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March 31, 2023IM -
Chatting with Nicole Jordan of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA), the first thing you learn is to dispel your assumptions of what an orchestra librarian is, or does. Hint: it’s not what you think when you hear the word “librarian.”
“For starters, we typically don’t have degrees in library science,” says Jordan, a Philadelphia native and principal librarian for the Philadelphia Orchestra. “Library science is data-related. I’m a performance librarian, and that differs from library science in that it’s a specialty focusing on managing music materials for a performing ensemble.”
Performance librarians, she elaborates, are trained musicians with degrees in music. “While there are some overlaps with library science, like cataloging and data entry, knowing how to read music and understanding the ins and outs of all instruments is crucial to our role.”
Growing up in Philadelphia, Jordan never saw herself becoming a professional musician—never mind becoming the first African-American woman to hold a full-time, tenure-track position in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Indeed, she says she didn’t even know being a performance librarian was a real career until she moved back to Philadelphia for her graduate degree at Temple University.
Her path to one of the top performance librarian jobs in the industry was anything but straightforward. “I started playing music in 2nd grade, and not by choice,” she laughs. “Back in those days, schools still gave music aptitude tests. A trumpet teacher came to my class and I was told I had musical aptitude and I would play the cornet.” Jordan, not fully understanding, told her mom it was a clarinet. “Then I brought it home. Surprise!”
Despite being “stuck” on the cornet, Jordan stuck with it through her years at the Philadelphia High School for Girls, where she decided she also wanted to learn a string instrument. “In middle school, since I already played an instrument, I wasn’t allowed to learn another due to budget constraints and equalizing the opportunities for others. High school offered me that chance, so I took another test, scored well, and the teacher gave me a viola because I had long arms.”
Still, music wasn’t part of Jordan’s life plan. “I had been playing music all my life, and felt I needed a break,” she says. “I decided to become an architect. I liked geometry. However, calculus decided otherwise.” Music being the thing she knew best, she took the advice of a friend who was studying at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, who told her the school needed viola players. And that’s when the words “performance librarian” first appeared in Jordan’s life.
“In my final year of undergrad, the university was hosting an international summer opera festival. They needed a librarian/personnel manager, so I went for it.” It was Jordan’s first foray into the field, and she very quickly learned the job wasn’t the way it was explained to her. “I had been told it would just be passing out music and making sure musicians were there on time.” She laughs, thinking back at that—but she was also intrigued enough to want to explore it further.
Following what she terms “another existential crisis,” when she was struggling to figure out what was next after graduation, Jordan returned to Philly to pursue music history. “I was accepted into Temple University in 2008. I was introduced to someone in the music department who, after learning I was interested in music library work, suggested that I reach out to the Philadelphia Orchestra library, which had an internship program. I took an audition, mostly questions about instrumentation, and performed assorted tasks. At the end of that week, I won the intern gig!”
Jordan quickly realized she had landed not only an important gig, but a potential career. “I knew I wanted to be a performance librarian shortly after winning my internship. I decided to work on getting the skills to do it well, and then pursue a job.” She emphasizes that there are no degrees in performance librarianship; it’s all hands-on training. “Between working in the Philadelphia Orchestra library and the Interlochen and Aspen summer festivals, I received some fantastic on-the-job experience.”
In 2011, the position of assistant principal librarian in Atlanta opened up. Jordan submitted her resume and won her first full-time job as a performance librarian. In 2016, she successfully auditioned for the Atlanta Symphony’s principal librarian position, where she remained until August 2020. From there, it was ultimately back up to Philly—where she won her present job in the middle of a pandemic. Back in Philadelphia for three years now, Jordan says she loves being home. “I never imagined that it would be possible. I am so excited to be back and working in the orchestra I grew up with.”
Jordan is also proud to be the first woman of color to join the Philadelphia Orchestra as a full-time musician in its 123-year history and understands the implied responsibility of being in that position. She believes the push to increase diversity in American orchestras should encompass every part of the organization, and not just what is seen on stage.
“All elements of an orchestra benefit from diversity in appearance, thought, perspective, and experience,” she says. “This obviously goes beyond just appearances, but starting with what the public actually sees is crucial.”
On the Philadelphia Orchestra stage, she says, audience members have an opportunity to see what’s possible—but ironically, they don’t see many people of color. “I’m in the orchestra library, and they generally don’t know I exist beyond appearing onstage to put music on the stands.” Audiences, in other words, don’t recognize a performance librarian’s pivotal role in every concert. “I endeavor to elevate what I do and make the role more visible. Ultimately, I don’t want to be the last person of color to hold a titled position in an orchestra library, so I work to create opportunities for a more diverse library team, starting with the basic knowledge that this is a viable—and achievable—career path.”
