Sunday, January 29, 2012

Orchestra Committees - The Majority Rules

As I have discussed in my previous post, the Music Director rules as a dictator. The orchestra, however, governs itself as a democracy through various committees.  Established by the orchestra members and nominated and voted in by ballot, all decisions are made by a vote of the majority. 
The most important committees are the Player’s Committee and the Negotiation Committee.  Others such as the Musical Advisory, Tour, and Audition Committees also play important roles in governing the orchestras business with management.  There are also some practical committees such as: Retirement, Pension, Health, non-Renewal, and Re-Seating Committees. 
The most active committee is the Player’s Committee which handles the day-to-day business between the orchestra and management.  The Chair, elected by the committee, is the go-to person and usually becomes the unofficial “complaint department.” This committee will meet at a moment’s notice between rehearsals or concerts to address situations that may arise. If needed, they will convene the entire orchestra to vote on a proposal by management—and the majority rules!

Serving on orchestra committees is a duty of the orchestra members.  And although there is no requirement, most musicians are willing to participate. Some committees are very active and others may only meet a few times a year. The Player’s Committee chair is quite busy and this person can be involved on a daily basis meeting with the Personal Manager or other management personnel.
Orchestras in the United States are a union shop and full-time members are required to belong to the American Federation of Musicians. One major difference between orchestras in America and other union shops is that the musician union officials do not negotiate directly with management during contract negotiations. The reason for this is because union officials have no idea of our working conditions and details of our day-to-day operations. The AFof M therefore recognizes the Negotiating Committee as their official representatives at the bargaining table.  These orchestra members sit down at the barganing table to hammer out contract language and try to come to agreements on the issues.  When not successful, and the current contract expires, the orchesta members have the right continue to "work and talk" or call for a "strike" until the issues are resolved and the orchestra votes to acctpt the contract.  Management also has the right to "lock out" the musicians until a contract is signed.

The only issue not discussed is recording.  This part of the contract is negotiated by the union on a national level and all union orchestras record under this agreement.
Most orchestra have a committee dealing with artistic issues with a name such as the Musical Advisory Committee.  Note the word “advisory.” This is because the Music Director has the sole power in deciding on musical issues.  This committee may meet a few times a year with the Music Director to discuss such issues as repertoire, guest conductors, tours, recordings, and other pertinent issues regarding working conditions.  This committee may “bark” but it has no “bite.”  Most Music Directors are open to hearing from the orchestra members on these subjects, but the decision to act on such issues his or her decision.  There is no vote!

The Re-Seating and Non-Renewal Committee only meet when management issues a request to dismiss or reseat a tenured member of the orchestra.  It is quite rare for a tenured member of the orchestra to be issued a non-renewal of their contract.  It is more likely a member may be asked to sit in a different seat within the orchestra.  If this happens and the member decides to appeal the decision, the Re-Seating Committee is convened to discuss the matter with management.  Most non-renewal of a member's contract come about by independent negotiations between the member and the Executive Director.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Music Director

The title of Music Director is given to a conductor who is hired by an orchestra as the artistic head of the organization.  Along with conducting many of the concerts during that orchestra's season, this person makes most decisions regarding tours, repertoire, soloists, recordings, and personnel. 
Regarding decisions made when conducting, all tempos, musical directives, including dynamics, articulations, and phrasing come under the authority of the conductor. In plain language, musicians work under a Dictator! It really doesn't matter what the composer indicates on the score because all indications are open to interpretation.  This is as it should be for a living art such as music. The unusual aspect of this is that the instrumentalists and soloists, all experts in their field, have virtually no vote on the matter.

With this control over the musical score, it's easy to see how such power can be abused.  It's one thing to address sections or the entire orchestra regarding changes in the score, however, when individuals are approached regarding rhythm, intonation, or sound issues, the tone of the conversation is telling.  It doesn't take much for a musician to feel the conductor is not pleased with his or her contributions. And when this leads to being called into the office for a meeting or making an official request to re-seat a musician, it affects the entire orchestra because one never knows who may be next.

When a new Music Director takes over, there is a period of time when an evaluation is being made on all personnel, and musicians can feel when they are being singled out for criticism.  Although, because of the tenure clause in all contracts it is very difficult to actually fire someone, however, re-seating is possible in the contract.  When Music Directors abuse this power over musicians, it can effect  their ability to perform at the continuous high level expected in a major orchestra.

