians, Local 47) sit down with the management of an orchestra and talk about how much money we want for playing, how much money they can afford, what benefits we request and what benefits they can afford. After much back and forth, we all pound out a deal, ideally one that is amenable to both parties.

Of course, I'm not going to tell you any of the specifics of our negotiation -- that would be a major breach. I'm just going to tell you about the local union's health insurance program, because after living in many cities that do not have anything like it, I find the option fascinating. So I spoke to Doug Caine, who is Special Assistant to the President of Local 47, the musicians' union in LA.

He told me that the only cities where the AFM has such programs are Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Nashville.

“It's very difficult to fund a plan like this unless you have a lot of participation,” Caine said. “Because we have so many members in Local 47, we have some bargaining power.” Local 47 has almost 10,000 members, he said. These are musicians of all kinds (violinists, vocalists, electronic instrument players, etc.) who play in several genres (classical, jazz, popular music, folk, etc.)

Here is how the union's health plan works: In order to qualify for AFM health benefits, a musician must have at least $600 in employer contributions paid on their behalf each year to the plan. The good news is that those contributions do not need to come all from one employer. For example, a violinist who played in several different orchestras, did some single engagements and worked some shows can piece together enough contributions from all those sources to get in on this plan. The trick is, some orchestras pay into the plan and some do not. So you need to be playing for those orchestras which make contributions to the union's “Health and Welfare” plan to get coverage. Those jobs get pretty competitive around here.

“There are players that won't play unless they get Health and Welfare,” Caine said. “Given that, most employers will grumble but ultimately be happy that the musicians they are attracting are the best musicians.”

Because of this health plan, many of the finest musicians in the area would take a job that pays the Health and Welfare benefit over one that pays more money.

Not every eligible musician participates in the plan. For example, I was eligible for several years but didn't purchase the insurance because my husband's health plan covers me. But a number of my friends use the plan for their entire families.

In fact, for some of my free-lance friends, this plan has allowed them to have families. That may sound over-the-top, but it's pretty hard to afford a pregnancy and heath care for a family without insurance. Many musicians in other states face that difficult situation.

For the AFM musicians in Los Angeles, this plan means that you don't have to get into the LA Philharmonic in order to be cared for. If you are are a hard-working musician who can hustle up enough jobs that make contributions into the plan, you can have health care benefits. That still leaves a large number of people who can't get the $600 in contributions each year and can't qualify. But the AFM's plan provides a start, and it'd be nice to see it happen in other cities as well.

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August 9, 2004 22:14

Well, here it is, guys, my down-home, handwritten version of the children’s prayer I wrote. Please keep in mind I’m a better writer of words than I am writer of notes, but this works well if you have my kind of vocal skills. That is to say, as a singer I’m a great…violinist!

Anyway, I plan to get back to this blogging business, now that I’ve finished three different weeklong trips! My head is still spinning. In June I went to Snowmass, Colorado, for the Suzuki Institute, then in July my family visited Robert’s relatives in Orlando, Florida, then we just returned from visiting my relatives in Cincinnati and Cleveland, Ohio, the first week in August.

Snowmass was breathtakingly beautiful, Orlando was touristy but I enjoyed the Epcot giant golf ball at sunset (if you try not to look at the ridiculously tasteless Mickey arm thing projecting from it), Cincinnati gave me another great sunset from the purple people bridge over the Ohio River, but Cleveland….

I just love Cleveland!

I had to “come out” about that. I wasn’t aware that it was “un-hip” to like Cleveland until I went to Northwestern University near Chicago, when a classmate cut me off as I was saying something admiring about Cleveland: “Omigod, it is like the ARMPIT of the Midwest!”

What? Though I grew up in Denver, I was born in Cleveland. As a child I visited Cleveland every summer, and my sister and I looked forward to it with great excitement and anticipation, as though we were going to Disneyland for three weeks. Cedar Point! Geauga Lake and Sea World! The Cleveland Symphony at Blossom! Sunsets over Lake Erie from Rocky River Park! Long walks in the lush green Rocky River Valley, skipping rocks with Grandpa! Riding our bikes for miles and miles on I-90 before it was opened! So many explanation points that Robert is going to make fun of me!

The day I returned to L.A., I put on my spiffy new “Cleveland” T-shirt (California tourist buys Cleveland T-shirt!) when I went to coffee at Peet’s, a Pasadena coffee hangout. As I sat at a table outside, watching my kids run around and do everything but eat their bagels, a gorgeous woman with curly brown hair, deep brown eyes and perfect everything said, “Are you from Cleveland?” I fumbled around and said, well, sort of…”I’m from Cleveland, too! I grew up there!” I said that it’s a beautiful place. “It IS! It’s a beautiful place! But whenever I tell anyone I’m from Cleveland, they think I milk cows or something!” She then went back to chatting about her recent screenplay with her colleague.

Anyway, my most recent visit did not disappoint. We spent a day at Cedar Point, and I can let Robert tell you about that. I just love it because it’s so beautiful and isolated, and yet an awesome amusement park.

Then I had the great pleasure of meeting v.com member Andrew Sords downtown by the ominously named Terminal Tower, once an edifice that was the second-tallest building in the world when built in 1930, now part of a shopping mall. We sat at a window by the Cuyahoga River, where I fondly remember taking a boat ride. “And the river which was so polluted that it CAUGHT ON FIRE!” Robert reminds me. Erggh! This incident is in the past, okay? It’s clean now. Though I might not drink from it.

Anyway, Andrew was just returning from a solo tour in Holland. We had such a nice chat, though I wish I could have heard him play. He told me how he found the site while bored a few years ago on New Year’s Eve. “So I spent most of the rest of the night with my champagne and Violinist.com!” Are you old enough to drink champagne, young man? ;) Just kidding. He has the maturity and intelligence of someone far older than him, though!

Unfortunately, nothing of interest was going on at Blossom while we were there. And, we missed John Elway being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But it was great to be in the place that is home to the Cleveland Institute of Music, the Cleveland Symphony, the place where the term “Rock ‘n’ Roll” was born…It’s my kind of place!

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