Describing a typical workday for a potential performance librarian would seemingly take most of a typical workday. “The only constant is preparing music,” Jordan says. “That involves things like sourcing the physical parts, identifying stops and starts, or indicating cuts.” For rehearsals, Jordan deals with the everyday tasks of making sure the stage is set, ensuring conductors have the proper edition of a score, and conferring with the soloist(s). “In other words, jack of all trades, master of pretty much everything,” she laughs. Then, there’s planning for upcoming seasons. “I’m like a time machine, jumping in and out of present and future needs.”
Jordan emphasizes that library staff are as equal in importance to the health of the organization as any other member of the orchestra. “We are singlehandedly the people who see and touch the most music, and we also work with conductors, composers, and publishers. As such, our sphere of influence is quite large.”
That influence has allowed Jordan to take a lead role in some fascinating projects with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Particularly meaningful to her is the orchestra’s award-winning recording of two symphonies by Florence Price. The recording stemmed from a conversation she had with the orchestra’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who is a member of Local 406 (Montreal, PQ). Price was the first Black woman to be recognized as an orchestral composer, and the first to have a composition played by a major orchestra. Despite this distinction, she died in obscurity in 1953. “Her music was found in an attic in 2009,” says Jordan. “She died poor and was forgotten. Of course, that meant the musical materials weren’t in the best shape, editorially. And in my experience, if a piece is full of mistakes, it’s not going to get performed regularly, if at all.”
Addressing this challenge became Jordan’s labor of love. She established a partnership with the music’s publisher and began workshopping the scores and correcting parts—not only for her own orchestra, but for other orchestras too. That first Price recording, one of several planned, won a 2022 Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance. “As an African-American woman, it was incredibly powerful for me to be able to use my position in the Philadelphia Orchestra as an advocate for Price’s music, 70 years after her death,” Jordan says. Other similar recordings are now in the works that feature, for instance, music by the early 20th century Black composer William Grant Still. “As an organization, we are using our platform and visibility positively as a vessel for these underperformed Black composers,” she adds with pride.
Jordan doesn’t rest there. She hosted last year’s Major Orchestra Librarians’ Association (MOLA) annual conference in Philadelphia, and she also serves as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s delegate to the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM). Asked where she finds the time to do it all elicits a typically self-deprecatingly funny response. “I’m not convinced I do it all well,” she says with a chuckle. She also admits to dabbling in amateur mixology during her downtime, which presumably helps ease the workload. “In all seriousness, it’s all important work because my overarching goal is to create a culture that I want to be a part of, and I can only do that if I’m participating.”
Along those lines, she is also active at Local 77 as a member of the local’s Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access, and Solidarity (IDEAS) committee. Jordan says the committee meets monthly with different ensembles in the city, attempting to understand how the Federation can advocate for these colleagues who don’t have good protections in place. “I’m very curious what my colleagues who are not in the orchestra experience—Philadelphia club musicians and jazz players, for example,” she says. “I understand that being in the Philadelphia Orchestra, the most prominent musical organization in the city, means I’m coming from a place of privilege, relatively speaking. My hope is to use my position to help bring up others around me in the music community.”
Jordan has a particular interest in media and wants to know if these musicians are getting paid for reuse of their work. “That’s just one of countless longstanding issues we, as a committee, have inherited,” she says. “Many of these challenges date from the time when Black unions had their charters revoked and their musicians weren’t allowed to join the white unions. They’re common problems among musicians of color who have been excluded. We hope to address that, but it will take more than a few conversations to change hundreds of years of malpractice.”
Closer to home, Jordan also pushes for standardized working conditions for her performance librarian colleagues in other orchestras. In her previous positions, she wasn’t a member of the AFM because she was excluded from the orchestra’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA). However, as she has pointed out, orchestra librarians are really no different from orchestra musicians. “We also play instruments. Why should our protections be any different just because a portion of our job has some administrative elements? If we are not treated as regular colleagues, we lose important job protections like overtime and vacation.”
She explains that, for a playing musician, hours are based on time spent in the workplace rehearsals and concerts, but also at home practicing. Not so for a performance librarian: “Our work week almost always goes much longer than the playing musicians’ required working hours,” she says. “It’s typical for us to go beyond a 40-hour week.” The result, she says, is that orchestra librarians are typically overworked. “Many American orchestras’ CBAs are player-centric, lacking in library-specific protections. While there are standard protections built in for sub-sections of playing musicians, like doubling and/or move up pay, nothing like that exists for librarians. CBAs, I feel, need to be standardized to address librarians’ specific needs in the workplace as well.”
For Jordan, all of these desired changes tie into the ongoing diversity challenge—and are why she keeps engaged and advocating. “What’s the point of having an orchestra look different if the culture is still the same?” She asks. “Why not use the bit of influence I have, and try to be the change I want to see? We all play a part in being stewards of our organizations so that our future colleagues will find a better workplace when they get here.”