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The AFM and its Members Respond to COVID-19 Effects on Musicians


While our union officials have been monitoring the COVID-19 outbreak and potential impacts on musicians since it first became a global health emergency in late January, once music events began being canceled and restrictions on large gatherings were announced by both US and Canadian officials in early March, that is when the impact on musicians and their livelihoods became stark.

On March 3-4, President Hair was in Washington visiting legislators on union-related legislation. Although the coronavirus was still in its infancy as far as its North American presence, Hair says the people in the nation’s capital were beginning to panic, and it immediately got him thinking about the AFM’s response.

On March 5 and 9, respectively, the AFM’s two largest locals—Local 47 (Los Angeles) and Local 802 (New York City), which cover Hollywood and Broadway musicians—began posting updates and information on their websites to offer their members guidance on health and emergency relief resources. The Local 802 Executive Board began working in conjunction with the 802 Emergency Relief Fund and Musicians Assistance Program to get musicians help as quickly as possible, while the Local 47 Executive Board established an Emergency Relief Fund for members who have lost revenue due to work stoppages, as has the Music Fund of Los Angeles.

Also on March 9, all employees at the AFM headquarters in Times Square who could do their work remotely were allowed to work from home, and any essential employees who needed to work at the office were given limited schedules to avoid being in rush-hour crowds. The office was also supplied with hand sanitizer, cleaning wipes, and gloves to help prevent contagion. (The New York office closed, with all employees working from home, starting March 19, as did the West Coast Office on March 20.)

On March 12, the day Broadway theaters closed their doors, President Hair issued a statement in response to limits being placed on public gatherings: “Union musicians in the United States and Canada are committed to doing everything possible to limit the spread of COVID-19, but this will have a disastrous impact on musicians and so many others who live gig to gig. It is critical that both national and local governments take immediate action to provide economic relief including expanding unemployment benefits and an immediate moratorium on evictions, foreclosures, and utility shut-offs.”

Actors’ Equity Executive Director Mary McColl also released a statement, in which she said the decision to limit public gatherings, “means tremendous uncertainty for thousands who work in the arts, including the prospect of lost income, health insurance, and retirement savings.” International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE) International President Matthew D. Loeb also called on the federal government to take decisive action and issue a relief package to entertainment industry workers. “Entertainment workers shouldn’t be collateral damage in the fight against the COVID-19 virus,” he stated. “Film and television production alone injects $49 billion into local businesses per year, and the overall entertainment industry supports 1.2 million jobs in municipal and state economies.”

Helping Traveling Musicians

The cancellation of Broadway shows includes all the travelling shows, and many union members were left out on the road with employers offering only partial payment for their final week of work, says AFM Touring/Theatre/Booking Division Director Tino Gagliardi. Gagliardi has been in constant contact with all the AFM touring musicians to keep them informed of the situation.


He also has been meeting with other entertainment industry union officials and the Broadway League to sort out the issue of worker benefits and compensation. “Some companies have given notice to musicians they will only be paid a partial week for their last week. The union’s position is full payment of course,” he says. “The League’s got to do the right thing here. What we’re looking for is full compensation through the rest of the week that was canceled plus additional financial relief for the musicians through additional wages based on the type of production and health care benefit contributions until April 12, with a commitment to resume discussions on the possibility of additional health contributions the week of April 6.”

An agreement was reached on March 21.

Side Letter to Integrated Media Agreement

On March 13, the day President Trump officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a national emergency, the AFM announced it had signed an agreement with the Employers’ Electronic Media Association (EMA) to enable livestreaming of concert performances by a signatory employer that has been adversely affected by the spread of COVID-19. This side letter to the 2019-2022 Integrated Media Agreement guarantees no disruption in compensation or benefits for any musician for a 30-day period following the date of posting of the first streaming content.

“What the side letter does is to allow the employer to maintain an online presence when maintaining an in-person presence (for either audience or musicians) is either impossible or imprudent in the limited context of the COVID-19 pandemic,” explains SSD Director Rochelle Skolnick. “An employer must elect to use the side letter and the musicians of the orchestra must vote to approve its use. It is not automatically applied to any orchestra.” She says the use of the side letter also does not interfere with the ability of a local, orchestra committee, or musicians to make their own decisions about gathering together to rehearse or perform. “In short: agreeing to use the side letter does not create any new obligation for you to show up to work,” she explains.

Online Resources

This COVID-19 side letter was the first document to be placed in a newly created folder in the SSD section of the AFM.org website called “Corona Virus Resources.” The folder also contains legal guidance on force majeure (“Act of God”) aspects of collective bargaining agreements and a Q&A document regarding musician attendance and COVID-19 concerns; it will also be continuously updated and augmented as conditions change.

In addition to the new SSD digital resource, there is now a COVID-19 resource page with information and helpful links at www.afm.org/covid-19/.

Lester Petrillo Fund

Union officials also have announced reminders that any members who contract COVID-19 and lose work because of it can apply for limited emergency financial aid through the Lester Petrillo Memorial Fund. The Fund was established to assist members in good standing who become ill or disabled and are unable to accept work. A member would qualify for assistance if he/she is diagnosed with coronavirus and/or he/she tests positive for coronavirus and is quarantined.


Members and local officers may download Petrillo Fund applications from the AFM website. Go to www.afm.org and type “Petrillo Memorial Fund” into the search bar. Completed applications together with supportive medical documentation should be submitted by members to their local unions, which will then submit them to the Federation.

Across the northern border—which the Canadian government closed to foreign travelers on March 16—the Canadian office of the AFM, located in Toronto, started putting emergency office measures into place on March 13. These measures included allowing staff to work from home if possible, having reduced office hours to avoid peak travel times in transit, having a maximum of three staff members in the office at one time, offering hand sanitizer around the office, and practicing increased cleaning of common surfaces in the office, says Alan Willaert, Vice President from Canada. The Canadian office closed until further notice on March 24 after the Premier of Ontario and the Mayor of Toronto both declared a state of emergency and ordered all non-essential businesses to close for two weeks.

The Canadian Office of the AFM, in coordination with the Canadian Actors’ Equity Association and the Toronto Musicians’ Association, also started the Save Live Arts in Canada initiative (www.savelivearts.ca) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The initiative encourages all who work in the live arts to sign a petition addressed to all elected officials in Canada, which urges certain health and financial actions be taken to help members of the entertainment sector in the face of unemployment.

Urging Federal Response

Also on March 13, Willaert sent an open letter to the Government of Canada, urging support for musicians due to an unprecedented loss of work caused by reaction to the Coronavirus. “The CFM is requesting that government adopt emergency measures in this exceptional situation, to provide security to counteract this critical loss of revenue, through whatever means necessary,” Willaert wrote. “These steps may include a waiver of the one-week waiting period for Employment Insurance (EI) benefits (in the case where the musicians are entitled), to expanding the benefit to include freelance workers who provide their services as self-employed contractors, to ensuring that compensation is made available for musicians who have had gigs or tours canceled for both lost revenue and other expenses, such as the hundreds of dollars, or thousands paid to USCIS as petition fees for P2 visas for US entry. Consideration must be made as well for proper funding to help musicians and symphony/theatre organizations recover, as well as assistance to stimulate and revitalize the industry once the virus has been contained and/or eradicated.”

Willaert also signed on to a letter from the seven Canadian entertainment unions to the Canadian minister of heritage and multiculturalism urging him to extend income support to workers not eligible for EI sickness benefits. Many workers in the Canadian entertainment industry are not classified as employees under Canadian laws, and therefore are not eligible for EI benefits for any loss of work due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

“We are concerned the government may forget the importance of our industry and the need to also protect the workers who rely on it for their income,” the letter states. “We are already seeing cancellations of screen-based productions and live performances with more anticipated. Workers who are signed to productions rely on those contracts, which can range from several days to several months. The loss of that expected income will be devastating to these precarious workers. Production insurance is not covering cancelltions related to COVID-19.”

On March 14, President Hair issued a statement on the pandemic’s impact on musicians and other gig economy workers:

The SKYXE Juno welcome stage was shut down by Canadian government order at 10:30 a.m. on March 12, with only two of the 19 scheduled Local 553 (Saskatoon, SK) musical groups over the March 12-16 event having performed. The Starry Night Quartet kicked things off at 8 a.m. Thursday morning. The quartet features four members of the Saskatoon Symphony Orchestra. Pictured from left: Joan Savage (violin), James Legge facing away from the camera (viola), Nova Wong (violin), and Scott McKnight (cello).

“As events related to the fast-moving coronavirus pandemic evolve, emergency declarations in many locations have banned all but small-sized public gatherings in an effort to protect families, save lives, and prevent the spread of the disease. These actions have led to the shuttering of large, medium, and small venues, sporting facilities, and the preemption of live media production involving studio audiences. This has prompted the widespread cancellation of concerts, shows, theatrical productions, festivals, and musical performances of every kind—all of which have inflicted disastrous economic effects upon performers who often live gig to gig and who bring joy to the world wherever groups are gathered.

