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Jason Hurwitz

The Future of American Orchestras

May 8, 2011 at 5:31 PM

On May 3, 2011, I watched an interesting webcast hosted by 105.9fm WQXR titled “American Orchestras: Endangered Species?” The panel included:

Anne Parsons, President and Executive Director of the Detroit Symphony
Alan Pierson, Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic
Eric Jacobsen, Co-Artistic Director of The Knights
Tony Woodcock, President of the New England Conservatory
Raymond M. Hair, Jr., President of the American Federation of Musicians of the United States and Canada
Graham Parker, Vice President of WQXR, was the moderator.

The webcast was OK, but I felt that it veered off topic relatively quickly. I had been hoping for a more thorough discussion/debate over the future of American orchestras from the perspective of labor agreements or the lack thereof, especially consider the people making up the panel! If you’d like to watch the webcast in its entirety, click here and scroll about halfway down the page. (I was going to embed the video, but because it’s .flv format, I can’t).

Anyway, post-webcast, I’ve been following some of the chat on Twitter (#orchestratalk) regarding the comments made by the various parties involved in the discussion. In particular, there have been some very interesting comments made about Tony Woodcock, the President of the New England Conservatory, that allude to the fact that he is, basically, trying to undermine the successes of NEC graduates. I didn’t really pick up on any of that during the webcast, so I decided to look further into these allegations.

I immediately came across this blog post, written by Mr. Woodcock, which I found to be extremely well written, insightful, and only slightly provacative. It is WELL worth the 10 minutes required to read it. After reading the post, I started reading through the comments left by readers; not surprisingly, most were anti-Tony’s opinion. However, I came across one woman — MegaSheilaE, a donor and long-time supporter — who agreed with Tony’s blog post. Almost immediately, her comment was angrily replied to by “Bill Anderson.” The transaction took place as follows: says:
May 5, 2011 at 7:51 am

Right on Tony! As a major donor and leader, I applaud your willingness to speak truth to power. What would we do without the New England Conservatory–willing to step far, far outside its traditional educator role for today’s young musicians (tomorrow’s buskers). Bill Anderson says:

May 5, 2011 at 8:04 pm

As the first comment on the side of supposed donors, your comment seems rather insulting. First of all, why would you say “Tomorrows buskers”? If that’s what you see as the future and you are a donor (I notice you didn’t say symphony lover, music lover, or even subscriber), you should get to know the musicians instead of the board. They are talented, complex, intelligent, driven, thick-skinned (by need) artists who deserve to be well paid in accordance with the level of orchestra they are in. Because they want to protect their incomes doesn’t make them bad people.
Also, Tony speaking “truth to power” is difficult for me to understand, considering the musicians have very little control over so many things. If wealthy patrons are annoyed with them, as happened in The Florida Philharmonic, I believe, several years ago, they can withdraw all support and torpedo the careers of a hundred people in a tantrum, as happened when the money that could have saved The Florida Phil went to Cleveland instead.
As a graduate of NEC who has played with orchestras in many cities and seen the problems with boards attitudes as well as problems with musicians attitudes, I think the “telling it like it is” tough guy stance needs to be tamped down, and those who really love orchestras and classical music, as well as musicians, should step forward. There are answers that don’t have to oppose groups; when that happens, everybody loses. says:

May 6, 2011 at 10:43 am

I’m with you 100% Bill, this unfortunately was just a poorly executed sarcastic comment. -Sheila

Well, I got pretty annoyed by Bill’s comments. Yes, Sheila shouldn’t have made the snarky quip about “tomorrow’s buskers,” but that was, IMHO, small apples compared to what Bill then wrote. So, I wrote a reply to him, and posted it to the blog — it was not approved by the blog’s moderator. I’ve just reposted it in the hopes that it will be accepted; in the meantime, however, I’m now going to post it here so that at least it gets out there. Hopefully, Bill Anderson will see it, and at least take a moment to think about what I write.

So, without further ado, my reply to Bill’s reply to Sheila’s reply to Tony Woodcock’s blog post:

I have two questions that are intended to provoke thought, not defensiveness, so here we go:


1) You write that “They [the musicians] are talented, complex, intelligent, driven, thick-skinned (by need) artists who deserve to be well paid in accordance with the level of orchestra they are in.” Now, I haven’t heard anyone state or imply that musicians are not talented or complex or intelligent or driven or even thick-skinned (BTW, I’m taking as an obvious truth that Detroit is one of the 10 ten orchestras in the country [pic], so we don’t need to argue whether the musicians are talented, smart, extraordinary, etc.). What I have read, heard, and discovered on my own is that the level of compensation received by top-tier orchestra musicians is, in the current orchestral system, unsustainable.

Consider this: According to Tony, and this is confirmed by several sources that I have read recently, “Today nearly all orchestras are in the 30th percentile” when it comes to earned income; this, of course, means that the other 70% of income necessary for the continuance of the orchestras must come from donors and/or grants. The generation of donors who give large sums of money to the arts is dying (literally) and the up-and-coming donors tend to give smaller amounts to a greater variety of causes. Further, many grant-awarding institutions have cut back on their giving, both because of consolidation out of communities and because of, again, a more diverse array of causes to which they can donate.

