Tag Archives: Local 802

Freelance Percussionist Chihiro Shibayama Says Community is Key to Success

As an Asian woman, freelance percussionist Chihiro Shibayama of Local 802 (New York City) feels a certain sense of responsibility working in a male-dominated field. “I am definitely aware of my status,” says Shibayama, citing a recent statistic of how few female drummers hold Broadway chairs in theater pits.

“To be fair,” she adds, “that’s proportional. There were very few female percussionists when I was in school.” Shibayama believes young female musicians need to see “cool” female role models achieving success on predominantly male instruments. “I often get called to do interviews or provide content for that reason,” she says. Recent features include Local 802’s Allegro for women’s month in March 2020, where Shibayama was one of eight profiled female percussionists who work on Broadway.

It was a long and interesting road up to that point. When Shibayama, a native of Yokohama, Japan, first arrived in the US in 2001 to attend the Interlochen Arts Academy, she was 16 and didn’t speak a word of English. “My mother randomly found Interlochen because she had fallen in love with the Eastman Wind Ensemble when they toured Japan. She connected the dots and figured that if I went to Interlochen, I could find my way to Eastman and play in the wind ensemble.”

Interlochen presented multiple challenges, and not just culturally. “I had never played in an orchestra and didn’t even know how to hold cymbals in an orchestral setting,” she recalls. “Also, I had no idea what a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was. And I was suspicious of Jell-O.”

Shibayama says her survival came through the assistance of others. “I made friends, and they took care of me. My written English was useful thanks to Japanese English education. So I learned visually.” After graduating from Interlochen with a performance award in 2003, she earned both her Bachelor and Master of Music degrees—ultimately not from Eastman, but from The Juilliard School in 2007 and 2009. From there, Shibayama has built a multifaceted career ranging from Broadway pit work to orchestral percussion, with a big focus on contemporary music—and even an appearance as an extra on TV’s Mozart in the Jungle. She also maintains a busy side hustle as a freelance music librarian, which she began back in her Juilliard days. She is currently a librarian for Alarm Will Sound, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and The New York Pops.

The type of personality required to hop on a plane at 16 and travel by yourself to a strange country has served Shibayama well in her career—but she is quick to stress that she has not done it all on her own. “I always got help from someone,” she says. “Every gig, every great opportunity, came about because someone gave me a chance. It made it possible to keep going as a freelancer.” Now, she says, and especially in a pandemic, it’s important to pay that help forward. “The sense of community is so important.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic shut down New York’s theaters, Shibayama was subbing on West Side Story. “At first I struggled with no music,” she says. “I felt my self-worth was gone. Freelancers are always involved in chasing the next cool thing to do. But then I realized that just because there was no music, didn’t mean I wasn’t still a musician.” Shibayama got her first-ever day job, in customer service using her bilingual skills. “It was great experience, not least because I could pay my bills.” Of equal importance, the security afforded her more mind space to create. “I made some YouTube videos, teaching and playing, and collaborations with friends. I also taught myself how to record and edit videos using professional software like Adobe Premiere Pro.”

That job ended in November of last year, and Shibayama is still looking for another. But with extra time on her hands, she has kept on creating. “My biggest project is a weekly newsletter/blog called Positive Percussionist. It actually feeds into a larger process, since I had been wanting to transition more of my work online. Even in the best of times, just waiting for the next gig is not a reliable way to improve your situation or income.” The focus on her online presence has heightened the importance of teaching, another community-building activity. “Teaching also makes me a better player,” she adds.

Again, it all comes back to the importance of community, which is the underlying drive in Shibayama’s belief in a strong union presence. She joined the AFM in 2010 with her first big union gig, playing for the Radio City Music Spectacular. “After graduation from Juilliard in 2009, I had a tough year trying to sort out visas, a constant problem until you get a green card.” She had been collecting programs to build a case, while trying to save up money for immigration lawyers. “The Radio City gig allowed me to earn a real salary, and my working conditions were protected.”

This first union experience led to deeper involvement when Shibayama took part in actual unionizing activity with DCINY (Distinguished Concerts International New York), a commercial organization that solicits choirs from around the country to perform in Carnegie Hall. “They hired high-level freelancers and put together an orchestra. I was one of the core members who put together their first union contract.” Through this, Shibayama says she learned that the union wasn’t just the people in the Local 802 office on 48th Street.

“The union is us, the musicians. When we want to change something, we have to do it, and the local will help us. And younger musicians need to know that when they join, they’re supporting the whole musical community.”