“Tens of thousands of musicians and others have suddenly found themselves without income, without the means to feed and protect their families, and who may lose healthcare coverage during these shutdowns. Today, a state of national emergency has been declared which frees up $50 billion in federal funds for use in response to the accelerating surge of infections. When considering funding assistance and relief for working people, Congress and state and local lawmakers should pay particular attention to those who work and perform in the entertainment industry, whose gigs have gone dark, and who are bearing the financial brunt of these shutdowns the most.”

Like their Canadian counterparts, the major US entertainment industry union leaders are also coordinating to protect their members from the effects of the coronavirus and the governmental response to it. These leaders—part of the coalition comprising the AFL-CIO Department for Professional Employees—had a teleconference on March 16 during which they discussed all aspects of the situation, particularly how to ensure that our elected officials in Washington DC stand up for creative professionals.

They drafted a letter to government officials in which they advocated for emergency economic support for entertainment industry professionals. Specifically, they urged legislators to create a special Emergency Coronavirus Economic Support Benefit geared toward entertainment workers who have a bona fide, good faith work offer that gets canceled due to the coronavirus, as well as the creation of a benefit similar to the Emergency Paid Leave benefit included in the first Coronavirus Response Act legislation (signed into law on March 18) but available to those who cannot work due to production shutdown rather than due to illness, quarantine, or family caregiving needs.

“We are working closely with the Arts, Entertainment, and Media Industry (AEMI) unions through the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees (DPE) to speak with one voice urging Congress to include musicians and other arts and entertainment workers in any subsequent bill to help our members,” says AFM International Secretary-Treasurer Jay Blumenthal.

While President Hair and the rest of the AFM leadership and staff are working around the clock with other national entertainment unions to protect their members, they are encouraging members to stand up and speak out as well. “Musicians need to directly contact their congressperson and senators to urge them to protect entertainment workers during this unprecedented crisis,” President Hair says.

All AFM members are encouraged to visit www.afm.org/covid-19, scroll to the bottom, and fill out the “Emergency Action – Contact Congress” form to let Congress know that they need to protect entertainment workers, thousands of whom are unable to pay for rent or food and are finding their healthcare coverage in jeopardy.

Sound. Words. People. The Intentional Practice of Alexander Laing

Alexander Laing thinks a lot about diversity, inclusion, and equity, especially in the context of the culture of orchestras and classical music. He’s spoken on the topic at symphonic conferences in the US and in the UK. Through a practice focused on sound, words, and people, the Phoenix Symphony principal clarinetist is hoping to be part of the solution to building symphonies that better reflect their communities.

Alexander Laing

The Leading Tone’s Yeti Records Project (photo cred: Ben Scolaro.)

When Laing began his career in Phoenix in 2002, he discovered a very welcoming community, incredible colleagues who inspire him, and 299 days a year of sunshine! Since then, the Local 586 (Phoenix, AZ) member has performed around the city and become deeply involved in his community.


“In many ways we’re a typical mid-size American orchestra—hardworking, somewhat under resourced, with beautiful music making that just keeps getting better. Phoenix is a young city that’s more focused on reinvention than tradition. That’s influencing and supporting our explorations around how an orchestra serves and engages people,” he says.

“Over the years, I’ve been lucky to play a lot of great concerts—in concert halls, the ballet pit, and classrooms all over Phoenix,” he says. Among two that stand out were concerts led by James DePriest, and a concert celebrating the music of John Williams, hosted by Steven Spielberg and conducted by Williams [a member of Local 9-535 and 47]. “I think the whole band was trying to honor Williams and thank him with our playing. It felt amazing,” says Laing.

In February, he took part in the world premiere of Opera Philadelphia’s Cycles of My Being. This summer he will be on the faculty for the League of American Orchestra’s Essentials of Orchestra Management course in Los Angeles.

He’s also involved with the League of American Orchestra’s diversity forum, which was convened to address strategic priorities in diversity, equity, and inclusion. He’s on the board of the Gateways Music Festival and Arizona School for the Arts. In 2015, Laing founded his own nonprofit The Leading Tone.

Laing says that all of his activities boil down to how he defines his practice. “For me, music is about sound, words, and people,” he says. “Sound speaks for itself—I try to make a great sound and play great. I’ve been intentional about my words and about trying to use those words to reveal and examine the operating systems in the art form and in the business. And, I’ve been intentional about the people I want to serve, engage with, and make central to my practice.”

At the end of 2017, Laing was recognized by Musical America as one of its Top 30 Professionals of the year. On March 21, he will receive a Sphinx Medal of Excellence and $50,000 career grant. The Sphinx Organization is dedicated to changing lives through the power of diversity in the arts. It awards the medal to extraordinary emerging classical artists of color who, early in their professional careers, demonstrate artistic excellence, outstanding work ethic, a spirit of determination, and ongoing commitment to leadership.

“It’s exciting and genuinely humbling because there is a lot of really good work being done,” he says. “For them to shine this light on me is amazing. It has made an impact on my career and family in ways I can only be grateful for.”

A union member for almost 20 years, Laing first joined in the summer of 1998 when he had an opportunity to sub with Boston Symphony Orchestra for a Tanglewood concert when he was fresh out of graduate school.


Alexander Laing

“My real education in the role of the union in orchestras came when I got my job in Phoenix and became active, serving on committees and being engaged in that way. The union and my committee work have been a big part of my professional development, especially on the words and people front,” he says. “The AFM has done so much to professionalize music making, having practice space for this art form that offers an adult, professional, living wage drives this whole thing.”

The seeds of Laing’s community involvement go back to graduate school where he was introduced to the concept of community engaged music making. “Up until that point, I had a desire to connect to community and serve, but music was not a part of that. In fact, sometimes they were at odds with each other,” he says. “The idea of practicing this art form in engagement with community, not just as a one-way exchange, was exciting for me. It allowed me to imagine a whole new practice for myself in which music, blackness, coolness, youthfulness, and community were all intertwined.”

This led to The Leading Tone, a nonprofit that uses quality out-of-school music opportunities to help students learn to succeed. “You don’t necessarily touch a broad cross section playing concerts,” he says. “This is work I wanted to do to feel complete as an artist and connected to community.”

Laing says that Local 586 played a big role in helping him start a pilot program in the summer of 2015 where he created a bucket band with elementary students. The local donated space, put him in touch with someone who ran a youth development organization, and the program’s first teacher was a fellow union member.

Since its inception, the program has changed in ways that Laing could never have imagined. “Every year it’s been a different program,” he says. The current focus is The Yeti Records Project in which kids are making and recording their own music, using keyboards, microphones, and computers.

Laing recalls how music shaped him early on. “Learning to play an instrument gave me an identity at a time when many young people didn’t have one,” he says. “With the support of my first teacher, Charles Stier, I really started to organize my life around the clarinet, practicing, and competitions.”

In his senior year, he received a fellowship with the National Symphony in Washington, DC, then attended Northwestern University for clarinet performance. Midway through, he made the bold decision to withdraw for a year to spend time on what he calls a “clarinet retreat.” He went to the Sweelinck Conservatorium, Amsterdam, where he earned an artist’s diploma under George Peterson, principal clarinet Concertgebouw Orchestra.

“I felt like I needed to do something dramatic if I was going to get to the next level,” says Laing. “I put myself in a circumstance where the only focus was clarinet. It was a critical year for me. I rebuilt my technique and practiced a ridiculous number of hours.”

After graduating with a degree in clarinet performance from Northwestern, Laing entered the Manhattan School of Music in its Orchestral Performance Program, a unique curriculum that also looks at orchestras as working organizations.

When he began studying under then Metropolitan Opera Orchestra Principal Clarinet Ricardo Morales (now principal for The Philadelphia Orchestra and a member of Local 77), he says it was transformative.

“We were both in our mid to late 20s; it was the first time I had a teacher who was nonwhite,” says Laing. “It was the perfect situation for me—the closeness in age and cultural outlook, coupled with the most incredible clarinet playing I’d ever heard. I had my first lesson with him on Wednesday and was a better player by Friday.”


Alexander LaingToday, Laing is concerned about the lack of diversity in symphony orchestras as well as the culture of orchestras. In February, he moderated a panel at SphinxConnect, a conference of The Sphinx Organization. Explains Laing, “Sphinx convenes the field, holds a competition for black and Latino musicians, and puts together an orchestra, which I first played in about 10 years ago.”

Laing’s panel, “The orchestra as an inclusive institution?” relates to his work as co-chair of the League of American Orchestra’s Institutional Readiness Taskforce. “We are tasked with looking at orchestra cultures and seeing how our current culture helps or hinders our diversity, equity, and inclusion goals and aspirations,” he says.

Other panelists were MET Second Trombone Weston Sprott of Local 802 (New York City), AFM Symphonic Services Division Director Rochelle Skolnick, Albany Symphony CEO Anna Kuwabara, and Laing’s brother, Justin Laing, who runs his own nonprofit arts organization, Hillombo.

Participants addressed orchestra culture from two perspectives. “Inside Looking In” examined the culture as stakeholders and “Outside Looking In” assessed orchestras as organizations within an ecosystem of other nonprofits in entertainment, education, and community dynamics.

“Orchestras have been talking about our lack of diversity for decades and not much has changed. I think we have to allow that there are bigger things standing in our way than just systems and talent development, like our values,” Laing says.