The relationship between musicians and conductors in general is strange.  If an orchestra had to vote on their opinion of any given conductor, the vote would probably be split 50/50.  The major difference is whether the conductor's musical taste resonates with the individual.  Other differences regard, baton technique, rehearsal technique, ability to communicate, and personality.

There is a quote in my book from Walter Legge founder of the London Philharmonia. It starts  out with the statement: "There is no form of occupation which has a worse effect on a man's character than that of the conductor."  It then goes on from there with unbelievable clarity regarding music directors who have tremendous power and are paid a lot of money.

Although some music directors can cause a great deal of heartache to musicians, many are very professional and treat the orchestra  members with respect. The era of conductors ranting and raving on the podium to obtain the musical interpretations they desire, for the most part, has passed. Arturo Toscanini, one of the world's most celebrated conductors, whose antics on the podium included screaming, dancing, singing out in his high-pitched voice, and coming up with outlandish verbal comments to obtain the results he demanded, represented the epitome of abuse during this era.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Long Road to Success

Most young college students, as entering freshmen in our universities, are only beginning to formulate career goals. Some flounder even until their undergraduate study is completed and now facing a Masters program, their curriculum choices must be more specific. This is not true however with the budding young professional musicians. These young students have already spent 10 to 15 years studying their instrument, taking weekly lessons, preparing recitals and impromptu performances. Now as entering freshmen, these young musicians are just kicking it up another notch, practicing up to eight hours a day just in preparation for their weekly lessons — such is the competition they are facing.

One would think such preparation for a career would automatically lead to great rewards with the promise of a secure position and financial benefits. This of course is not the case in any field, however, there are certainly more opportunities in business. As a University Professor for 42 years, it became very clear to me that freshmen music majors entering my studio have a great love of music, display promising musical talent, and have no other specific career goals. At this point little thought is given to earning a living as a musician; they found success at a young age and continue to pursue their hearts desire.

With this in mind, let's consider what I call the Ultimate Interview.  This chapter of my book deals with the long and arduous process of obtaining a tenured position in a major symphony orchestra. There are few if any job interviews that cover such a long period of time with enormous expense borne by the applicants. With as many as 300 candidates applying for one position, the likelihood of a young musician even being invited to audition in person is small. Students begin developing their audition skills even as undergraduate students, auditioning for places in their school bands and orchestras eventually reaching out to the community and actually securing paid positions in the area. They also participate in mock auditions to hone the skills of stepping on stage and performing in public with one chance to get it right. What can be accomplished with such ease in a practice room takes on an entirely new perspective when performing in public. The experience of rehearsing and playing concerts in school bands and orchestras would seem to offer confidence when taking an audition. But when the security of playing with dozens of your colleagues in these musical groups is now reduced to one person on a stage playing for a committee of your peers, knees become weak, a cold sweat may break out, hands shake, lips tremble, and fear sets in — we call this stage fright! Many talented musicians have had to forgo careers as professional musicians because of the inability to remain calm and in control when taking auditions. Those finding success in moving into the final phase of auditions will reach out further and further in the community, travelling to nearby cities or states to apply for positions in an orchestra— and adding valuable credits to their resumes along the way.

The entire auditioning process for a major orchestra is outlined in detail in my book. What I would like to present now is an overview of this process. Openings in major orchestras around the world are found in The International Musician, the newsletter of the American Federation of Musicians. Audition committees will then scan the applications looking for 30 to 60 people to invite to perform in person. Candidates that are accepted will have to pay their own travel, hotel, and food expenses to participate. The process begins with a series of preliminary, semifinal, and final auditions— most behind a screen. It is not a small feat to continually perform these excerpts round after round to advance into the finals. At this level a wrong note, careless rhythm, slip of intonation, rushing the tempo, missing a dynamic marking, unclear articulations, or poor phrasing can end your audition. Imagine flying halfway across the country, sleeping in a hotel, waking in the morning and going to the hall for your preliminary audition of 10 to 15 minutes and not passing the first round.  What can be more discouraging!