TOOLS OF THE TRADE

Chihiro Shibayama endorses Pearl / Adams Percussion

Percussion Equipment:

  • Pearl / Philharmonic Snare Drums (6-Ply Maple 14″ x 5″, 13″ x 4″, Pancake 13″ x 2.5″)
  • Freer Percussion / Assortment of snare drumsticks
  • Dragonfly Percussion / Assortment of gong beaters and fiberglass glockenspiel mallets
  • JG Percussion / Joseph Pereira Signature Series timpani mallets

Electronics:

  • Pearl / EM 1 malletSTATION
  • Audio-Technica / AT4040 Large-Diaphragm Studio Condenser Mic
  • TASCAM / US-16×08 USB Audio Interface

Software:

  • Sibelius
  • Adobe Premiere Pro
  • Logic Pro
  • Ableton Live

Akua Dixon

Composing the flavor of her cultural heritage

Jazz cellist and composer Akua Dixon has been playing music professionally for nearly 50 years, with world-class musicians at venues around the globe. One thing she has learned—and one thing she believes—is that you are what you hear. “The music I compose is a product of all my elements. It has elements of jazz, but it also has elements of just being raised in America,” she says. “Jazz has so many subgenres that I say to myself, ‘What really is jazz?’ … Even though I studied European classical music, when I compose, the flavor of my cultural heritage comes out in my compositions.”

But that cultural flavor did not blossom right away. It took years of playing professionally before she realized she was missing an important ingredient.

Dixon, a member of Local 802 (New York City) since 1977, was raised in a musical house—her parents loved music, her mother played piano, her sister played violin. She was nurtured on jazz and the gospel music of her church. She started playing cello in fourth grade, and by junior high school she was in the borough orchestra and the city-wide string orchestra and was already playing freelance gigs.

Akua and her older sister Gayle (also a member of Local 802 until she passed away in 2008) formed a string quartet and played restaurants, weddings, and church gigs. By age 18, Akua was playing in the pit at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, earning money for college at the Manhattan School of Music. She remembers playing 23 shows in one week—and backing an array of music icons such as Barry White, Dionne Warwick, and James Brown. “That was just fantastic. James used to rent the theater and book his own stuff; lines were around the block because he had hit after hit after hit,” Dixon recalls. “Getting to play with James Brown, I had to play to match his phrasing … and he’s very demanding. He was very gentle and very nice … but he still wanted it poppin’.”

While studying classical music at the Manhattan School, Dixon was freelancing constantly throughout New York City and the surrounding area, playing Latin, blues, and jazz. So her musical education occurred between the poles of classical instruction in the classroom and practical training in clubs and theater pits. The Manhattan School did not offer any courses in jazz at that time, she says, so her learning in that genre was self-taught until she met jazz master Yusef Lateef, started talking to him and reading his book on blues. She then took jazz lessons with Reggie Workman at The New Muse in Brooklyn and studied with renowned cellist Benar Heifetz.

Photo Credit: Chuck Stewart

As a professional, Dixon freelanced a lot, worked often with her sister in string quartets, worked in Broadway pits, and toured with the Max Roach Double Quartet, among a long list of gigs. “We were usually the only African-Americans [in the ensemble], and in a lot of cases on these jobs, it wasn’t easy. But my father said when I went to school and I felt I wasn’t being treated properly for those same reasons, he said, ‘You’re only going there for the education.’ And I just kept plodding through; you have to do what you have to do just to learn,” she says. “And when I got these jobs, that’s what I had to do: did the job and kept moving on.”

Luckily for Dixon, she is not only a cellist, but also a composer, arranger, copyist, and vocalist, so she was never dependent on just one person or just one job, she says. “I wound up always being on a musical trail that gave me music not only as a passion but also as a vocation that, at the same time, gave me the ability to live and support myself.”

Dixon ultimately found a home in the Symphony of the New World, one of the first racially integrated orchestras in the US, and it was there that she found the missing ingredient to her ultimate composing flavor. While performing in a concert with Duke Ellington, Dixon realized she knew less about the music of her own culture than of European music. “I decided I wanted to balance that,” she says. “I started immersing myself in jazz and spirituals and became determined to learn the secrets of improvising.”

Since then, Dixon has not only blazed a path of success as both a classical and jazz cellist, but also as a composer, conductor, and educator. She has played, written for, and collaborated with numerous jazz greats; formed the groundbreaking ensemble Quartette Indigo; notated and conducted a ballet; and composed an opera. One of the highlights of her career occurred during this time, when she fulfilled her childhood dream of working with Aretha Franklin.