Often, he says, “We are taught to think of our art form as silent on issues of cultural affirmation. Talking about the ‘universality’ and ‘classicality’ of the art form leads us to start to believe that this music is outside the bounds of race, space, and time.”

Stories often relegated to the background are what form frameworks and systems. Laing says, “I think if we adopt different stories about what’s valuable about this music—ones that see it as more of a dialog than a monologue—then we would be able to see how we can make this music better.”

“There is also the question for institutions,” he continues. “Are we preservers and protectors of culture or are we culture makers? If we are makers, we need the different voices to make the best culture and respond to what is happening in our culture. What could it be like if there was more attention paid to the culture of orchestras as workplaces and artistic practice spaces? A lot of studies show that a diverse and inclusive team will outperform a homogeneous exclusive team.”

While Laing agrees that unequal access to instrumental instruction is also a problem, he doesn’t believe it’s the main challenge. “Having played in the Gateways Music Festival Orchestra and Sphinx and gone to school with a lot of people, I reject the idea that the talent is not out there in the underrepresented communities that we say we want and need in our orchestras. So the question becomes, do we really want this?”

Though difficult, changing the orchestra culture is possible. “People do amazing and impossible things in this business and we make them normal at some point,” he says. “The Tchaikovsky violin concerto was considered unplayable when it was first written, and now students play it.”

Laing says that the union has a role to play when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. “Certainly part of this will be working within our own union and conferences. We know as union members that change doesn’t always come from the corner office,” he says. “We can advocate for this ourselves—individually as bargaining units and collectively. We don’t have to wait for others to lead.”

He sees examples in what other unions are doing. The Chicago teacher’s union, for instance, is bargaining on issues for the students that go beyond teacher working conditions. “What would it look like for us to have a more outward focus? Could we advocate for equitable access to music instruction?” Laing says, “We absolutely should be raising our voices as musicians, as union members, and as members of this ecosystem and our communities.”

Beyond the stage, he says, “There are other ways we express our values with things we control—our boards, leadership, the music we play, the soloists and conductors we hire, and the way we contextualize ourselves and our music.”

“Artists are discovering ways and spaces to bring their whole selves to their work,” he says. “Ultimately, I think orchestras are going to have to recruit and compete for the artists they want, not just against other orchestras, but against affirming musical and human experiences that artists are creating for themselves in chamber and popular music.”

“Ultimately, I hope that orchestras will become more reflective of their communities because they want to make better music and better musical experiences for people,” says Laing.

john Scofield

John Scofield Brings Country, Rock and More Into His World

john Scofield At age 66 this month and 40 years in, John Scofield is at the prime of his career. A major guitarist in the jazz scene since the 1970s, “Sco” is one of the most prolific jazz geniuses, in a perpetual cycle of recording and touring. In 2016, he received his first Grammy award for the album Past Present, and two more followed in 2017 for Country for Old Men. He’s been nominated a total of nine times and almost constantly has several projects in the works. “I haven’t had a lot of dead air time,” he says.

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Nurit Bar-Josef: Behind the Scenes with the National Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster

Nurit-Bar-JosefWhen Nurit Bar-Josef of Local 161-710 (Washington, DC) was selected as concertmaster for National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) at age 26, she was the youngest concertmaster ever appointed to a major symphony orchestra. More than 16 years later, she recalls initial surprise on finding out she’d won the spot.

“I knew some of the others who had auditioned—it’s a small world—and I thought they might think I was too young or too inexperienced,” she says.

The young musician was aware of the huge responsibility she had accepted. “I knew what to expect from my previous experiences in St. Louis and Boston, where I saw just how much the concertmaster has to deal with on a daily basis,” she says. Bar-Josef was assistant concertmaster for Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops when she auditioned with NSO.

Leading from First Chair

“It’s constant pressure; when you are sitting in that chair, you are expected to always be on—it’s 120%, all the time. I feel like I represent the orchestra and there are times when the whole orchestra is looking to me for guidance,” she says. “That’s the biggest challenge; no matter what is going on at home, or what’s going on around you, or on the podium, you are out there for your colleagues.”

Meticulous preparation is key, she says. “Knowing the score well, in and out, and knowing everything that’s going on. You have to have that first violin part down like no one else,” she says. “And because you are number one, you have to always play the solos and play them well. I try to do my best every single time.”

“It’s a good lesson in time management because there is so much music coming out, week after week,” says Bar-Josef. “It forces me to prioritize and manage my practice, even when I have limited time. I have to figure out what I need to do now and what can wait.”

Above all, she has a passion and dedication to the current repertoire, whatever it may be. “Every week, whatever we are playing, I throw myself into it. That’s what we live and breathe for that week. Oftentimes, I feel like we are actors given a role to play,” says Bar-Josef. “If we play a Shostakovich symphony, he becomes my favorite composer that week. If we are playing Brahms, I am all about Brahms, emotionally and physically.”

For pleasure, she says, “I always, always enjoy playing a Beethoven symphony or even a Beethoven violin sonata. I wouldn’t say that he’s my favorite composer, but I would say anytime I’m playing Beethoven I’m musically and technically fulfilled,” she says.

Like all principal string players, Bar-Josef spends time marking bowings. “The other principals are waiting to get my part in order to mark their bowings to match mine, and I’ve got the library waiting for all of that to happen. That’s added pressure,” she says. “Part of the process is making sure my colleagues have the music well enough in advance to feel comfortable.”

A Conductor’s Liaison

Nurit Bar-JosefBar-Josef has the honor of meeting guest conductors and acts as a liaison to the rest of the players. She ensures a smooth working relationship between members of the orchestra and the conductor. This, she says, “is an incredibly rewarding responsibility.”

“I learn a lot from working with conductors,” she says, explaining that many of them request a one-on-one meeting before the concert, especially if she will perform a solo. “Every musician who comes to visit is different. It’s really important to me that I represent the orchestra well. No matter what is going on, I try to connect with the person on the podium.”

“Conductors travel the world and they conduct all different orchestras, from the top notch to smaller groups in smaller towns,” she continues. “I want them to feel like the NSO is an all-around good experience. As concertmaster, I am part of that—making that connection with the person. It’s a short period of time and it can be really intense for those few days.”

Though Bar-Josef relishes the challenge of these responsibilities, she admits her role can be isolating, sometimes setting her apart from her colleagues. The time requirements mean she has less time for socializing, particularly when they are out on tour. “When we go on tour, I’m constantly thinking about what we are playing tomorrow, what we are playing tonight, and how much time I have to prepare. I don’t have a whole lot of time to hang out and have fun in some new city.”

Though she is passionate about playing solos, Bar-Josef admits, “It’s one of the hardest things I do. It’s very rewarding that I get to play amazing solos like Scheherazade, though it’s stressful. There’s a lot of pressure playing solos with some of the greatest conductors standing one foot away from me.”

Bar-Josef is currently one of an estimated 25 women concertmasters in the US and Canada. While there have been some remarkable women in this leadership role over the years—for example, Cecylia Arzewski (Atlanta Symphony Orchestra 1990-2008) and Emmanuelle Boisvert (Detroit Symphony Orchestra for 23 years)—their numbers are still far below the current ratio of women to men in orchestras. Bar-Josef feels like more women will likely take the leadership role in the future.

Of course, blind auditions help to ensure the best candidates, male or female are selected fairly. And fortunately today, unlike just a couple decades ago, female orchestra musicians enjoy equal treatment. “I have never felt that anyone looked at me as a female or thought they’d rather have a man in my position; I never once felt that a guest conductor was disappointed by having a female concertmaster,” says Bar-Josef. “Today, I feel it’s all about the music and what type of musician you are—gender doesn’t matter.”

The Joy of Chamber Music

nurit-bar When Bar-Josef has a chance, she looks forward to performing in smaller chamber groups. “I always love playing chamber music,” she says. “I enjoy the camaraderie and the intimacy of it—sitting in a group close together, having my sound blend with theirs and not having to worry about leading a section. I can be much more free in a chamber group.”

A founding member of Kennedy Center Chamber Players, she performed with them for nine years. “It’s basically a core group that started out as the principals of the National Symphony—Principal Viola Daniel Foster, Principal Cello David Hardy, and Principal Keyboard Lambert Orkis. We would ask other people from the orchestra, both titled and nontitled players, to join us for four chamber music concerts a year at the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.”

The other group she’s been involved with for a long time, the Dryden String Quartet, came together less formally about 16 years ago. “When I first moved to DC, I didn’t have any family here. I had to play over Thanksgiving so I was stuck in town,” she recalls. “Daniel Foster asked me if I wanted to go to his family’s house for Thanksgiving and he said, ‘Bring your violin, we might do some sight reading.’ He’s cousins with [Time for Three] violinist Nicholas Kendall and [Philadelphia Orchestra Assistant Principal Cello] Yumi Kendall. It ended up being a pretty good group.”

The group named itself after John Dryden Kendall, grandfather to Foster and the Kendalls,  who brought the Suzuki method to the US. “The first concert we played was at an embassy event in honor of their grandfather,” says Bar-Josef. “Unfortunately, everybody is just so busy in their own lives it’s difficult to find time. We try to get together at least once a year, sometimes twice if we are lucky.”

