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Home » Symphonic Services Division » Advocating for Musicians Facing Possible Nonrenewal

Advocating for Musicians Facing Possible Nonrenewal

  -  AFM Symphonic Services Division Director

Spring is a time of mostly happy associations for those of us residing in the Northern Hemisphere, as days lengthen, temperatures warm, and green returns to nature’s palette after the dark months of winter. But for some orchestra musicians spring brings with it what I now think of as “termination season,” when letters of nonrenewal appear in musicians’ mailboxes and those musicians—and their advocates—must decide how to respond.

Over the years, many of these musicians, their orchestra committees (OCs), and their locals have consulted with me and I’ve had the privilege of assisting in that process. From that experience, I share the following guidance.

First, if you are a musician whose performance is being singled out for criticism by your music director or your section principal, please seek assistance from your union representatives at the earliest possible moment. Do not go alone to a meeting with the music director where your musical performance is the subject of discussion. Contact your OC or your local officers and ask for one of them to accompany you.

If you are called into a meeting with management or the music director and you are not sure what it is about, you and your union reps should ask—you have a right to know and not to be blindsided when you enter the meeting. These meetings can be incredibly stressful for any musician whose performance is under discussion. That stress makes it difficult to hear and remember what is said and to form a meaningful response. An advocate by your side can document what is said in the meeting and help frame any questions that need to be asked. More importantly, having the involvement of a union representative early in the process can help ensure that your due process rights are protected from the start.

Second, if there are extenuating circumstances that are creating challenges for you to perform at your best, be candid with your union reps about those challenges. In many—maybe most—of the cases I see, the targeted musician is dealing with a health issue of some kind that has made musical performance a greater challenge. In most of those cases, the health issue is one that would afford the musician protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

The ADA does not provide absolute protection against termination but it does require an employer to enter into an interactive process with an employee who needs an accommodation to be able to perform the essential functions of their job; that process is aimed at identifying a reasonable accommodation that allows the employee to perform the job but does not create an undue hardship for the employer.

Examples of accommodations include providing a musician with enlarged sheet music and their own stand to accommodate a visual impairment; allowing a musician with an injury additional time off to fully recover and a program of work hardening (gradual return to work); or allowing a musician with a hearing impairment a period of time to adjust to new hearing aids without threat of immediate termination. For a musician dealing with addiction or other mental health challenges, time off to obtain treatment could be a reasonable accommodation.

These accommodations can be career-extending, but if they are not sought soon enough, the musician may already be in the music director’s crosshairs and it can be difficult to reverse that process once begun.

Third, OCs and local officers should make sure peer review committees have been properly constituted and that committee members understand their role. If your contract includes peer review, it also spells out how the committee should be formed. These provisions should be reviewed at the beginning of every season and required elections held in a timely fashion.

Once a peer review committee has been empaneled, educate its members as to their function. Contrary to some popular views, a peer review committee does not make its own independent judgment about a colleague’s musical performance. Instead, the committee is charged with determining whether the employer has established that the musician’s performance has deteriorated below the standard established by the contract and that the musician has received due process—notice of specific deficiencies and a fair opportunity to remedy them. Encourage peer review committee members to view the AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD) educational webinar about due process in artistic nonrenewals, which is available on the AFM website in the SSD resource center.

Finally, if you are an OC member or union officer tasked with supporting a musician who has been targeted for nonrenewal, find out how best to advocate for the musician. The first step in that process is to ask the musician what outcome they would like to see.

If you attend a meeting between the musician and management, be prepared to take detailed notes reflecting the conversation, focusing especially on what is said by the music director and other employer representatives. After hearing from the employer, but before ending the meeting, the musician and union representative may caucus (confer privately) to determine whether the musician has questions for the employer and to discuss whether to make any response to the employer.

If the musician you are assisting has health issues, don’t be shy about asking the musician to tell you more about those challenges. Explore together whether those health issues have an impact on the musician’s performance and whether an accommodation might allow the musician to get back to performing at their best.

And as always, never hesitate to contact me directly ( or 314-756-3858) if you have questions about the role of union representatives in any aspect of this process or if you just need additional support. One of the most meaningful parts of my work is assisting local representatives as they support a musician whose career is in jeopardy. Working together, we are more likely to get the best possible outcomes.

2024 Symphonic Players Conference Schedule:

July 30–August 1        ROPA Conference, Parc 55 Hotel in San Francisco, California

August 12–15             OCSM Conference, Crowne Plaza Hotel in Kitchener, Ontario

August 21–24             ICSOM Conference, The Benson Hotel in Portland, Oregon

AFM Guides the Next Generation of Orchestra Musicians

Key to maintaining the vitality of our union is our outreach to young musicians who are beginning their professional careers. Recently, representatives of the AFM, International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), and Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) attended SphinxConnect in Detroit. While there, they met with young musicians who participated in this year’s Sphinx Orchestral Partners Auditions (SOPA) Excerpt Competition.

SOPA provides Black and Latinx orchestral musicians the unique opportunity to audition for a panel representing numerous orchestras seeking to identify musicians for invitation to auditions, pre-advancement at auditions, and/or placement on substitute player lists. AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD) Director Rochelle Skolnick, AFM Diversity Committee Chair Beth Zare, ROPA President Stephen Wade, and ICSOM Governing Board members Jessica Phillips and Nicole Jordan met with these musicians for 90 minutes, introducing them to the AFM, SSD, player conferences, and the basics of AFM local symphonic contracts. In a far-ranging and lively discussion, the young musicians asked excellent questions about matters including auditions, probationary processes, and job security protections in collective bargaining agreements.

A similar team, made up of Skolnick, Wade, Director of Symphonic Electronic Media Debbie Newmark, ICSOM Chair Keith Carrick, and Local 655 President Kendra Hawley and Secretary-Treasurer Jeffrey Apana will meet with musicians from the New World Symphony in Miami Beach on April 4.

The AFM encourages locals to identify groups of preprofessional and young professional musicians, including those attending local conservatories and schools of music in your jurisdiction, and to engage in outreach to these musicians. If you need assistance with outreach of this kind, contact your international representative.

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