“It was at the Nassau Coliseum. The string section was only familiar with European classical music. My sister and I were the only two that knew the improvisational aspect of African-American music. There’re inflections in the rhythm of the music and freedoms that she couldn’t have, couldn’t do, because of the limitations of the knowledge of the string section—this is my opinion. So, I had a passion. I said to myself, ‘Boy, I would do anything to work with Aretha Franklin. I would even write the parts for free and pick the string players.’ And that dream did get to come true.”

Dixon wrote the string arrangement for the 1998 song “A Rose is Still a Rose,” played on the recording, and performed it live with Aretha on The Late Show with David Letterman and in several other venues. “So as a kid, dreaming of playing with her, and then actually getting the opportunity to play with her, it was major for me,” she says. “And when I talk about string sections like this, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to study at the Apollo, and learn that music, and have to play it that many times in a row week in and out, I wouldn’t have gotten to know it as well as I do; it’s a different situation than playing in a European classical ensemble.”

Dixon has also dedicated years of her life to music education. She has worked as a Musical Ambassador to New York City for Carnegie Hall Education and performing for their Neighborhood Concert Series as well as Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Jazz in the Schools tours. She also developed the Hip Hop Blues Project and composed an original work for string students in New York and New Jersey to perform each year. Dixon says she loves teaching music, especially in inner-city schools, where the children of color get to see a successful musician who actually looks like them. “They don’t see themselves in orchestras and in other industry areas today as much as they should. It’s exciting for them to see somebody that looks like me and accomplish what I’m accomplishing,” she says.

But these accomplishments did not come easy. Being a woman, and Black, and playing something as unusual as jazz cello held a lot of challenges for Dixon. “The liberties people take against women in this business are a trip,” she says wryly. “I’ve been paid less because I’m a woman, been asked to play for no salary, had my name left off the program—many times—and had my name left off the recordings I did. And it wasn’t even thought about.”

“But I had a good lesson from [jazz singer] Betty Carter: Don’t take no crap,” Dixon adds with a laugh. “She didn’t say that, but we all know she didn’t take any.”

One of the most common questions Dixon receives from her female students, she says, is how to be a successful working mom. Dixon was working steady gigs on Broadway when she started a family. She decided to take a break from full-time music and focus on raising her kids—and also do more writing and creating, which got “bottled up” by playing the same music night after night on Broadway. “If you truly want children, it’s an experience unlike any other and, to me, was worth what some would call
professional sacrifices,” she says. “As a working mother, you will have to make serious choices about your time. You will not have any time to waste. Focus on your ultimate goal and what you need to do to accomplish that for your children and your career.”

Things have changed a lot for female and Black musicians since she came up in the 1960s and 70s, and Dixon gives a lot of credit for that to her union, which she joined when she worked at the Apollo Theater. One of the most important protections from the AFM is in pay scales, she says. “I’m glad [the Apollo] was a union gig because I always got paid, there was a security there, whereas a lot of times when you do clubs you might not get paid. Even if you’ve worked for some record companies and did recordings, I learned early on that after the record is recorded, if they don’t pay you, they don’t have to pay you. So I became very insistent on being paid up front.”

“Working in a union environment lets me know I’m worthy of a certain treatment and salary for my wares,” she continues. “There’s no reason I should work for free. I went to college; I paid tuition; and the people I work with have the same credentials. And we don’t work for that. But some people don’t think musicians should get an equal wage because there are a lot of people who do it for fun and do it for free.”

Since COVID hit, Dixon has, like everyone else, significantly reduced her performing hours, doing only occasional recording. But that does not mean she has been idle. She has been playing more piano (the first instrument she learned) and also started playing the tamboura—an Indian drone instrument that she has owned for a while but not played. “It’s very meditational and calming, and I think I needed that,” she says. She also spent a good part of every day in writing, whether it is notation, writing commissioned string quartet parts, or doing the final notations on her opera, The Opera of Marie Laveau, which she finished composing about two years ago.

Dixon says that after nearly 50 years in the union, looking back she sees how much she has depended on the AFM throughout her career. “I’ve seen a lot of progress since the 1970s when the change started,” she says. “You had a group of people band together to form the Symphony of the New World, which had a lot of African-American players in it and as part of the foundation of the orchestra’s board. To go through the legal system to try to change the hiring practices at places like the New York Philharmonic, and having an organization like Local 802 to march with you and be with you was a wonderful thing.”

She says that recent events and changing beliefs have made it a good time to revisit these changes in the music industry. “I think that’s where the world is in general right now, trying to make a more balanced place where all of us can live and work together.”