Every now and then Bar-Josef finds time to perform in other chamber groups. “I like to do outreach with different NSO players and Millennium Stage performances at the Kennedy Center, house concerts, or whatever pops up,” she says.

She has performed at the Seattle Chamber Music Festival, Bay Chamber Festival, Aspen Music Festival, and festivals in Tanglewood, Portland (Maine), Kingston (Rhode Island), Steamboat Springs, Garth Newel, and Caramoor, where she performed piano quartets with André Previn at his Rising Stars Festival.

This season Bar-Josef looks forward to working with incoming NSO Music Director Gianandrea Noseda. “I am excited that we have so many great programs coming up with him,” she says. In particular, she looks forward to playing Chausson’s Poème in November. “It’s just such an honor and a privilege. I’ve always wanted to perform that piece and what better opportunity than with the NSO and Noseda conducting.”

Nurit Bar-Josef currently performs on the G.B. Guadagnini, 1773, the “ex-Grumiaux, ex-Silverstein” violin.

Carl Verheyen

The Incomparable Career of Carl Verheyen, from Sessions to Solo Acts

Carl Verheyen of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) is considered one of the most skilled guitarists on the scene—a guitar player’s guitar player—a combination of talent, intellect, and a lot of soul. As a first-call session player turned solo artist, he’s a musical chameleon who consistently demonstrates artistic innovation. “The only thing I turn down is flamenco,” Verheyen says.

With the success of his own band—and doing many concerts abroad—he does fewer sessions these days. Still when he’s home, in LA, he’s happy to do record projects, TV shows, movies, or jingles, recalling a time when he made a living exclusively from union dates. He became a member in 1975, at 21, when he had an opportunity to backup Frankie Avalon provided he had a wah-wah pedal and a union card.

From then on, union gigs provided steady work, about eight to 10 sessions a week, six days a week. He says, “The scales are set for you and the residuals pile up. We used to call it the Special Payments Fund. Now it’s the Film Musicians Secondary Market Fund. In your 20s and 30s, when you’re doing a ton of sessions, you’re not thinking about a pension, but every one of those jingle residuals, every record, every film, adds a few bucks to your pension.”

Verheyen cut his chops playing acoustic guitar in bars five nights a week in his teenage years. “In the beginning, I was just knocked out by The Beatles and The Byrds. Roger McGuinn was a huge influence. That segued into the more virtuoso guitar players like Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Duane Allman,” he says.

Verheyen studied at Pasadena City College for two years and for one semester at Berklee College of Music. “I realized the experience I needed was on stage. I understood theory; it came easy. It felt like I could get out there and start playing.” But, he does not recommend that for everybody, admitting, “I was able to fall into some good musical situations, like playing two nights a week with a jazz band—where everybody was better than me. That forced me to learn songs every day and practice seven or eight hours a day and then go back to that gig and be that much better.”

Growing up in a “Sinatra home,” Verheyen says he absorbed the sounds of bossa nova and Carlos Jobim. He was 11 years old when he received his first guitar, a St. George nylon, and one guitar lesson for $2.50. He was hooked. He says his parents had to encourage him to go out and play some basketball. “I’d be out there with my radio in the window. When a song came on that I wanted to learn, I’d stop the game, race upstairs, grab my guitar, and try to figure out the chord changes.”

Getting Started

In his early 20s, he was breaking into TV and film sessions, bolstered by his instincts and flair for improvisation. To sharpen his sight-reading skills, he and another musician helped each other out, informally creating their own one-on-one course. Verheyen traded blues and rock ‘n’ roll lessons for classical guitar lessons. For two hours every day, five days a week, they read music.

It was a casual jam session with an older guitarist that proved to be a turning point for Verheyen, who says, “This guy showed me 25 different voicings for a Dm7b5 chord, something I never knew existed! That blew my mind.” Laughing, he adds, “I started down what I call the long, dark jazz highway. After five or six years, at 27, I came out of that period. I thought, I like Mike Bloomfield and I want to learn to bend notes like him and I love Albert Lee and I want to learn to play country like him. I like Segovia and I want to play classical guitar like him. Instead of going down one path, why not learn everything you enjoy? It’s just 12 little notes and the only thing that changes is the ornamentation of the style—the phrasing, tone, the choice of notes, and the way you execute them.”

In the jazz years, he played in the same Newport Beach club as a number of big names. Joe Pass happened to be playing one weekend, and Verheyen asked him if he could have a guitar lesson. It was mostly a disaster, Verheyen recalls, because Pass was not an instructor. But it was valuable because Pass said, “If you know a song in one key, you know it in all keys.” That, Verheyen says laughing, was worth the 50 bucks he paid for the lesson.

After much of the 1970s on the jazz scene, he moved to LA in 1980 and played everything from blues and rock to metal. He was a consummate student who transcribed John Coltrane solos, but was equally passionate about learning the groove on Booker T’s song, “Green Onion.”

All Blues

With his newly released album, Carl Verheyen Essential Blues, he decided to rein in one style. “I called my producer about recording two new blues songs. I was planning to make a compilation of all the blues pieces off my 13 albums. He said, ‘I’ve got a better idea. In a month, let’s record a live blues album in three days.’ So, I had a month to put together what I consider the essential blues: Delta blues, Piedmont blues, British blues, Chicago blues, Texas blues, and jazz blues. I tried to come up with what represents the things I enjoy about the blues and my take on it.”

The difference between bluegrass and blues and country rock and fusion? If you ask Verheyen, it’s about attitude and perseverance. He works hard to perfect a phrase. “I practice jazz all the time. Songs like ‘Giant Steps’ and ‘Countdown’ by John Coltrane, ‘Very Early’ by Bill Evans and ‘Falling Grace’—these songs are like puzzles to unlock once or twice a week because they keep your brain sharp; you improvise over difficult chord changes.”

Verheyen owns 70 guitars and 50 guitar amps. “The rule of thumb is, if it sounds good, I don’t sell it,” he says. His collection also includes two banjos, two ukuleles, two mandolins, a mini guitar (tuned to a fifth higher), and two baritone guitars. He alternates vintage guitars, but his preferred all-around is the iconic Fender Stratocaster. 

“You need to know how Billy Gibbons gets his sound so you need to own that Les Paul and that Fender Tweed. And you need to understand the different shuffles—the Texans have a different shuffle than Chicago, different from B.B. King. ‘Ornamentation of a style,’ I call it. Eventually, you end up collecting the instruments that give you all those sounds. I’ve kept all that stuff because they’re all colors and textures I put on my own record,” he says.

“Acoustic guitar is another discipline entirely. You have to dig into it. Those are big strings to push around,” says Verheyen. Although he’s a fan of picking up a song and doing a new arrangement to a different tuning, key, or time signature, he says it’s got to be different enough, special, to record.

Verheyen has given lessons to John Fogerty and members of Maroon 5, and is ranked “One of the World’s Top 10 Guitarists” by Guitar magazine and “One of the Top 100 Guitarists of All Time” by Classic Rock magazine. He’s performed alongside Joe Bonamassa, Rick Vito, Stanley Clarke, Robben Ford, and Albert Lee. He can be heard on hundreds of albums—Victor Feldman, the Bee Gees, Dolly Parton of Local 257 (Nashville, TN), and Dave Grusin of Local 47—to name a few. For 32 years, he has been the guitarist for the progressive pop/rock group, Supertramp. 

“One thing I’ve learned from being in Supertramp and bandleader Rick Davies [Local 47] is that the set needs to have a certain pacing and it needs to grab people at the first song, get them in the palm of your hand, and then it needs a place to go. Don’t start off with bombastic, crazy stuff,” says Verheyen. For instance, he’ll kick off a set with “The Times They Are a Changin” in a jazzy 6/8 time, a bit like Jimmy Hendrix treated “All Along the Watch Tower.” It’s recognizable and he points out, the 1960s anthem is completely relevant in these uncertain times. He regularly draws on another idol, George Harrison, whose “Tax Man,” played in ska style, is a real crowd pleaser.

The Bandleader

Carl VerheyenWhen it comes to playing his own compositions, Verheyen gives his band a lot of latitude. He capitalizes on the talent of his high-caliber musicians by allowing them the freedom to take chances. Although not a jazz group, the music is played with improvisation and interpretation. He says, “To me, it’s better to tell a bass player, ‘Here’s what I’m doing, what do you hear against that?’ unless I’ve written a bass line that’s got to be there because I’m doubling it. The same for the drummer. I always think the drummer is going to come up with a much better part to fit the groove and the song than I can possibly program or write out.”

The Carl Verheyen Band, recording since 1988, has a 14-record discography. Verheyen has been featured in two documentaries: Grand Designs: The Music of Carl Verheyen and a film about the electric guitar, Turn It Up! A Celebration of the Electric Guitar. His instructional DVDs, Intervallic Rock Guitar and Forward Motion, are legendary. His books include Improvising Without Scales and the handbook, Studio City: Professional Session Recording for Guitarists. He has also contributed to Guitar Player, Vintage Guitar, and Guitar World magazines. He also lectures and gives master classes at the University of Southern California and at the Musicians Institute in Los Angeles. 