To reiterate: orchestras (and, actually, almost all arts organizations) need to find ~70% of their incomes from donors and granting organizations. Taking this fact into consideration as we move forward:

Prior to the labor strike, the starting salary for a musician in the Detroit Symphony was $104,650 and there were 96 full-time musicians. This means that, at a minimum, the DSO was paying $10,046,400 in salaries annually. Post-settlement, the new starting salary will be $79,000 and go up to $82,900 in the third and final year of the contract. With a decrease to 81 full-time musicians, this coming season, the DSO will pay, minimum, $6,399,000 – and of course, this is lower than what will actually be paid since most musicians in the DSO are not just starting in the organization. Add to this that the musicians are contracted for only 40 weeks of the year (keep in mind that the working week is eighteen hours with a maximum of eight services) and will also have 4 weeks of paid vacation time.

So, back to my quote of what you wrote: the musicians are “artists who deserve to be well paid in accordance with the level of orchestra they are in.” I TOTALLY, TOTALLY, TOTALLY AGREE. However, I’m struggling to find any other employees of any other industry who are paid so incredibly well — this coming season, starting musicians in the DSO who work 18 hours per week for 40 weeks at $79,000 will make $109.72 per hour. $109.72 PER HOUR?!? I am not convinced that they are being underpaid! (Source of contract information)


2) You write that “…considering the musicians have very little control over so many things.”

Other than keeping the workweek to 18 hours with a maximum of 8 services, being the ones who, if they don’t show up, can cancel a concert, and produce the sound and quality that is the magic of every orchestra, you’re right … what control do musicians have? I’m willing to bet that if any musician were to go to his/her orchestra’s board to volunteer his/her time and services to help with the development efforts, that board would gladly accept and get him/her started right away. Having a hand in finding that 70% of income that pays one’s salary – now THAT is control! How about going into the community to help sell tickets to an upcoming performance? How about volunteering your time before or after shows to go into schools to talk with students about what they’ll be hearing on Friday night or what they heard this past weekend? There are so many ways to give yourself more control; it just requires giving of yourself as well as expecting compensation.


3) You write that “If wealthy patrons are annoyed with them [the musicians], as happened in [sic] The Florida Philharmonic, I believe, several years ago, they can withdraw all support and torpedo the careers of a hundred people in a tantrum, as happened when the money that could have saved The Florida Phil went to Cleveland instead.”

Where is it written that a donor must, year after year, give to the same charity? Where has it been decreed that donors who fall out of love with an organization must continue blindly giving just because that’s what they’ve done in the past? A donor becoming annoyed with an organization and deciding to give elsewhere is not only NOT “a tantrum,” as you so inflammatorily exclaimed, it is their absolute right. It is their money to give where they feel is appropriate, or to not give at all. If the actions of the musicians cause a donor to withhold his/her money, for whatever reason, then it is not the donor who has “torpedo[ed] the careers of  a hundred people in a tantrum,” but rather the actions of the musicians in – forgive the cliché – biting the hand that feeds them. To think that donors, literally the lifeblood of the arts world, are solely responsible – while the participants in the organization are free of any guilt – for the continued survival of an organization is simply conceited, close-minded, and scary.

If you’re still reading at this point, my views are my own and I have come to them through a very interesting path. I started as a music educator, then became a professional violinist and toured internationally 40+ weeks per year as an AFM member under an AFM collective bargaining agreement, and now am pursuing a dual MBA & MA in Arts Administration degree at the University of Cincinnati (College-Conservatory of Music and College of Business).

There is no doubt in my mind that orchestras will survive long into the future; however, this survival is going to take communication, cooperation, and – yes – sacrifices by all stakeholders.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 9, 2011 at 4:32 AM

 What's worrisome to me is the rash of orchestras filing for bankruptcy who appear to simply be trying to get out of their pension obligations and/or bust the union, so they can "start over" without that pesky union contract. 

From Megan Chapelas
Posted on May 9, 2011 at 8:24 AM

You wrote:

"Add to this that the musicians are contracted for only 40 weeks of the year (keep in mind that the working week is eighteen hours with a maximum of eight services) and will also have 4 weeks of paid vacation time."

 "However, I’m struggling to find any other employees of any other industry who are paid so incredibly well — this coming season, starting musicians in the DSO who work 18 hours per week for 40 weeks at $79,000 will make $109.72 per hour. $109.72 PER HOUR?!? I am not convinced that they are being underpaid!"

It looks like a lot on paper, but as a professional orchestral player, I can tell you that this is not the whole picture. These 18 hours per week only include rehearsals and performances, leaving out any time spent on preparation and practice. It's like saying that somebody who works an office job is only paid for the time spent in meetings or giving presentations. Instrumentalists spend hours weekly just maintaining their fitness - you might think a brass player who just plays one piece in a concert has an easy week, but actually, the less they have to play, the more time they have to spend keeping up their embouchure alone, so that the Mahler symphony in a few weeks is still playable. Oboe and bassoon players have to make reeds. With changing programs every week, you don't learn the music during the rehearsal period: you're expected to be fully in command of it, technically and musically, before rehearsals start.