Foss

Kate Foss

Boston Musician Kate Foss Lays Down the Foundation on Tuba and Bass

Aside from sharing the same clef, you’d think the tuba and the upright bass couldn’t be any more different. You’d be wrong. According to Kate Foss of Local 9-535 (Boston, MA) and Local 802 (New York City), both allow her to do what she does best: lay down the foundation of an ensemble. The choice to play both bass and tuba was natural for Foss, who grew up in a musical family in the suburbs of Milwaukee.

Foss

“As a kid, I was fascinated with large machines like locomotives and construction equipment,” she recalls. “So it’s not really a surprise that I was immediately attracted to the bass. It’s the largest string instrument, and you can feel the sound inside you.” And with the tuba, it didn’t hurt that Foss’s grandmother played one in high school. Foss adds that she’s not sure if playing in the low register shaped her personality, or the other way around—but she still gets the most musical satisfaction out of being the supporting voice in a group.

While Foss has carved out an impressively varied freelance career around Greater Boston covering a wide range from symphony and opera orchestras to musical theater, it’s worth noting that music wasn’t actually her first choice: Foss has an undergrad degree in physics. “Toward the end of my physics degree, I did a summer at the Pacific Music Festival, and quickly realized my passion was such that I needed to switch,” she says. Foss searched for grad schools that would accept students without a music undergrad, winding up at New England Conservatory. “While there, I started freelancing in Boston—and that was that.”

Over her years in Boston, Foss has racked up an impressive list of work in orchestras, recordings, and musical theater. Her theater credits alone include 48 shows on which she has played upright and electric bass, and/or tuba. Foss doesn’t claim to have a favorite genre. “It doesn’t matter what I’m playing. A bass line is a bass line,” she says. “The tuba has largely the same function in the orchestra as the bass. Beats one and three, lots of whole notes,” she adds with a laugh. “Obviously, the mechanics are different. With tuba, you have to start the note a second before you think you should. Prep the breath, set the embouchure, etc. Bass is immediate, the second you start moving the bow.”

Foss also thrives on the variety of a freelancer’s life. “If I had to do one genre, I’d get bored. Ballet is marches and dance numbers, and then it’s something else entirely in opera or musical theater to hear a singer who really knows what they’re doing and is in total control.” Having a vocal background certainly helps with her appreciation: Foss’s tuba-playing grandmother got a degree in voice and passed that love on to her own children and grandchildren. Foss has fond memories of singing Bach chorales around the piano with her family. (In that vein, Foss’s CV includes nearly two dozen BWV (Bach-Werke-Verzeichnis, or in English, Bach Works Catalog) numbers identifying the Bach choral works she has participated in.) 

Like nearly all freelancers everywhere, Foss’s music work is mostly on hiatus at the moment thanks to COVID-19. She also admits somewhat sheepishly that her practicing has fallen to a minimum since the pandemic shut things down. “Forcing musicians to be solitary is like isolating a duck—there’s nobody to quack with,” she quips. But she also agrees with the assessment that switching off from music for a while is perfectly okay. “I’ve been hustling with gigs since 2003, and had been thinking of taking a break. So the coronavirus forced me to take an extensive one. It’s about learning to trust yourself that you won’t forget anything. It will come back to you,” she says.

Meantime, Foss has been focusing on other things. Aside from a busy day job, she took up cross stitch, and has become heavily involved with fostering homeless cats and kittens through the Quincy, Massachusetts, animal shelter. Her work with the AFM has remained a constant, both pre- and mid-pandemic. She serves on the executive board of Local 9-535, and has been reading up on the history of unions to help her understand what happened to musician wages over the last 50 years. “The importance of the union should be part of music education,” she says. “Young musicians need an understanding of how the music world has gotten where it is today, and what they can do about it. There are reasons why you have contracts, and why you need to advocate for yourself. Nobody will pay you unless you collectively bargain for it. I wish I had had that knowledge sooner.”

Several years back, Foss participated in unionizing a theater she worked at, and says it was a fantastic experience. From there, it was a natural progression to greater union involvement. She praises her local’s response to the pandemic, particularly its involvement in the New England Musicians Relief Fund, which has been working to alleviate financial distress for some 2,000 freelance musicians that make their living playing music in the region. “The more I get into board duties, the more there is to learn about the AFM and the music business,” she muses. “Like a typical musician, I like to complain—but it’s great to learn how to do something about it.”

Info on the New England Musicians Relief Fund can be found online at www.nemrf.org/our-mission.


