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June 1, 2022IM -
As a professional musician, educator, and secretary-treasurer of the DC-Baltimore Chapter of the Theatre Musicians Association (TMA), Brian Butler of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC) has made it his mission to create a generation of music lovers.
Butler’s training on clarinet began at age 9, quickly followed by turns in band on sax and flute. He played his first show, the classic Sweet Charity in his freshman year in college. He says, “Once I found the theater, I knew it was my calling.”
Though he entered Shenandoah University in Virginia as a classical clarinet major, he did not naturally gravitate toward orchestral performance. He immersed himself in musical theater, playing all the shows during the year and then in summer stock. “I realized that all the things I had done in my musical life up to that point could all be done in one place. I could use my clarinet; I could use my jazz background on saxophone. It all came together,” says Butler.
He began teaching by happenstance, needing a stable job to support his young family. “I walked in never having taught school and now I’ve been doing it for 18 years.” As a band and chorus teacher at James Madison Middle School in Prince George’s County in Maryland, Butler is on the front lines in the fight for the arts in schools and the extended fight to fortify music appreciation and audiences.
He teaches performance class, but he has realistic expectations. Not all of his middle schoolers want to become professional musicians. What he does expect is that they continue to champion music—becoming good “citizens of the world” beginning with respect. He says, “Think about the struggle and hard work you’re putting in right now. When you’re sitting in the audience and someone is performing, encourage them, give that applause; Be the best audience member you can be.”
His message is clear. Music education matters. Studies consistently show that all students, but particularly African American and Latino students, do better in school, have higher graduation rates, and a better chance of getting into college when exposed to music education on an ongoing basis.
In his classes, he talks about his professional life as a musician. He makes sure that students understand music in a variety of ways. “I show clips of musicals or a YouTube video where someone has strapped a GoPro to their head in the pit. I show them that this world exists,” he says.
In the DC-Baltimore TMA, Butler has found camaraderie. He says, “At my first meeting, eight of us sat around a conference table and talked about theater. Having those conversations, what’s happening in the world of theater, was invaluable to my development.”
Through TMA, he collaborates with locals and works on national planning committees tackling tough issues, such as the diminishing pit orchestra. At the 2019 AFM Convention, a TMA-backed resolution was adopted by the delegates that would require the Federation to take actions to influence producers of touring musicals to use fuller orchestrations. Butler says that some locals have had success with leaflet campaigns outside theaters announcing live music in the pit. Another idea, which has been brought up in organizing campaigns, is a clause in the theater musicians’ collective bargaining agreements that would require the performing musicians’ names to be listed in programs and included on call boards in the lobby so the audience can recognize the shows that have live music.
Audience members, especially younger theatergoers, may not even know that there’s live music in stage productions. “It’s not just the actors. The audience needs to realize there are the backstage people they don’t see, like those in the pit, that make a great performance,” explains Butler. “There needs to be more audience education. As union members, it’s something we’re always fighting for: jobs, fair pay, and live music.”
As someone who has spent most of his life being “one of the only persons of color” in many situations, Butler is open about discussions of race in music, particularly classical music, saying “Diversity, equity, inclusion, and access are all important topics for the Theatre Musicians Association.”
“How do we get the demographics of the pit to be more inclusive?” Butler says, “We keep moving forward, with education and arts programs—putting young talented musicians front and center. In many venues, the pool from which contractors choose has historically been cisgendered, white males. If we are serious about increasing access and representation, then people who are responsible for hiring must make every effort to ensure that women, LGBTQIA+, and people of the global majority are included in the demographics of the pit.”
Encouraged by strong union movements nationally, Butler sees hope for a better future for those who work in theater and in the orchestra pit. “I’ve always been a power-of-numbers kind of thinker. It’s what attracted me to the union. The fact that people are saying this is not right and the only way to make it right is through the power of our numbers, the power of our voices, is inspiring. Going through that process, especially in a union-busting environment, the pains of organizing with all the hurdles—and in the end, knowing that people recognize the power of a union—knowing it can work. You can’t beat that kind of incentive.”