In addition to performing all over the US, Verheyen has found a market abroad in concert venues and outdoor festivals, noting that, historically, European audiences respond well to improvisation. “Blues and jazz are American art forms that they truly appreciate,” he says. “Sometimes, we’ll try new stuff on the audience and see how they like it. Then, over the months or weeks of being on the road, it begins to evolve into something better. That’s why you always want to play your own music with the people you have a deep musical relationship with and not with pick-up bands.”

For all his success, performing live and working with musicians all over the world, Verheyen says, “There is nothing like a good tracking date. Being in a room with a group of musicians and working up parts that serve the song is really exciting. That moment when the musicians come into the control room and hear the results of the last take on the big speakers is truly one of my favorite times in the studio. You get to hear your tones, from guitars and strings, pickups and pedals, and tubes and amplifiers.” 

“But equally satisfying is playing a song you wrote at the kitchen table 20 years ago and seeing the whole front row of a theater singing the words along with you. From studio to the stage, it’s all part of the joy of playing guitar for a living,” he says.

Sarah Jarosz

Sarah Jarosz: Young Talent Now Performs with Her Heroes

At age 26, Sarah Jarosz now regularly performs with her childhood influences. As a solo artist, the Local 257 (Nashville, TN) member took home two 2017 Grammy Awards from her fourth full-length album Undercurrent, released in 2016. It was also selected International Folk Music Album of the Year.

Growing up in the Austin suburb of Wimberly, Texas, Sarah Jarosz frequently attended live shows with her family. “I was definitely affected by the Austin music scene,” she says. “Basically, for as long as I can remember, my parents would take me into Austin to see live music pretty much every weekend.”

As a youngster Jarosz began playing piano, then added mandolin at age 10. Later she picked up guitar, clawhammer banjo, and octave mandolin. One big childhood influence was the band Nickel Creek—siblings Sean and Sara Watkins of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and Chris Thile of Local 257—who were just kids themselves when Jarosz began following them.

“Nickel Creek was huge for me. Right around the time I was getting into mandolin I saw their music videos on CMT and I remember thinking that there are cool young people doing this, too,” she says.

Jarosz says that one reason she is a proud union member is because of the sense of community the union provides. “Part of why I fell in love with music is because, when I was 10 years old, I found a weekly bluegrass jam and fell in love with the community of that. Any time you have a chance to continue this community experience with something like the union, it’s super positive for everyone involved.”

In addition, she says, “I feel like we have a support system, especially as hard as it is being a touring musician. I think that’s really important for people who do what we do.”

Doors Opening at Telluride

By age 12 Jarosz was performing regularly at local events. In 2007, she took on her biggest gig to date: the Telluride Music Festival in Colorado. That’s where, at age 16, she met producer Gary Paczosa, who regularly works with people like Local 257 members Chris Thile, Gillian Welch, Dolly Parton, and Alison Krauss. Impressed with Jarosz, he invited her to visit his Nashville studio.

“I was definitely super green in the studio,” recalls Jarosz. “We did some low-key, no pressure demos. It was my first time laying things down solo.”

The following spring, Jarosz signed a record deal with Sugar Hill and began working with Paczosa on her first album, Song Up in Her Head, released in 2009. With that came her first opportunity to record with some of the musicians she’d been watching for years at festivals. Guest appearances included Thile, Stuart Duncan, and Jerry Douglas of Local 257. 

“Gary always encouraged me, from the very beginning, to reach for the stars, and ask the best people we could think of to be part of it,” says Jarosz. “I think working with him, those musicians realized I was taking it seriously.


“One of the things that was so exciting as a young musician was having the opportunity to attend music festivals during the summer break from school, and not only seeing many of my musical heroes perform live, but often times getting to jam with them backstage or sit in during their sets,” she says. “Thinking back on it, I am so thankful to all of those people for being so generous with their time and wisdom to contribute their musical genius to my albums over the years, especially the first one. It was a dream come true for those musicians to believe in me at such an early age.”

After high school, Jarosz headed straight to the New England Conservatory where she balanced studying and her career while earning a degree in Contemporary Improvisation. “It was tough, especially in my sophomore year when I was working on my second record, Follow Me Down,” she says. “I wanted to have the experience of moving to a new city and doing the college thing. I think it was important for me to have the time and the ‘buffer’ of not going directly on the road after high school.”

“Psychologically, it had a positive impact on my life, and maybe even the longevity of my career,” she explains. “Musically, it exposed me to different styles that I hadn’t been exposed to before—a lot of jazz and free improvisation, and more in-depth work on my own music. Those musical experiences expanded my ear and prepared me for the different musical situations that I find myself in [now]. To be thrown into something completely different makes you look differently at what you do.”

Meanwhile, the acoustic world was already taking note of her talent. She received a Grammy nomination for “Mansinneedof” off her very first album. Her third album, Build Me Up from Bones, was nominated Best Folk Album and its title track was nominated Best American Roots Song in 2014. The Americana Music Association’s American Music Honors & Awards nominated her for Emerging Artist of the Year (2010) and Instrumentalist of the Year (2011). In 2012, her song “Come Around” was nominated Americana Music Association Song of the Year.

Upon graduation in 2013, it was a relief to finally be free to focus on music. “Now I feel fully settled into my life and I am sort of honing in on what I want to do as a musician,” she says. As she’s matured and relaxed into her true musical self, she says Undercurrent, takes a fresh approach compared to her previous albums, which relied heavily on her instrumental virtuosity.

Paring Down

“The longer I do this, the more I think that simple is sometimes better and I don’t need to prove my musicianship within the songs themselves,” she says. “Undercurrent is the simplest album both in terms of songs and the way it was recorded. I’m trying to get closer to the ‘marrow’ of the song.”

One of Jarosz’s greatest learning experiences has been the opportunity to work with Prairie Home Companion, first with Garrison Keillor’s The America the Beautiful—Prairie Home Companion show tour and now with Chris Thile’s weekly broadcast.

“It’s been a really great outlet to sing harmony on this person’s song or play a little mandolin to back up an arrangement. It forces me to be a listener in a more supportive way. I’ve learned such great lessons from having the opportunity to do that,” she says.

Another project that got its start a couple years ago is a trio she formed with fiddler-singer Sara Watkins (from Nickel Creek) and singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan of Local 802 (New York City). During an impromptu opening set they did for the Punch Brothers at the 2014 Telluride Festival something clicked and the musicians made it a priority to get together again.

This summer the band they formed, I’m With Her, is doing a series of concerts as part of the American Acoustic tour with the Punch Brothers. The trio of ladies is somewhat of an anomaly in the acoustic world. “In some festival settings there are a lot of dudes in the line-up,” says Jarosz, though they do not dwell on the negative energy of that reality. “I know that Sara and Aoife feel the same way. If you are the best at what you do, are genuine to yourself, and do it long enough, the cream will rise to the top. Hopefully, as time goes on, those [gender] lines will continue to blur.”

“I’m really excited about this project with Aoife and Sara, and I feel like it will play a bigger role in my life and career over the next couple years,” she says. The group released its first original song, “Little Lies,” in July.

“I’m happy to say that some of my biggest influences I now consider friends. They were heroes, and then mentors, especially Chris. He’s put in so much time to teach me over the years. Now I have the opportunity to work with him on Prairie Home Companion. It’s kind of cool to look over the last 15 years and see that progression,” she says.

“I think it’s really kind of special within the acoustic scene, and I know that Chris had that as well with people like Belá Fleck and Jerry Douglas [both members of Local 257] mentoring him from an early age,” she says. “You are inclined to do that for younger people who are coming up after you.”

Just 10 years into her career, Jarosz can already name dozens of big name collaborators. This summer Jarosz will also be doing shows with Mary Chapin Carpenter of Local 161-710 (Atlanta, GA).

“The nice thing about working with Sara and Aoife is that we tend to have similar instincts when it comes to music, so working on a song we all sort of fall into the same way musically. It’s also nice to work with someone who doesn’t think the same way. That’s happened a lot on Prairie Home Companion where we are working out other peoples’ songs and seeing other approaches. Sometimes that can lead to really beautiful things because it’s not necessarily the obvious outcome. It’s important to put yourself in musical situations where you have a good balance of both,” she says.

Jarosz advises young people considering a career in the acoustic world to follow that path. “Growing up, if I was scared to sit down and jam with someone like Chris Thile, or any of my heroes, ultimately, I got the nerve to do it and it was always rewarding. Finding those situations and embracing them makes you grow as a young musician, even if they scare you a little bit. If you are constantly doing things within your comfort zone, you are not going to grow,” she says. “I attribute a lot of the work I’ve done to having great heroes to look up to.”

She concludes, “Also, finding people you love to play music with and finding ways to keep it fun is all important for a long-lasting career and love of music.”

Joseph Conyers

Joseph Conyers: Taking Community Involvement to the Next Stage

Philadelphia Orchestra Assistant Principal Double Bassist Joseph Conyers of Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) leads the opening Project 440 seminar in Carnegie Hall’s inaugural NYO2 program at SUNY Purchase during Summer 2016. Project 440 presented programs in social entrepreneurship and college preparedness for students.