TOOLS OF THE TRADE

General

■ Electric basses: twin “Peavey Cirrus 5” bass guitars, 5-string thru-necks (long scale), walnut—I bought two and had one converted to fretless

■ Strings: round-wound

■ Tuba: BB♭ Yamaha 4-valve

Orchestra/Opera/BWV/Ballet Gigs

■ Bass: 1999 Joel Mentec 4-string upright bass with C-extension (Mentec is a French maker)

■ Bow: Seifert German-style bow, c. 1980

■ Bow: Horst Schicker French-style bow

Pit/Musical Theatre/Any Cramped or Non-Temperature-Controlled Space

■ Bass: 1939 Kay “Chubby Jackson” 5-string bass, model S-51 (low B is where it’s at if the sound system can handle it)

■ Bow: Seifert German-style bow, c. 1980

■ Amp: Gallien Krueger, MB115

Metropolitan Opera Outsources, Uses Non-AFM Musicians

Failing to pay its own musicians since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Metropolitan Opera has hired non-Metropolitan Opera musician ensembles for Met produced events and fundraisers. Most recently, the Met hired European string musicians for a New Year’s Eve gala streamed from Germany.

“All of these fundraising events can—and should—be done safely right here in New York with members of the Met orchestra,” says Local 802 (New York City) President Adam Krauthamer. “The deepest offense any artistic institution can make is the choice to attack its own artists. Put simply, Met General Manager Peter Gelb has created a cultural bait-and-switch: The audience sees a fundraiser produced by the Metropolitan Opera and naturally thinks that members of the Metropolitan Opera orchestra are the performing musicians, yet the reality is that the Met musicians are at home, unpaid and exploited.”

In a statement, the musicians of the Metropolitan Opera wrote, “There is no reason why these gala events need to take place in Europe. There are star singers on American soil too … and we can work together to showcase the Met, while helping each other in the process.”

The Governing Board of The International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) also issued a statement, saying, “In abandoning his own musicians and hiring non-Met musicians for virtual fundraising events, Gelb is abandoning his responsibility to his employees and deceiving the patrons and donors who believe they are supporting the continuing artistry of the Metropolitan Opera.”

The Metropolitan Opera is the only top-tier ensemble in the US that has provided no compensation to its musicians since the pandemic began. Gelb has stated that the future of the company depends on cutting expenses until audiences have fully returned; however, no constructive dialogue has taken place with musicians regarding long-term solutions.

Additionally, in December, Met management locked out the company’s stagehands and threatened to hire outside shops to construct sets.

12 Great Flute Encores

Flutist Bill Giannone, of Local 802 (New York City), has selected 12 well-known classical melodies and arranged them for solo flute with piano accompaniment in his new collection, 12 Great Flute Encores. Selections include Bach’s famous “Air on the G String” and the “Badinerie” from the Orchestral Suite No. 2, Debussy’s “Reverie” and the “Girl with the Flaxen Hair,” as well as Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” among others. Giannone has taken these pieces and scored them for the flute’s range, along with thoughtful dynamic and phrase markings.

12 Great Flute Encores, selected and edited  by William Giannone, Rosebud Music Publishing, www.RosebudMusicPublishing.com.

New York Philharmonic Agrees to Four Years of Wage Cuts

At the beginning of December, musicians and management of the New York Philharmonic reached an agreement on a four-year contract. The new CBA represents a continuation of the shorter term pay cuts that musicians have taken since May, with a 25% salary reduction continued through August 2023. Pay will then increase through September 2024, with the reduction gradually shrinking to 10%. Beginning in 2022, musicians will receive bonus payments if the orchestra exceeds financial expectations.

Trombonist Colin Williams, head of the negotiating committee and a member of Local 802 (New York City), says, “In recognition of the challenges of this time, we have done our part to help preserve the institution by forgoing more than $20 million of our wages.”

The orchestra has lost a total of $31 million in ticket revenue from canceled performances this season and last season due to the pandemic.

Little Augie and His Trumpet

This children’s book by Local 802 (New York City) member Augie Haas is about a young boy who discovers the magic of music, and dedicates his time to learning the trumpet. Little Augie learns that playing the trumpet is not as easy as he thought it would be, but he is determined to get better. After days, weeks, and months of practicing, Little Augie invites the neighborhood over to hear the fruits of his labor. He didn’t anticipate that he would be so nervous and need the help of his friends and family to give him the courage to perform.

Little Augie and his Trumpet

Little Augie and His Trumpet, written and illustrated by Augie Haas, Playtime Music, www.augiehaas.com.

fred hersch

Jazz Pianist Fred Hersch Deals Creatively with Isolation

fred hersch

If you’re looking for Fred Hersch right now, you won’t find him in New York City, despite his being one of the most prominent jazz pianists and educators in the city and a longtime member of Local 802. Like most other musicians, Hersch’s gigs are on ice for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 pandemic. These days, he is quarantining in Pennsylvania with his partner. “We’ve been hiding in the woods since it began,” he laughs.