Unknown to those not familiar with this process, rarely is a candidate chosen as a winner from such an audition. Possibility 2 or 3 finalists will be selected. The conductor may decide to hear each one play a full week of concerts with the orchestra during the next season. This of course may take many months. The music director and audition committee will then decide if any of the finalists are qualified to be offered the position— if not the entire procedure begins again. If one person is selected, that person then proceeds to perform with the orchestra for two full seasons as a probationary member. At the end of each year, the committee again votes to decide if the person is satisfactory. If the committee votes yes, then the conductor decides if that person is satisfactory. Only then, is musician offered a tenured contract with the orchestra.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Valuable Skills

For young students who have a musical background, and are entering Freshmen at a college or university, an undergraduate degree as a music major is one of the most difficult and challenging degrees to pursue. Besides the normal academic load, music students are involved in rehearsals and concerts that take up quite a bit of time. Not to mention the hours necessary to prepare for their weekly lessons. Serious music students may practice up to eight hours a day to achieve the competitive advantage necessary to succeed in this profession. Skills learned as a musician are valuable for any profession. Primarily the daily practice regiment for their weekly lessons. This is similar to being given a project and completing it in a short time span. Music students do this every week of the semester.

Another important skill is that there is no such thing as being late in the music profession. In a major symphony orchestra, a conductor will not begin a rehearsal if one musician is missing. Every instrumental voice in the score must be heard to properly rehearse the music. If a musician calls in sick, management must hire a substitute player to fill the chair.

Music students quickly learn that they not only must be at rehearsals and concerts on time, but they must also allow time to warm up, be in tune, and ready to peform at the exact rate of speed as the rest of the orchestra from the first downbeat. It is not unusual for some professional musicians to arrive at rehearsals and concerts up to one hour before they begin.

Musicians also learn to take criticism-whether it's from a music critic, teacher, friend or relative. As soon as we step on stage, we are subject to criticism.  Especially from conductors!  As music students, when taking a private lesson, teachers constantly are instructing students to play louder, softer, faster, slower, or any of the hundreds of other musical directives that apply to the score.  These suggestions are not open to discussion.  Students learn to follow directions; a very important skill in any business.  As professional musicians and educators, teachers know the value of being able to immediately adjust to a conductor's demands.  So, our comments are not said to create one particular version for the student, but to see how well they can apply these changes to the music.  If a student has trouble following directions, they are probably not cut out for a career as an orchestral musician.

A symphony orchestra concert is very different from opera, ballet, and musical theater.  When attending the performance of an opera, ballet, or musical theater, it is obvious the show on the stage is not the orchestra, but the singers and dancers.  At a symphony orchestra concert, the orchestra is the show, they are not performing in the pit below the stage.  This requires every musician to be dressed properly and no one should stand out by wearing too much jewelery or sparkles on their clothing.  Management is always looking out for "attention grabbers" that may distract the audience from listening to the music.  Major orchestras usually have a dress code in the contract to insure all the musicians blend together as one from the audience.

This is also true about performing within each section.  Except for solo lines, musicians must sound together as one voice, and no individual member of the section should rise above the general dynamic level of his or her section.

In my next post, I will deal the very unusual audition process to obtain a tenured positon in a major orchestra.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Our Great Profession

The title of my blog is also the title of my new book of the same name.  A book about the profession of professional musicians and what is involved in reaching the goal of performing in a major symphony orchestra.  It is also about the Artistry, Passion, and Heartache, of this a profession.


Patrons of the Arts, who attend symphony concerts, applaud the music, support the arts with their time and money, yet have little understanding of how the performers on stage, the conductor, stage crew, librarians, management and staff function in this amazing business.

Little is known of the discipline, perserverance, and work ethic necessary to pursue such a  goal of an orchestral musician in a major orchestra.  The interaction between the conductor and musicians is, in itself, a wonder, since the the position of the music director (conductor) of an orchestra functions as a dictator.  They decide how fast, slow, loud, soft, or any other of the hundreds of musical directives that occur in a musical score.  How you ever wondered how well-educated, highly trained, professional musicians and solo artists, concede so much of their musical opinions to a conductor?  A quote from Walter Legge, Founder of the London Philharmonia, says it all: "There is no form of occupation which has a worse effect on a man's character than that of a conductor."

The audition procedure to join this organization is so involved that it can be utterly discouraging to the young musician. This is discussed in detail in the chapter titled: The Ultimate Interview. 

The position of Music Director in a major orchestra involves complete control over all artistic decisions in this organization.  While musicians readily perform at the conductor's discression, when it come to the reseating of orchestra personnel, serious issues can occur which may affect the moral fabric of the entire orchestra.

There is so much more!  In my next post, I will discuss in detail the working conditions of musicians in this amazing profession.