Monday, April 29, 2013

The Minnesota Orchestra: Part-Time or Fulltime?

I attend Minnesota Orchestra concerts and have so for many years.  I love classical music.  I have been a staunch supporter of the MOA in the past because the organization supported the Minnesota Orchestra through fundraising, logistics, Orchestra Hall, and other aspects of the arts business so the musicians can concentrate on their business: artistic excellence.  As a writer, I am dedicated to clarity and honesty in my writing, and in the writings of others, especially politicians and business leaders.  As an American, a Minnesotan, and a long-time resident of the Twin Cities, I consider myself a "community stakeholder" in the business of the TC, the State, and our fine country.  As a result, I try to educate myself about issues.  I'm not always successful, especially with issues that don't really interest me that much.  I'm not a political animal.  I state all this so that it will be clear where I'm coming from with this post.

On April 12, 2013, the MOA sent to donors and patrons an Eblast that can be found in its entirety here.  This communication was signed by Jon Campbell, Chairman of the Board of Directors, and Michael Henson, President and CEO.  In it, they address the financial issue of salary and benefits offered to the musicians, compared with the expired 2007 contract, and then compared to the "Average U.S. Worker." 

I would like to address some things the MOA claims in this communication to clarify what the life of a professional orchestra musician involves:

The MOA said: "Musicians perform 42 weeks per year.  Schedule is based on an average of 21* hours of work per week (allowing time for private practice and freelance work) with no more than 5 hours of work per day."

The MOA's footnote: "* A 21-hour work week is commonplace at major American orchestras.  It gives musicians time to practice in order to stay competitive.  The 21-hour week also allows musicians to hold secondary jobs that contribute to our cultural community.  Minnesota Orchestra players serve as faculty at more than 20 music institutions and perform in dozens of chamber ensembles."

This statement regarding a 21-hour work week makes it look like the musicians work only part-time for the MOA.  That's a misleading statement.  As Drew McManus points out at his blog, The Adaptistration (here), orchestra musicians' work week is more like a fulltime, 40-hour per week worker who is on flextime, putting in 21 hours at the office and the rest of the time remotely.

Minnesota Orchestra at work (Credit: Greg Helgeson)

What are the musicians working on remotely?  For each piece of music programmed, each musician has a part of the music score that he must prepare before rehearsal.  The principal player of his section will have gone through and made relevant markings for how to play the part, given the part to the players in the section, and then the players practice the part at home.  They aren't practicing to "stay competitive" as the MOA stated.  They practice their part as their job.  They must be prepared before they walk into rehearsal because rehearsal time with a conductor is devoted to putting the composition together, making sure all the sections are playing the way the composer intended, etc.  Private practice also includes practicing technique, i.e. skills involved in playing the instrument.  For pianists, the instrument I know best, it's playing scales, finger exercises, and Bach.  These two aspects of private practice, preparing the part and practicing technique, are essential parts of an orchestra musician's job.  Is it limited to 19 hours a week?  No.  The professional orchestra musician practices anywhere from 4-6 hours per day, seven days a week.  Yes, even on rehearsal and concert days.


Now, the MOA says that Minnesota Orchestra musicians have secondary jobs.  Really?  So, the salary they were paid in the 2007 contract wasn't enough to live on?  Apparently.  Musicians must do "freelance work," or "serve as faculty at more than 20 music institutions" and "perform in dozens of chamber ensembles."  So if the salary and benefits in the 2007 contract weren't enough to live on, to pay the mortgage or rent, to pay for instruments and their maintenance, to pay for travel not provided by the MOA, to pay for college funds and basic necessities and business expenses like concert dress, how can cutting the salary and benefits package be good for the musicians?  And what does a musical instrument cost?  For professional players, whether orchestra musicians or soloists, an instrument can cost anywhere from $50K to $1+ million.  A conductor's musical instrument is an orchestra.

A note here about what it means to be a Minnesota Orchestra musician: wherever that musician goes, she will be known as a true professional, playing in a top 10 American orchestra.  She serves as a representative of the MO when she teaches at a summer music camp, performs as guest soloist with another orchestra, performs in a chamber ensemble, teaches at an accredited music school, or shops for groceries.  It is a part of her identity, and as such, she becomes a culture representative of the State of Minnesota.  Unpaid, by the way, by the State.  Every time the Minnesota Orchestra plays Carnegie Hall, the BBC Proms in London, the Musikverein in Vienna, or some other national and international concert venue, it is representing the cultural life in America and in Minnesota.  No musician in the MO would ever even imagine not showing up to rehearsal not prepared.

And what about vacation time?  Wow, 10 weeks of paid vacation annually, according to the MOA.  Hmmmmm...how does the MOA define "vacation time"?  Well, this is time when the musician is not scheduled to rehearse or perform in concert.  This does not mean that the musician has stopped working.  As we know, the professional orchestra musician practices 4-6 hours per day, seven days a week, even when he's not scheduled to rehearse or perform in concert.  He may be scheduled the next week.  It'll be a week off here, a week off there, and then the weeks in the summer or around Christmas when no concerts are scheduled.  MOA management has been shortening the concert season over the last two years also, apparently, to save money, as well as the summer season.  But in order to make money, you have to spend money in this business (or if you're a professional investor), so I'd bet the tactic of shortening the season really didn't help.  So when do professional musicians not practice?  They must be sick or otherwise incapacitated.  I kid you not.  And by the way, I would not be surprised if they are hounded by e-mails and text messages as much as non-musicians when they're not "in the office."

So, I hope this has helped to clarify things a bit.  The fact that Jon Campbell and Michael Henson signed a communication that contained misleading and inaccurate statements does not improve their standing, at least in my eyes.  One, it shows sloppiness on their part, and two, it shows their ignorance about what their employees actually do.  Drew McManus at The Adaptistration called it "some of the more egregious old school labor dispute tactics."

I call it untrustworthy....   

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