Which isn’t to say that Hersch has stopped playing. Far from it. For the first six weeks of isolation, Hersch streamed what he called “Tune of the Day” on Facebook Live, performing a single, unaccompanied tune. Having upwards of 8,000 people logging on daily to hear one tune is an indicator of the reach and popularity of this largely self-taught pianist from Cincinnati.

Hersch started playing at the age of four. “Like most kids, I began with classical training,” he recalls. “But I always liked to improvise.” Hersch was fortunate to study theory and composition in elementary school. “At a young age I learned score reading, counterpoint, and music history,” he says. He didn’t actually intend to go into music, starting out college as a liberal arts major. “In 1973 on a school break I stumbled into a jazz club in Cincinnati. And that sealed the deal.”

Hersch began to focus on learning through experience from live jazz players. “I got some tough love,” he says, acknowledging that’s often the best kind. “My first time in a jazz club, I played Autumn Leaves not well,” he laughs. “The sax player took me into the back room, put on Duke Ellington, and told me to shut up and listen. He told me I had to learn time, and how to swing like that.”

Hungry for more, Hersch enrolled at the New England Conservatory, then landed in New York at the age of 21. Hersch recalls he was something of a novelty on the New York jazz scene, which helped him make connections and improve his skills. “I knew a lot of tunes, I could swing, accompany, and I was ambitious,” he says. “There was almost no technology for distraction back then. People went out every night, so I got great exposure and more gigs.”

Hersch tried making his first recordings at 30, which, he points out, is old by today’s standards. He now has nearly 20 albums over three decades to his credit, including solo work, albums with trio, live concert recordings, and his own compositions. But he still gets the most satisfaction from live performance. He employs the analogy of acting: “Recording is like making a film as opposed to a stage play,” he explains. “Some film or stage actors like Meryl Streep can do both. But I’m the opposite of, say, Glenn Gould, who did retakes and constantly edited. He didn’t think of a recording as a live performance.” Hersch accordingly feels some of his best albums are ‘found objects’: someone for instance recorded a concert of his, and that became an album. “In the studio there’s a drive for perfection, along with headphones and other distractions to make you self-conscious. I prefer documenting live performances even if there are flaws.”

Live or otherwise, Hersch has earned a reputation as a unique voice in jazz, something he also tries to impart in his teaching: “I get each student to be true to their own voice. It’s closer to a psychotherapy session. That’s how style develops: you keep coming back to things that interest you.” Hersch balks at the word ‘unique.’ “Leave that for the critics,” he demurs. “But I do think a performance needs emotional content. It’s not just about shredding chord changes. I try to be a storyteller.” The critics have in fact had their say: The New Yorker commented that Hersch plays with “high lyricism and high danger.” Hersch likes that. “There has to be an element of danger,” he agrees. “The trick is to play it like you’re hearing it for the first time. I still get new things from old tunes even after 40 years.”

High danger might also apply to Hersch’s formative years in New York. “I led a double life then,” he admits. “I didn’t want my personal life—specifically my sexuality—to interfere with opportunities to make music with everyone.” Hersch finally came out in the early 90s, and also revealed that he was HIV positive. He says the honesty was an enormous relief. “I don’t think you can be the artist you want to be without confronting all aspects of who you are. And it’s affirming to know that what you do as a musician is more important than your personal life.”

Hersch’s HIV advocacy grew in importance alongside his music. He has done house concerts and benefit albums for Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS. He has also talked to high school-aged LGBTQ groups, gay/straight alliances, and college campus organizations about HIV/AIDS education. Like so many other musicians right now, he shares concerns over the long-term effects of the current pandemic. “AIDS numbers worldwide are in the tens of millions. COVID-19 numbers are smaller, but the economic repercussions for the arts are devastating. Tours and gigs may not happen again till there’s a vaccine. Many independent music presenters will go under if the government does not step up support. And this needs to happen, because losing the arts translates to huge financial losses for communities.”

With nobody performing, Hersch has had to fundamentally rethink how he presents music. One strategy involves rethinking his initial Facebook Live offering, offering a “gently monetized” mini concert each Monday. He shares program notes and discusses aspects of the music like interpretation. “Streaming is what we could likely have for the foreseeable future,” he predicts. “Clubs and other venues will livestream to survive, and also to honor the great musicians who have played there.” One possible stumbling block he sees is saturation. “There may be so many offerings that it will be hard to decide. When people are already spending much of their day on screens for work, will they want to sit for even more screen time?” It’s uncharted territory, he says, and there are no easy answers.