Joseph Conyers, assistant principal bassist for The Philadelphia Orchestra, is committed to community engagement and a belief that all young people should have music in their lives. Proof that actions speak louder than words, he is a cofounder and the director of the nonprofit organization Project 440, music director of the All City Orchestra of Philadelphia, an adjunct professor at Temple University, and on the national advisory board for the Atlanta Music Project. He also works closely with the Curtis Institute of Music and the Sphinx organization and is on the artist roster of the Chamber Music Society at Lincoln Center.

“The things that drive me most are: I love music so much and I know how music can change and help people in so many different ways, whether it’s psychological, emotional, or physical, it empowers,” says the Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) member.

Conyers spoke by phone from Seoul, Korea, on a break during The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Asian tour. Like much of what he does, Conyers views these overseas tours, his sixth with Philadelphia, as a service. “We represent our country and Philadelphia,” he says. “The universality and connectivity of music comes to life. In a lot of ways, I feel fulfilled doing my civic duty as a musician.”

Conyer’s mother, a classical music enthusiast and amateur singer, noticed he had an instinct for rhythm. She signed him up for piano lessons at age five. Conyers chose the bass at age 11. He recently celebrated his 25th year on the instrument, which he selected for its size and boldness. “From my very first lesson I was trying to do things like vibrato because I wanted to show that the bass can sing,” he says.

Conyers has fond memories of growing up in a nurturing environment in Savannah, Georgia, that allowed him to grow as a musician. That’s why, after he heard about the Savannah Symphony going bankrupt, he knew he had to do something. Along with two other musicians who grew up together, Blake Espy of Locals 77 and 661-708 (Atlantic City, NJ) and Catherine Gerthiser, Conyers founded Project 440 (P440) to fill the void in music education and engagement left after the Savannah Symphony pulled out.

They soon discovered, despite their combined networks of contacts, it was challenging to find musicians with the right skills to work with the kids. Rather than be discouraged, Conyers saw an opportunity. They changed the program’s focus and moved it to Philadelphia when Conyers relocated to the city, which he saw as an ideal place to begin program expansion and development.

“Musicians weren’t engaged in their communities in a constant and substantive way. A lot of orchestras were going under and we felt that, if we train musicians at a young age to think of their communities as part of their musical experience, we could change that,” Conyers says.

Today, P440 is based on a three-prong approach that uses music as a tool to empower young people. The focus is: College and Career Preparedness—exploring career paths and skills that music can lead to; Entrepreneurship and Leadership Building—ideating and creating what their lives can look like in the future; and Community Engagement—serving the community through music.

“Most of the people we work with will never become professional musicians, but they will become better people through music,” he says. Currently, P440 works with the All City Orchestra of Philadelphia, which showcases the best young Philadelphia school musicians. But big things are in store next year when all students involved in music at Philadelphia schools (about 20,000) will have access to P440 programs.

Not only is P440 showing results, but even more exciting is that it’s part of a city-wide initiative to provide young Philadelphians access to music education. The Philadelphia Music Alliance for Youth (PMAY) consortium, funded by a $2.5 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant, brings together 10 organizations, including The Philadelphia Orchestra, to build a pathway for students in underrepresented communities (URCs).

“If we can change the narrative of why music is important for kids, especially in urban centers, it can give them opportunities and create thought processes that they might not have ever encountered before,” he says.

Eventually, says Conyers, programs like this will also help create more diverse professional orchestras by “casting the net wider” in terms of young exposure to classical music and training. “Music is a language and languages are best learned when you start quite young,” he says.

Despite his strong love for music, right up until he was accepted to Curtis Institute of Music, Conyers wasn’t sure music would be his career. “I always had two loves—music and meteorology,” he explains. “I had a plan B in my head, but getting into Curtis changed the direction of my life. I went all in with music and had a wonderful time at Curtis.”

Before graduation, Conyers had joined Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) and began doing freelance work. It didn’t take him long to realize the benefits of AFM membership. “I did some gigs just starting out that were pretty horrible,” he says. “When you are in school, you don’t realize the power of this collective, the role it plays, and the history behind it. The union has allowed for the comfort and prosperity of many musicians. It’s neat to know I am part of something that enables me to work at a comfortable level and get an honest wage.”

Following college, Conyers became principal bass with the Grand Rapids Symphony. “That was a fantastic town and I learned so much there,” he says, recalling his experiences. When the symphony asked if he’d like to be a soloist at an upcoming concert he thought for a few seconds and then answered with his own question: “Can it be a commission?”

“The repertoire for the double bass is limited to about four standards that all bass players know. I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to add something,” explains Conyers. He asked his friend, John B Hedges, to write a piece.

Prayers of Rain and Wind is a complete reflection of my life—my favorite composer [Brahms], my mother’s favorite hymn, my love for weather, even the sound of my church and church choir are in the second movement. Every time I play it I feel like I’m bringing a little piece of Savannah and my upbringing to a different audience,” he says.

Conyer’s next position, with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, was like moving back home. But he didn’t stay long. When a bass spot opened up with The Philadelphia Orchestra, the first bass opening in 16 years, Conyers knew he had to audition. 

“From the first time I heard the [Philadelphia] orchestra play [as a freshman at Curtis in 1999] I was spellbound, just completely wrapped up in the sound and I felt it was something I wanted to be a part of,” he says, though he thought his chances were slim. “Lo and behold there was an opening; I went in and my life was changed forever.”

He says that working with The Philadelphia Orchestra and his mentor Hal Robinson of Local 77 is a dream come true. “It’s surreal; I’m pinching myself on a regular basis. There are no words to describe the joy I feel being able to make music with this ensemble on an almost daily basis,” he says.

Today, Conyers is proud of his chosen home city and his orchestra’s commitment to community. “The symphony orchestra can’t save the whole education system in the city, but it can be a leading voice in that conversation of how we can provide points of opportunity in communities and help bring others to join a coalition,” he says. “I see this as a huge opportunity for orchestras. Symphony orchestras can impact the greater community, and for me, that’s super exciting.”

William Bell: Longtime Soul Man Creates New Legacy For Young Musicians

With a career spanning more than 50 years in the recording industry, Local 148-462 (Atlanta, GA) member William Bell received his first Grammy this year in the category Best Americana Album. The honor was fitting for This Is Where I Live, a retrospective album that also marks Bell’s return to Stax Records, where he began his career all those years earlier.

william bellWho knows what would have become of the Memphis native if not for the music emanating from 926 East McLemore Avenue. “Jim [Stewart] and Estelle [Axton] established Stax Records right in the heart of the deprived neighborhood we lived in,” explains Bell. “It kept us out of trouble. We went to the record shop and listened to songs. All the neighborhood kids had an outlet there.”

Aside from the music they heard hanging out at the record shop, he and friends like David Porter and Isaac Hayes, listened to disc jockey Rufus Thomas who worked for WDIA, the only black radio station at the time. “We heard everything on the radio—country and western, blues, and rhythm and blues. It was just an extension of our lives,” he says. “Music was everywhere—on the radio, in the clubs, and on the street corners.”

William Bell began singing in church, but by age 16 he’d moved on to singing “secular” music and won a Mid-South Talent contest and a trip to Chicago to perform with the Red Saunders Band. Upon return to Memphis, he spent the next five years working with and learning from the Phineas Newborn Orchestra.

Bell wrote his first hit song, “You Don’t Miss Your Water,” in a New York City hotel room during a tour with the band. “We had a night off and it was raining. I’m sitting in the hotel room and missing the girl back home. This song just came to me,” he says. He recorded it with Stax, and even though it was the B side of the record, it ended up being one of the record company’s first hits.

Bell says many of his songs come from a personal place, while others are inspired by the people around him. “I’m a people watcher. I’ll go to a party and sit in the corner and watch the human factor take over. I write about life and things I think people can relate to. Other times I just come up with an idea and construct a song.”

That’s what happened when he wrote “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Booker T. Jones of Local 47 (Los Angeles, CA). “It was back in the ’60s when everyone was talking about zodiac signs. I’d finished a bass line, one verse, and a chorus. I was at the studio doing an Albert King session. He didn’t have enough material. I sang it for him and he just fell in love with it, so Booker and I finished
it overnight.”

“We knew that we had something special. But we didn’t know it would become so iconic,” says Bell. One of the most covered blues tunes of all time, Bell wasn’t too keen on recording it for This Is Where I Live when producer John Leventhal of Local 802 (New York City) first suggested it.

Leventhal said he wanted to do a stripped down version, very “back porch-ish.” When Leventhal presented him with a track, the first thing Bell noticed was that the iconic bass line was gone. But after living with it a couple days, he found himself humming along. “The more I listened to it, the more I came to like it,” he says. “We captured it on the first take, so I guess it was meant to be.”

Such open-mindedness has been key to surviving in an industry that has seen tremendous change over Bell’s career. “Technology has changed the playing field. When you record something it’s for the world. You put it on the Internet and everybody hears it at once. You have to really do your homework and create a great product,” he says.

“Years ago, we went into the studio with eight or 10 people and created. That instilled discipline because you had to get it right the first time. Now you can keep going over a part until you get it just like you want it, but it’s a little sterile,” he says. “I’m still from the old school. I like the bodies in the studio so we can feed off each other.”