Let's look at your estimate again: 18 hours of rehearsals and performances for forty weeks. Add a couple of hours a day for time spent alone with the instrument (a conservative estimate): 14 hours. As a principal player, I spend several hours per program checking and bowing parts, and am expected to know the pieces as a whole, not just be able to play my own part - let's add 5 hours for the work done with parts, scores and recordings. Now we're up to 37 hours - practically a normal work week. Time spent on tour is of course not included at all here.

By your calculations, I now earn 53.38 hourly, and not even for the entire year. Compare that with your average plumber. I won't bring doctors and lawyers into the equation, though we often have just as many years of training as they do. There are twelve more weeks where I'm not earning anything at all, and this is in a major symphony orchestra. Does it look any different now?


From Oscar Lugo
Posted on May 9, 2011 at 5:14 PM

 It seems to me that in the United States Orchestras and Classical music for that matter, are heading the same way that Orchestras and Classical music works in countries like México (where I live at the moment) and other countries of Latin América.

To make myself clear about this:

Here in México, the world of Classical Music is just another corrupt Political Party and I do mean it when I say it is a corrupt Political Party (This guys could easily make a campaign and get votes). The level of politics is so sick that in order to get recital opportunities or to be invited to play in an orchestra (with or without an audition) the only requirement is that you are "someones friend" (in this case the conductor or the patrons/donors of the board) and that there is some mutual political or economic interest in between. This is the reason why the level in the orchestras and music in general is so low in the country.

Now, by saying this I don´t mean in any way that there are not talented musicians in the country, because there are some amazing top level musicians, the problem is that you can have a very talented 1st Solo Double Bass Player in an Orchestra and the rest of the section is at a very low level so it doesn´t compensate in any way.

Now, this doesn´t apply only for orchestras but also for soloist. That is the reason why we don´t have soloist playing with any of the top orchestras or conductors having their music played by any of the top orchestras either. The last time that we had someone playing as a soloist and making big name recordings, was when Henryk Szeryng adopted México as his country and his home land, after that we haven´t even come close.

I wont give any names in order to be discrete, but I want to give a more detailed example:

In the city where I live we had a very talented conductor two seasons ago, a conductor that studied with Daniel Barenboim in Berlin at the StaatsOper. Now, when this person came on board the Orchestra started to sound better day by day, programs started to get better, etc. The problem was that he is not a politician, he is a musician and the result of that was an empty hall and I mean empty (sometimes 20 people in a 1,500 capacity opera theater) and all of it is the result of "You either way play our political game or you will not receive political support and promotion for the event". This person was fired before his contract expired and they brought a new conductor, this time a politician rather than musician who happens to be not even half as talented as the other person, but the guy is such a good politician that he get´s a full house every time the orchestra gives a concert.

Bad conductor + good politician = succes.

I could go further and deeper explaining the situation that Orchestras and musicians have to go through in this country where Politics, corruption and moral abuse has more importance than anything else. The real problem in all of this, is that the musicians have already got used to the situation and so nobody says anything because nobody wants to get fired and everything becomes a Hamster wheel.

Everyone saw the political problems with the orchestras in the Netherlands, Detroit, etc. and sadly that seems to be the way that the ship is heading, so it doesn´t surprise me in any way to see this kind of behavior taking place in the U.S but what´s worst, getting promotion.


From Jason Hurwitz
Posted on May 9, 2011 at 7:59 PM

@ Laurie -- This is, of course, at the center of the entire debate: are the union contracts pesky or necessary, excessive or fair?

@ Megan -- Of course I realize that musicians must practice outside of rehearsal time -- my 18 years as a music student plus my professional performance experience are certainly proof of that.

@Oscar -- I'm not sure things are changing as much as you think in the States, at least not in the ways you think they are.

I have some thoughts about what all of you have written, but I have a tough accounting exam tonight and some projects to work on this week for other classes; however, I definitely want to continue this discussion. I'll do my best to write some responses ASAP.

Thanks for continuing the discussion!

From Ray Weaver
Posted on May 9, 2011 at 8:15 PM

Hi Jason,

     In regard to the question of overpaid or underpaid I can't really say except in relation to another example.  Megan's point about outside hours of practice is of course legitimate and as you said you are aware of it I will be interested to see your response.  One thing I wonder is if you did consider (given your stated experience of touring) is the difference between being on a show tour and playing in a symphony.  While keeping one's chops on tour is necessary it is not comparable to learning new literature each week for performances as in an orchestra.  Orchestra players must spend considerably more time to prepare. 

   I don't mean this to invalidate your points at all...I think the original post is well worthy of consideration and debate.  I'm in one of the hotspots of this issue (Louisville) and can see both sides.  I do think locally management ineptitude has been a major factor - I can't speak for other orchestras.

From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 10, 2011 at 8:34 PM

 I think the union contracts are very necessary. All it takes is doing a couple of non-union gigs to see why: unreasonable hours without breaks (so long they literally cause injury); low pay; general lack of professionalism, etc.

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