Hersch is appreciative of what the AFM is doing for so many musicians, especially in this present crisis. “I’m a card-carrying union member, have been since my early days, and I’m proud of it.” He turns 65 in October, and reluctantly acknowledges that COVID-19 could mean an early forced retirement for him. “But if I had to stop today, I have zero regrets,” he says. “My career has been amazing.”

Belinda Whitney

Belinda Whitney: Tapestry of Support Shapes Compelling Career

Belinda Whitney

photo credit: Matt Dine

Violinist Belinda Whitney of Local 802 (New York City) has forged an exciting and diverse career. She’s currently concertmaster and personnel manager for The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, concertmaster for the Broadway show My Fair Lady, performs with the Harlem Chamber Players, plus does a wide range of commercial gigs. She credits her success to all the people that believed in her and helped her along the way.

Whitney’s journey in music began at school. “No one is more a product of music in the public schools than I am,” she says, recalling the first time she heard a string quartet in second grade in Philadelphia. Later, she was one of two students from each classroom selected to take violin lessons.

Her remarkably dedicated violin teacher, John Hamilton, invested heavily in his students, traveling to their homes once a week for free, private lessons. “He would give me lessons until I couldn’t concentrate anymore and then he would stay for dinner,” she recalls. It was the only payment he would accept. “He also took us to free concerts, found performance opportunities for us, and he introduced us to a summer camp.” Still teaching and performing, Hamilton is now a member of Local 294 (Lancaster, PA).

Already gigging in college, Whitney joined Local 77 (Philadelphia, PA) as a student. “It was very formal. I had an interview and I dressed up and brought my violin. The interviewer asked a lot of questions. I played some scales and a little solo,” she says. “It really drove home the fact that I was becoming part of something. We had pride in what we were doing and I valued that.” However, she had no idea how important her union would be later.

Whitney received a Bachelor of Music from Temple University and a Master of Music from The Juilliard School, where she was a scholarship student of Ivan Galamian. Though her studies were classical, the music she wished to play was more commercial. “I always loved old movies and the sound of old TV show orchestras,” she says. “When I started doing freelance gigs in college, my professor said, ‘Now, don’t you enjoy these gigs too much.’ But, I loved doing commercial work.”

Before graduation, she was already hired to play in Philadelphia that summer for The King and I with Yul Brynner. “I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not out of school and I already have a job,’” says Whitney who was 23 at the time. “I loved it. I got to work with a lot of seasoned pros; it was a great introduction.”

“At the time, big stars would go on the road,” she says. Following The King and I, she worked on several other shows—Sugar Babies with Ann Miller and Mickey Rooney and Mame with Angela Lansbury—and other acts that came through Philadelphia and Atlantic City. “I recorded with Sigma Sounds and Philadelphia International Records and did symphonic work as well. I felt like I had it all.”

Belinda Whitney

Photo credit: Kevin Yatarola

Her first full-time symphony position was as associate concertmaster for Savannah Symphony. “They sort of took a chance on me because I had no experience [as concertmaster],” she says. When the former concertmaster left, Whitney became one of the first black concertmasters for a large symphony. “That was a big feather in my cap that led to a lot of other things.”

After a few years, she wanted a change of pace and moved back to Philadelphia. A short time later she had her first gig on Broadway. The concertmaster for City of Angels dropped out just weeks before the show’s opening and John Miller, a Local 802 contractor, hired her. “It was a little odd to start in New York as concertmaster for a Broadway show, but I’d already paid my dues elsewhere,” says Whitney who went on to have a long and rewarding association with Miller. “I feel really lucky for that,” she says.

According to Whitney, one of the most important duties of a Broadway concertmaster is to maintain high standards. Not everyone is cut out for Broadway, she says. “In a symphony, you prepare a different concert every week or so. With a Broadway show, you play the same thing over and over—for years, if you are lucky. Being a concertmaster for a Broadway show is a matter of maintenance: keeping standards up, while keeping the work atmosphere inclusive, light, and pleasant. New York is full of incredibly fantastic musicians and it’s important to foster an atmosphere of respect in the pit.”

“I don’t mind playing the same thing over and over,” she says. “I feel when you play Broadway you are either building up or tearing down. You are either playing your best and thinking ‘tonight I’m going to make my sound a little better’ or just phoning it in, which is tearing down. As a concertmaster, it is my challenge to keep the standards high in the face of repetition.”

Whitney has now served as concertmaster for many Broadway shows. When asked for her personal favorite, she replies, “I could tell you why they are all my favorites. I’ve always loved old musicals. At Lincoln Center, I was concertmaster, as well as in-house contractor, for South Pacific, The King and I (which I did for a second time), and currently My Fair Lady.”

