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Michelle Jones

Hire the Right Person for the Job: Give Artistic Directors and Conductors the Ability to Use Musicians to Fit the Program

May 13, 2013 at 5:42 PM

Would you hire a neurosurgeon to be a presser in an assembly line for laundry? Conversely, would you want your laundry presser to perform your brain surgery? This is not to say that either does or does not have the potential to do another’s job, but is it what he does for a living? Did he go to school or have specialized training (even self-educated) to do that job? If the answer is no, then why do you think all musicians are the same, or can even play every genre for their instrument?

Not all violinists (or insert symphonic instrument of your choice here) play classical styles of music, just as not all singers sing opera. Sure, many players of modern, country or rock music have been classically trained, but that does not mean they can sight-read Mahler’s Symphony Number 1. There is a vast difference in playing styles from the different eras of what we call classical music, and many times, the core players in a symphony just are not proficient at being able to perform all these styles, let alone the more modern styles of music. So what to do? Give the Artistic Directors the flexibility to use the musicians to fit the music being played for each concert. Hire the right people for the job!

Artistic Directors (“ADs”) and Conductors across the nation are being chastised and even punished for wanting to do what is necessary to improve attendance at symphony orchestra concerts. Unions are protesting, musicians are angry, and attendance and donations are still dropping while costs are increasing. The unions are upset because they feel that the job security is threatened for the musicians they represent. What many are failing to realize is that the ADs are trying to SAVE their jobs by keeping an orchestra alive. Most ADs are not trying to undermine the orchestra; that would be suicide for their jobs, too. The ADs simply want to create programs to which the audience will respond, thus increasing attendance and donations. If this means using only certain players on certain concerts, then do it.

An example where this was an issue is with Jung-Ho Pak and Orchestra Nova in Southern California. According to an article at

"Talks with the musicians union broke down over contracts. Pak didn’t want to offer the standard annual contract to the same musicians. He wanted to pick and choose union musicians who could perform with expression. He wants them to emote. Perform with passion."

Mr. Pak resigned when they reached an impasse. The entire season was canceled. Now NO musicians, staff, or supporting crew are working. The orchestra filed Chapter 7 Bankruptcy, and has now closed its doors. The AD and the CEO were trying to innovate and change the way audiences view the symphony. Other articles discuss Mr. Pak's desire to use players proficient in certain styles and match them to the specific concert program. Neither he nor the CEO wanted to abolish the union representation; they wanted the flexibility to schedule the musicians for certain concerts based on their playing styles/abilities. They already had sold-out concerts based on this vision. Yes, I know there are two sides to every story, but in this case, I am looking as an educated outsider and wondering why the musicians and the union did not want to compromise and keep the orchestra alive. The main answer comes to this: job security.

I have news for anyone out there who is working: THERE IS NO JOB SECURITY when you work for someone else! If you are not the creator of that job, then it’s not yours! The creator of those symphonic jobs is trying to keep them for you by learning what today’s audiences want and are willing to purchase tickets to attend. Sure, contracts are in place to provide some stability and framework for what you are to do, how to be paid, etc., but even contracts can be terminated. We all work for someone else, even if we are self-employed. I personally work for over 30 families as the private music instructor for their children. I know that if I do not do a good job, then they will fire me and find someone else. It’s the same for every agent, contractor, bride, recording studio, venue, or whoever hires me for a gig. I don’t have “job security.” I simply have to remember that every gig, every lesson, every concert could be my last, so I try to do my best every time.

I also know that the people who hire me are trying to fit a role. Yes, I can play all the major symphonic works as a section violinist or violist, but I don’t usually perform as a classical soloist with an orchestra. It’s not my specialty, nor is it my passion. My passion is modern and rock music, and I do get hired as a rock violinist regularly to perform solos with orchestras, bands, and other ensembles. I did (and still do) the formal training throughout my life, and then did my own self-study for the music I love to perform! This gave me an “edge” to my playing, and I knew exactly how to adapt that for me. I still can adapt my style for the symphonies as a section classical player, but I admit that I prefer doing the rock styles. ADs know this and hire me to help their orchestra players achieve that style when needed. Sometimes, this is successful; other times, no. I have heard scalding comments from players about how they don’t think this is real music, or how they should be playing Bach instead of Beatles. They mock me and berate me both to my face and behind my back while I am trying to help them (what? are we in grade school with bullies?) Mind you, this doesn’t hurt me as I am paid one way or another, but I do try to encourage them to follow their AD’s vision for this concert, for this program. Once all players are “on board,” the concert is a huge success. The audience loves the music, while the donations continue to grow. If the AD had the ability to use only players who could either do the needed style or were all willing to learn it, that animosity would not have existed in the first place.

Most of the symphonic players I know understand the difference between Handel’s style and Bartok’s style, but most don’t understand that there is a difference in the styles of rock and modern music. Orchestras are changing their programming to include more modern selections to attract newer and younger patrons, but when the musicians cannot deliver or perform those styles (or in many cases, scoff at playing those pieces), the orchestra is the one that is hurt in the end. It’s the unwillingness to change that is killing the symphony orchestra (Symphony Era - say goodbye at And many times, it’s the musicians who are doing it to themselves! Sometimes, we are our own worst enemy when we think we are trying to save our jobs, when in fact we are killing them from within. We have to understand that change is a necessary part of life, and we either adapt or we die. Then live music dies with us, as there is no one left to perform it.

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From Julian Musgrave
Posted on May 13, 2013 at 10:00 PM
At last. Some common sense on the vexed subject of professional musicians, their unions and the concert going public. Of course, MDs & Conductors should be able to pick players for concerts- union members of not. For unions to oppose this is short sighted, to put it mildly. It's about time we all realised the three great truths of labour unions. 1. Union leaders always take the line that increases their own self-importance and preserves their own jobs. 2. Labour unions thrive where management us weak. 3. All union inspired mass action like strikes, walk-outs, work to rules is seen by the public as bolshy and is ultimately counter productive.

Whether we like it or not, the western art music tradition is an adornment of civilisation, not its bedrock. Performers in this tradition are must, regrettably, accept this and act accordingly. Stamping our feet and screaming until we are sick is not the way to persuade the concert going public that they should spend their time and money with us.

The way forward for musicians in intractable disputes with management is to form their own orchestra, hire their own conductor and create and promote their own concert programmes. This is a very hard road to travel, but is, I suggest, a more productive use of time energy and passion than standing on picket lines vomiting hatred.

From elise stanley
Posted on May 15, 2013 at 8:44 AM
You forget that unions were created to prevent abuse of workers - which was rife. If the seamstresses in Bangladesh had a union 1,ooo of them would most probably still be alive.

Its easy to argue dispensing with unions (and their many flaws) until you see the abuses empolyers are capable of when profit is the only god.

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