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Home » ROPA » Report from the 2019 ROPA Conference

Report from the 2019 ROPA Conference


by Karen Sandene, ROPA Secretary and member of Locals 70-558 (Omaha, NE) and 463 (Lincoln, NE)

How do you relay the most recent orchestra industry news and trends to over 5,000 musicians from all corners of the nation? The Regional Orchestra Players’ Association (ROPA) Annual Conference is how. Our conference is an opportunity for representatives from dozens of AFM union orchestras (currently 91 strong) to network with colleagues and learn from experts in our field. Our 2019 site was Boston, MA, with hosts AFM Local 9-535 and three orchestras it represents: Boston Ballet Orchestra, Cape Symphony, and the Portland Symphony.

The 2019 ROPA Conference, held July 28–30, covered the topics of negotiating, union organizing, diversity and inclusiveness, musician self-care, and the overall state of our profession. We also paid tribute to two of our AFM/ROPA friends whom we lost this year.

ROPA President John Michael Smith opened the proceedings by welcoming our newest member orchestra, the Vermont Symphony, to our ranks, discussing the signing of the new Integrated Media Agreement, and sharing progress on ROPA’s online conductor evaluation system. Local 9-535 President Pat Hollenbeck entertained the delegates with a lighthearted overview of Boston’s contribution to society and the arts.

The keynote speaker was Portland Symphony Executive Director Carolyn Nishon, making a return visit to the ROPA conference after presenting in 2013 in Spokane. Her talk focused on how her orchestra, after nearly collapsing in 2008 from debt, regained its financial health through strategic planning involving both management and musicians.

ropa conference
ROPA Executive Board members (from left): Katie Shields, Secretary Karen Sandene, Casey Bozell, Christian Green, Beverly Setzer, Vice President Amanda Swain, Treasurer Sean Diller, President Mike Smith, outgoing board member Maya Stone (Huntsville), Kendra Hawley, Delegate at Large to the AFM Convention Naomi Bensdorf Frisch, Lisa Davis, Cory Tiffin, and Steve Wade. 

We take time at our conferences to address health and wellness issues facing musicians, and this year our guest was oboist Petrea Warneck, who delivered an informative talk on the Alexander Technique.

Capping off the first day was the topic of union engagement. AFM Negotiator/Organizer/ Educator Todd Jelen and AFM Internal Lead Organizer Alex Wiesendanger demonstrated techniques to improve union participation among members of our orchestras. Much of their presentation covered changing our perception of the union as “those people” who do things for us, to “We are the Union” (transactional vs. transformational).

During Day 2, attendees heard from representatives of our fellow AFM Conferences—Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (OCSM), Theater Musicians Assocation (TMA), Recording Musicians Assocation (RMA), and International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM), with Liz Johnston, Tony D’Amico, Martin McClellan, and Paul Austin, respectively. Also addressing the conference was the president and CEO of the Boston Symphony, Mark Volpe. AFM International President Ray Hair related the lobbying efforts to shore up the AFM-EPF pension, which resulted in the passage of the Butch Lewis Multi-Employer Pension Act by the House of Representatives in July of this year.

Day 3 featured labor attorney Mel Schwarzwald holding an illuminating Q-and-A session dealing with the negotiations process. Inclusivity and diversity was the focus for much of this morning with a summary of the 2019 SphinxConnect in Detroit, and a report from Lovie Smith-Wright from the AFM Diversity Committee. Alfonso Pollard, AFM Diversity, Legislative, and Political Director, spoke about Washington legislative initiatives, including the Butch Lewis Pension bill. Jessica Schmidt from Orchestrate Inclusion spoke on how our institutions can address racism and unconscious bias, as well as programs to lend career support to talented Black and Latinx musicians.

The conference paid tribute to two of our long-time ROPA friends, Janice Galassi (from the SSD and the Allentown Symphony), and Linda Boivin (from the New Mexico Philharmonic, and who also served several years as our unflappable conference coordinator). A short film was presented, and the delegates passed resolutions in their honor.

Following the election of officers, the 2019-20 ROPA Executive Board will include: President Mike Smith (Minnesota Opera Orchestra), Vice President Amanda Swain (Houston Ballet and Grand Opera Orchestras), Secretary Karen Sandene (Omaha and Lincoln Symphony Orchestras), Treasurer Sean Diller (Southwest Michigan Symphony Orchestra), Delegate at Large to the AFM Convention Naomi Bensdorf Frisch (Illinois Philharmonic), and Members at Large Casey Bozell (Portland Opera Orchestra), Lisa Davis (Mississippi Symphony), Christian Green (Ann Arbor Symphony), Kendra Hawley (Palm Beach Opera), Beverly Setzer (Symphony Tacoma), Katie Shields (Arizona Opera Orchestra), Cory Tiffin (Las Vegas Philharmonic), and Steve Wade (Hartford Symphony).

As always, a big thank you goes out to SSD staff: Director Rochelle Skolnick, Debbie Newmark, Chris Durham, Jane Owen, Todd Jelen, and Laurence Hofmann, who teach us the skills to negotiate better contracts and strengthen our bargaining unit. And finally, thanks so much to conference hosts: the musicians of Local 9-535 (Boston), Boston Local President Pat Hollenbeck, and numerous hard-working local volunteers. We look forward to our 37th Annual Conference in 2020 in Orange County, CA!