Music Coordinator David Lai of Local 802 first asked her to contract for South Pacific. “I tend to take on challenges,” she says. “He led me through it. It was a big orchestra—30 people—and by the time everyone was allotted five subs, we were talking 180 people. That was a pretty big payroll and a lot of people to get to know.”

That’s when she first realized all the little things her union does behind the scenes to make sure musicians are compensated and treated fairly. “I really can’t imagine navigating the musical freelance business without the union,” she says, describing how she acts as a bridge to the union. “I enjoy people—facilitating work situations and making them run as smoothly and painlessly as possible.”

Today, Whitney is also contractor and personnel director for The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, which she’s been involved with from its inception. When she first met with founder and Local 802 member Gary Fagin about his ideas, Whitney discovered they had similar approaches to music. “We both value musicians who are experienced in a variety of styles,” she says. “He said he felt New York freelance musicians are among the most well-rounded musicians in the world today, and have extensive playing experience, at the highest level, in many different styles. This was exactly what he wanted for Knickerbocker.”

Belinda Whitney

photo credit: Cenovia Cummins

Whitney also told him she would not contract an orchestra that didn’t provide fair wages and benefits for its musicians. “We agreed on this from day one,” she says. “We’ve had some unusual requests and Gary always says, ‘We do it the right way or we don’t do it.’ It’s been wonderful to be the bridge between this orchestra, this man who has this fantastic vision, and the union whose priority is getting people the benefits to which they are entitled. These musicians are absolutely valued.”

The Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra is Lower Manhattan’s orchestra, she says. “It started 10 years ago, not long after 9/11, at a time when so many orchestras were folding. It’s been wonderful to be a part of building it and I feel lucky to have done that.”

Whitney thrives in the diverse work of a freelance musician, which for her has also included film scores, records, and working with artists as diverse as Michael Jackson, Luciano Pavarotti, Barbra Streisand, and Stevie Wonder of Local 5 (Detroit, MI). She can also be heard, along with violinist Cenovia Cummins of Local 802, in the recording of the tango introduction to the show Mystery Masterpiece Theatre.

As an old movie buff, Whitney felt particularly blessed when she met Donald O’Connor during an MGM special at Carnegie Hall. “I went to his dressing room and we had a great time talking. At the concert, he spoke about his experiences with MGM. As they dimmed the lights to play a video of his routine ‘Make ’Em Laugh.’ I saw him walking over to me. He says, ‘Now let’s watch,’ and puts his arm around me and we watched it together. I was on stage at Carnegie Hall, watching ‘Make ’Em Laugh’ with Donald O’Connor’s arm around me! That really tickled me.”

Among the necessities for a successful freelance career, according to Whitney, are union membership, networking, affability, and professionalism. Earning livable wages as a freelance musician would not be feasible without the union, she contends. “The union really pulls it all together. I think we take our union for granted, but the way the freelance world works is really a product of our union’s hard work.”

“Respect, pleasantness, networking, and being on time and ready to play are huge for musicians,” she continues. “In a big group of musicians, you may not stand out. But, if you are early, ready to play, dependable, and friendly, people will want you around. The music world today is very competitive and there are a lot of people who can do a job pretty well. Sometimes networking skills can give you a slight edge. People will forgive a lot of missteps if they realize you are eager to learn and pleasant to be around. We all remember when we were young.”

It’s also critical to be a well-rounded musician, she says. “My experiences in Broadway, the recording business, and the classical business keep looping around for me. One takes me to the other, then back to the first. It’s been a rich experience learning different styles.”

Looking back on her career Whitney is thankful to everyone who helped her succeed. “God has blessed me more than I ever thought and I feel humbled that so many people took a chance on me. When I take inventory of my journey I realize that my career is like a tapestry of all the people who invested in me—from my family who encouraged and believed in me, to my parents driving me all over the country to music camps, to that very first teacher,” she says. “I love that I’m involved with the Harlem Chamber Players and Knickerbocker Chamber Orchestra, which put on children’s concerts. Investing in others is really important because that’s what brought me here.”

Whitney feels that working with young children is key to bringing more racial diversity to symphony orchestras. “By the time musicians are out of college, I feel like it should be a level playing field,” she says. “I think the reason I did as well as I did was because people invested so heavily in me before I got to college.”

“When I talk to my colleagues, many of them had parents who played an instrument so they started at a very early age and music was a part of the home. But about 90% of the black professional musicians I know started music in the public schools. So that means they are starting later. I think we should invest in programs targeting younger people so when they get to college they are already competitive,” she says.