Bell says the union has helped him tremendously throughout his career. “And they are still fighting,” he says. “Technology has created some new problems for us to get paid. And the new generation thinks it should all be free. But creators have to make a living. We need that body to speak for us. The union kind of levels the playing field a little bit.”

Coming back to the Stax label brought back memories from the early days of Bell’s career. Somewhat of an oasis in the 1960s, Bell recalls that race and gender didn’t enter into the mix at Stax. “We accepted a person for what they could bring to the table in terms of creativity and musicianship,” he says.

Touring with Stax Revues in the early ’60s, the interracial tour was unusual. “We were like 50/50 with the band and the artists,” says Bell. “We caught a lot of flack, but we tore down a lot of barriers because we were a tight-knit organization. If we stopped somewhere to have lunch and they would not accept blacks in the restaurant, none of us went in.”

“We would go to little towns where it was horrible to even stop for gas,” he says. “We set our parameters. Some cities wanted to have two performances for blacks and whites and we insisted on one performance for everybody. They would put the blacks upstairs and whites downstairs, but at least they were all in the same building.”

The 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis brought the racial unrest from the rest of the country to the forefront. Behind the walls of Stax the music continued under the shadow of grief.

“Sadness hovered over the studio, over the city. We had also just lost Otis Redding [in a plane crash],” Bell recalls. “Outside of the studio the whole atmosphere had changed. It was a bad scene for a while in Memphis. There was burning and looting and practically every building in the neighborhood was touched except for Stax. They had a reverence for us. We would walk the white participants out to their cars and say, ‘Hey guys, they are a part of us.’ They would back off.”

Other things had begun to change at Stax. Longtime distributor Atlantic Records had been sold to Warner Bros. in 1967. When Stewart was unable to reach a distribution deal with Warner Bros., the company refused to return Stax’s master tapes.

When Estelle Axton left in 1969, new vice president Al Bell began rebuilding the catalog, recording 30 singles and 27 albums in eight months. Though it was a period of some success, the atmosphere had changed. “Our tight-knit family became a corporate structure,” recalls William Bell. “Some of the musicians were unhappy. Booker moved to L.A. and I moved to Atlanta.”

“But that’s not why it went under,” he continues. “It was systematically put out of business. It was one of the largest black-owned corporate structures; the year before it filed for bankruptcy it cleared more than $20 million in sales.” The company’s cash flow was affected by its inability to distribute the hit records it was recording, then the minute the company couldn’t pay its debts it was foreclosed upon. The unpaid debt totaled just $1,900 when the bank took everything in December 1975 and escorted the owners out at gunpoint.

“A lot of us artists hung in there until the very last, in lieu of getting our royalties. We wanted Stax to pull out of that downward spiral. Some artists lost homes and cars when it folded. Thank goodness I was in the creative end of it as well, so I could still write and produce for other labels,” says Bell who was so disenchanted with the music industry that he took up acting.

Bell never thought he would record for Stax again. But when Concord Records bought the label in 2004, it began reissuing the classics, as well as creating new records with Stax artists.

Despite the building being torn down in 1989, 926 East McLemore Avenue also saw a rebirth thanks to Bell and other former Stax musicians. “It was a vacant lot with beer bottles thrown about,” he says. “It was heartbreaking after we had spent 14 years, almost 24 hours a day, on that corner.” They just hoped to erect a monument, but once they got the ball rolling through fundraising concerts, community leaders and philanthropists also stepped in and together they formed the Soulsville Foundation.

They unearthed the original blueprints for the building and erected an exact replica, founding the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in 2003. Later they created the Stax Music Academy and Soulsville Charter School, which together cover a whole city block. The current generation of talented Memphis children now has a place to go to learn a craft just as Bell had in his youth.

Bell’s dedication to the next generation doesn’t end there. He is politically active, lobbying for music education through Grammys on the Hill.

He, along with a number of other Memphis artists, including Bobby Rush, Mavis Staples, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Ben Cauley, and Charlie Musselwhite, shared their music legacy through the Take Me to the River film, tour, and an educational curriculum developed through Berklee College of Music. The 2014 documentary (available on Netflix) brought together iconic Memphis musicians, popular young musicians, and students to create music.

“We are working with a lot of organizations promoting and preserving the legacy and teaching the origin of the music. Kids have gotten into sampling so much. We are trying to teach them how to create their own sound,” says Bell, who continues to tour with Take Me to the River. “Teach kids the ground roots of the development of the music, and not only from the ’60s, but all the way back so they can get a good foundation. Once the get a good foundation, they can survive in it.”

Of the proceeds from the film, 75% goes to the Soulsville Foundation and organizations that support musician well-being.

Bell says they are now working on Take Me to the River Part 2 with New Orleans’ musicians. He is also active with the Notes for Notes, which gives kids access to instruments, recording studios, and mentors/educators to teach them about the music business.

The Accidentals: Learning from the Challenges of Life on the Road

The first time then-teenagers Katie Larson and Savannah Buist, both members of Local 56 (Grand Rapids, MI) jammed together in 2011 they knew they had something special. The next five years were a blur of learning, creativity, and performing. They’ve graduated with the inaugural singer-songwriter major at Interlochen Arts Academy high school, produced three albums, and toured the country.

“Neither of us had any idea that we would be getting into music professionally,” says Larson. The cellist met Buist, a violinist, when they both volunteered for Alternative Styles for Strings Club at their Traverse City, Michigan, public high school.

What made the connection magic was how they immediately fed off each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Larson came from a classical background. “I was very uncomfortable improvising and doing anything like that. Savannah was playing in her family’s folk band, singing harmonies, and doing solos,” says Larson.

Buist picks up the story, “I had only played violin until I met Katie and realized she was a multi-instrumentalist and a songwriter. I hadn’t really tried those things. She came over to my house to rehearse for this homework assignment, and instead of rehearsing classical music for our orchestra program, we ended up playing the White Stripes. We were pretty much a band from that night.”

The Accidentals captures all of their many influences. “We kind of open up a discussion of genre whenever we talk about our band,” says Larson. “Music is going to a more genre-less platform. We incorporate elements of classical, folk, pop, jazz, rock, and gypsy jazz, along with singer-songwriter. We usually classify ourselves as indy folk rock, but we are just a couple of musical geeks who play a lot of instruments and as many styles as we can.”

The music is infectious and upbeat, and has earned them plenty of early recognition: Billboard’s Top Seven Breakout Artists SXSW 2015; Winner of Summerfest WI, Emerging Artists Series US Cellular Stage 2015; VinylMag.com’s Top Ten Artists to Watch at SXSW 2016; Huffington Post’s Sweet Sixteen Bands of 2016; and Yahoo Music Top Ten Bands to Watch 2017.

“The first time we went to SXSW was in 2015 and when we got home my phone blew up!” says Buist. “We made Billboard Magazine as one of the top seven breakout bands. I didn’t believe it; I thought a friend of mine had Photoshopped our names. It was kind of a mind-blowing experience to have somebody actually see us play a show and walk away thinking we had something.”

“There are so many bands invited down there and so much oversaturation of music. We were afraid we wouldn’t get any recognition,” she says. “We feel so unbelievably lucky that people are excited about what we are doing.”

Since launching their career, The Accidentals have had a crash course in the music business. “We are trying to run everything from the road and a lot of things fall through at the last minute, turning us into professional troubleshooters finding a way to make things work,” says Larson.

One of the things The Accidentals did get right was joining the AFM early in their career. “We joined the AFM when we entered into our first recording deal. It was 2013 and we were still teenagers at the time. We really appreciated joining because it showed us what kind of rights we had as musicians. We feel extremely supported by the people in the AFM,” says Larson. “It did really make us feel empowered. I think all musicians appreciate that.”

The Accidentals officially moved from duo to trio after about two years, adding multi-instrumentalist Michael Dause of Local 5 (Detroit, MI) to the band in 2014. They discovered the freedom of having a full-time rhythm section by accident at northern Michigan’s Blissfest in 2012 when a friend hopped up on stage and began drumming along.

“It blew our minds,” says Buist. “One of us had always covered the rhythm instrument; when we had a drummer it opened up a huge world of opportunity for Katie and I to start improvising. We met Michael at Blissfest about a year later. He was playing a solo set [on guitar] and when we found out he was also a drummer we asked if he’d like to audition with us.”

Dause’s first gig with the band was on vehicle-free Makinac Island, so he couldn’t bring a drum kit. “He brought just a little cajon with him and we played the set together. He knew all of the songs because he’d been a fan of the band. It was really a perfect fit and Michael has been with us ever since,” says Buist.

The Accidentals have been busy over the past few months putting finishing touches on their new album, Odyssey, scheduled for release in August. It will include 12 original songs and possibly a bonus track. The first single, “KW,” was released in March at SXSW 2017.

The album’s theme is about moving beyond their fears. “We are going to take 2017 as the year of no fear … not the absence of fear, but in spite of it. It’s really powerful to acknowledge where you are vulnerable and keep moving into the new year despite fear and vulnerability. Every song details a specific problem that we see and a way we come together to solve it—a journey of sorts,” says Larson. “The message manifested itself after we had written and recorded the songs.”

Both Larson and Buist consider themselves to be “introverted” songwriters and each writes songs independently. “Songwriting is kind of an intimate process for us,” says Larson. “We write the chord progressions, have the song worked out, take it to the group, and generally the three of us will work up an arrangement for how we conquer the song live.”

Only about one song per release is written together, explains Buist. Each tackles the songwriting process differently, again feeding off each other’s strengths. Buist is much stronger on writing lyrics, while Larson’s focus is more on melody.

After graduating from Interlochen Arts Academy, Larson and Buist weighed their options. Larson was offered a Presidential Scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music, but when a production deal was offered at the same time, they chose the latter.

“College will always be there for us on the back burner,” says Buist, though she says she wouldn’t necessarily study music. “We are running our business and it has been really interesting learning from the real life application of that. I might go for something that I haven’t tried before if I were going to go to school.”

“I totally agree,” says Larson. “I think the great thing about choosing to tour right after high school is that, when I was in high school, I wasn’t exactly sure what direction I wanted to take. I was also very shy. Being thrown in all these situations helped me break out of my shell and realize all of these new interests I may want to pursue later.”

For the past few years, The Accidentals have been on tour pretty much non-stop, and so far, aside from missing their families, they love the experience.

“Savannah and I are overachievers. We are amazed when we overcome challenges and the road is full of constant crises so there is always something fun to learn,” says Larson.

“All three of us are looking forward to having the new album out just because of the personal achievement. We’ve had an exciting two or three years since we graduated high school and we’ve really learned a lot about the industry,” says Larson.

“A lot can happen in the future and so we are just trying to balance it all,” says Buist. “We’ve got a lot of people who care about us and are helping us get through it one step at time. I think we’ve learned to ask for what we need, and to remember, in the grand scale of the universe this is just a tiny spec. We’ve learned to put our problems into perspective, understand how lucky we are, and keep moving forward.”

“We try to keep short-term and long-term goals for ourselves and the band,” says Larson. “We are on a wild ride and every once in a while it’s nice to have little things to check off your bucket list.”

Paul Merkelo: OSM Principal Trumpet and international Envoy

Buy this issuemerkeloTrumpet virtuoso Paul Merkelo of Local 406 (Montréal, PQ), soloist and principal for Orchestre symphonique de Montréal (OSM) since 1995, has been recognized for both his technique and virtuosity. The international performer has been a soloist and has taught master classes in North and South America, Europe, Russia, and Asia.

“When I travel to other countries to perform, it opens my eyes and ears to other styles of playing and interpretations. This has helped me grow as an artist, and I’m constantly inspired by great players I hear,” says Merkelo. He explains how he then draws on those influences for OSM.

Merkelo was appointed Canadian musical ambassador to China for the 1999 inauguration of Montreal Park in Shanghai and performed the Haydn trumpet concerto with the Shanghai Philharmonic Orchestra on national TV. He says that during international trips, language is not a barrier as he tells his musical story through his instrument, which affects the audience from an emotional standpoint.

“All musicians speak the same language—we all want to be moved by music. The more I travel, the more I realize how important what I am representing is,” he says.

Given his international presence, it’s not surprising that Merkelo was pleased to hear the International Federation of Musicians International Orchestra Conference (FIM IOC) would be held in Montréal. “It signifies that there’s a lot of cultural activity going on in Montréal. The audiences in Québec are very supportive of classical music, and the arts as a whole. I’m really proud that it’s going to be here,” he says.

But, Merkelo knows that the need for international organizations like FIM goes beyond the cultural aspect of sharing music. With continued growth in digital music, and the ease with which music can be shared globally, musicians need protection. “We need continued support of international federations to protect all artists who are trying to make a living through recorded music at a time when consumers are accustomed to receiving it for free,” he says. 

Local 406 (Montréal, PQ) member Paul Merkelo performs with Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, under the direction of Kent Nagano.

He says that orchestra musicians like himself are fortunate to have union contracts. “There is stability and protection in terms of work hours and restrictions on touring and recording. Our union protects us so we can play our best and not have to worry about excessive work conditions. If we have an injury, or need time off, we can take the time to heal properly,” he says. “Beyond that, I am proud to be first trumpet for the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal and I’m proud that we are supported by the AFM.’’

Merkelo says OSM is unique. “We are an integrated and diverse orchestra; there are many Québécois musicians, Canadian musicians, American musicians, and other international colleagues,” he says, which helps to create a distinctive sound. “You could say it sounds North American, but also European.”

“There’s definitely a virtuosic flare that makes the orchestra very agile, colorful. We are able to switch gears quickly, for example, between the French repertoire and the German repertoire,” he continues. “This is what I love about the Montréal symphony. My colleagues and I work very hard to get into the repertoire we are playing so we can be really flexible in our approach.”

It’s clear that Merkelo ended up in the right orchestra, though like many musicians, where he ended up was more a matter of happenstance. “When you are a struggling student you audition everywhere,” he says. “You can never predict where you are going to end up.”

“I love my life here in Montréal!” Merkelo says enthusiastically. However, he admits the first year after relocating was a struggle as he didn’t speak a word of French when he arrived. “I had to try to learn French, at the same time I was trying to get my tenure and learning all these big parts—some of them for the first time.”

For the next few years, Merkelo studied French in weekly private lessons and practiced with friends. “I was making a lot of grammatical mistakes. The process took years before I felt confident enough to do an interview in French or to be able to announce a program,” he says. “I still get very nervous. Sometimes I am more nervous about my introductions in French than about the parts I’m playing.”

Almost immediately after arriving in his adopted city, Merkelo became involved in the community, which includes work with OSM’s Manulife Competition for the past 17 years. “We have more than $100,000 in prizes that we give out every year to young Canadian musicians,” he explains.

Twelve years ago he started his own scholarship fund. “Initially I raised $10,000 to launch the foundation as part of the OSM competition, and they were very enthusiastic,” he says. With that original gift and additional fundraising, Merkelo gives away $2,500 annually to one talented young Canadian musician auditioning for the OSM Manulife Competition. “My stipulation is that they have to come from a place of little or no financial means and have the skill on their instrument.”

The scholarship is a way of giving back. While at Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, Merkelo was awarded the Rudolf Speth Memorial Scholarship for Outstanding Orchestral Musician, which most likely saved his future career in music. “That was a real game-changer for me in terms of being able to finish my education, not only from a financial perspective, but also to know that other people believed in what I was doing on the instrument—that gave me an amazing push and sense of self-confidence at the point when I needed it most,” he says.

Merkelo also encourages the next generation of musicians through teaching. He is on the faculty at McGill University, and during the summer, at Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. Plus he’s on the board of directors for the Youth Orchestra of the Americas (Canada). “Teaching, especially one-on-one, is more than just learning how to play the instrument—it’s a mentorship. A teacher needs to be a strong, positive role model; for me, helping to instill a sense of one’s self as an artist, and constant, committed discipline.”

Paul Merkelo Gear Guide
Instruments: “Almost all of my trumpets are Yamaha—my Bb, my C, my flugelhorn, my cornets. I also play a Schagerl rotary valve trumpet from Austria.”
Mouthpiece: “It’s pretty boring! Just a simple Bach 1C.”
Mutes: “I buy almost everything on the market because I like to try different things. I use a Denis Wick a lot; I use a Tom Crown piccolo mute; on my recording of the Tomasi concerto I used an old stonelined cup mute with some leaks and holes in it. It’s kind of a magical mute!”

Merkelo points to the long line of educators who helped him develop as a musician: his first trumpet teacher, Jerry Loyet; former University of Illinois professor Ray Sasaki; former Chicago Symphony Orchestra principal trumpet Adolf Herseth; and former New York Philharmonic principal trumpet Phil Smith of Local 802 (New York City); and Local 10-208 (Chicago, IL) members Charles Geyer and Barbara Butler, who were at Eastman School of Music.


“All of them are great players, but also great individuals, human beings, and role models. All of them changed my life and made me believe that it was possible to be successful on the instrument, but also successful as a person. They taught me to have self-confidence, humility, and work hard. This is what I try to instill in my students,” he explains.

Merkelo is constantly involved in multifarious projects aside from his work with OSM. Last year, Merkelo’s recording, French Trumpet Concertos, was nominated for a Juno Award for Best Classical Soloist with Large Ensemble. He says that the CD, featuring three French trumpet concertos—Tomasi, Désenclos, and Jolivet—was a dream come true. Merkelo funded the project mainly through Kickstarter.

“It was inspiring to record these concertos, under conductor Kent Nagano and with my colleagues at the OSM—arguably one of the best orchestras in the world in interpreting French repertoire,” he says. All of his royalties from the project go to his scholarship fund.

Coming up, Merkelo has a couple of world premieres planned. This summer at the Music Academy of the West, he will premiere “Martha Uncaged” by composer James Stephenson, a childhood friend. “It is a tribute to [dancer and choreographer] Martha Graham for solo trumpet and stage band, and dancers,” he explains.

The other premiere is a concerto for trumpet and full orchestra by John Estacio of Local 390 (Edmonton, AB)—a co-commission with 18 other orchestras all over Canada. Merkelo will perform with OSM for the Québec premiere in October.

“The goal for now is to get new works out there for trumpet that people really love and want to hear again and again,” says Markelo.