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Rochelle Skolnick Photo

Update from the SSD Director

Reflection, Resilience, and Rededication:
Symphonic Musicians Emerge from the COVID Period

by Rochelle Skolnick, AFM Symphonic Services Division Director

In the week I write this column, the State of California has lifted almost all COVID-19 restrictions, following most other US jurisdictions in “officially reopening.” Canada, with vaccination rates unfortunately trailing those in the US, lags behind in reopening. It appears that all US AFM jurisdictions will soon be open for performances without much in the way of COVID-related restrictions, barring resurgence of the disease driven by uncontrolled variants. We hope that Canada soon reaches the same milestone.

With many musicians returning to live performance more or less as usual, this pivotal moment affords the opportunity to reflect on the work we’ve done and consider what lies ahead. There is much to be proud of in the way we’ve collectively managed the truly unprecedented challenges of the past 15 months.

As Symphonic Services Division (SSD) Director of Symphonic Electronic Media Debbie Newmark writes, we have seen tremendous success with the framework we developed to allow streaming of content in exchange for continued compensation of musicians, even when ordinary live performance was rendered impossible due to the pandemic. That model, coupled with musicians’ great tenacity and creativity and fueled by government funds and dollars from committed donors, provided some level of compensation to most symphony, opera, and ballet musicians during a very dark period. It also spurred their institutions to cultivate new connections with audiences.

The detailed safety protocols bargained by our locals and orchestra committees were another success. As employers began to talk about bringing musicians into concert halls in small groups to record concerts for streaming, SSD issued guidance in June 2020, equipping musicians and their advocates with the tools to bargain effectively over this life-or-death situation. We urged caution, thoroughness, and reliance on the best available science. Perhaps most importantly, we stressed the importance of bringing all musicians into the conversation about making our workplaces safe from this new threat. The lengthy safety plans that grew out of these efforts worked exceedingly well: to my knowledge there has been no instance of workplace spread of COVID-19 in a symphony, opera, or ballet workplace.

We also successfully strategized about how to protect the most vulnerable among our orchestra populations while still allowing creativity to flourish. The result was one of the most stunning examples of collectivism I have ever seen. String players and percussionists who could work fully masked and distanced sometimes carried a greater share of the work—but not the compensation. This allowed wind and brass players and the immunocompromised, whose presence in the workplace was far riskier, to remain safely at home and still receive compensation. Those who stayed home engaged in alternate work, sometimes calling donors to thank them personally for their support or engaging with students remotely. Through these collective efforts, in which each musician contributed and each benefited, the creative and economic lifeblood of our institutions continued to pump.

Not all has been a success, however. There have been outliers. “Leaders” of those institutions saw fit to exploit the pandemic as an opportunity to extract concessions from musicians, rather than as a challenge to be overcome. Those employers starved out musicians with unilaterally imposed “furloughs” that look an awful lot like lockouts when coupled with bargaining demands for long-term cuts in wages and benefits. These tactics fool no one; managers and boards who sow these seeds of division ensure that their institutions will reap a toxic harvest in future bargaining cycles and for years to come.

Some of these conflicts have resolved because musicians linked arms and refused to allow their orchestras to be decimated. Other musicians remain engaged in a terrible fight with the support and empathy of their colleagues throughout the AFM and around the world.

There were also many, mostly smaller, institutions that went largely dormant during the 2020-2021 season—not because of ill intent on the part of institutional leadership but rather due to those leaders’ lack of creative vision. The musicians of these institutions, whose generally freelance livelihoods were most tenuous even before COVID, have perhaps suffered the most during the pandemic. As others have observed, COVID exposed certain vulnerabilities that already existed in our industry. Where musicians had no minimum service guarantees they were far less likely to receive any compensation when ordinary performances ceased. Such guarantees will certainly be a top priority in upcoming rounds of bargaining.

As impossible as it once seemed, from today’s perspective, we can see there will be some positive things we take with us from these past 15 months of incalculable devastation. We musicians are a resourceful, resilient bunch and many of us used the forced pause of the pandemic as an opportunity for growth. We tried out new hobbies (sourdough, anyone?), welcomed new babies and new puppies, began fitness regimens and mindfulness practices, healed overuse injuries, and (for those privileged enough not to have already lived it every day of our lives) came face-to-face in ways we never have before with the suffocating oppression of systemic racism. For some who have never known themselves as anything other than too-busy working musicians, the pandemic provided a singular opportunity to reimagine what life could be—for ourselves, for our orchestras, and for society.

Forced into isolation, we also came to appreciate with new acuity the value of collective experience and the power of collective action. Without the strength that comes from unity and the numerous protections we have achieved through collective bargaining, we would not have weathered the storm of the past 15 months with as much grace as we have. As we launch ourselves back into the regular current of our work lives, we will surely be mindful of what we carry with us and what we leave behind from the pandemic pause. Collectivism, both on stage and in our union halls and orchestra meetings, will be among the most valuable of the ideals we carry forward.

Update from the SSD Director

Staff Additions

by Rochelle Skolnick, AFM Symphonic Services Division Director

The past month has brought a flurry of activity for US and Canadian symphony, opera, and ballet orchestras.

Unfortunately, none of it has to do with the musicians of those orchestras reaching new heights of music-making on stages or in orchestra pits—and all of it has to do with each institution’s response to the sudden and complete cessation of live performance work for the near and foreseeable future. Together, the musicians, managers, and boards of our institutions are writing a chapter of symphonic history none of us could have anticipated nor ever hoped to write.

As in any saga, there are those who emerge heroic, those who stumble before finding their footing, and those who act destructively, showing themselves ill-suited to the leadership roles they occupy. In many cases, the managers of our symphonic institutions have risen to the current challenge by continuing compensation for musicians and assuring they will have access to health care, a right that has never been more essential than it is now. Some have done so with the assistance of institutional loans through the Paycheck Protection Program, created by the CARES Act (which went into effect on March 27) or the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (which went into effect on March 15). Others have provided only token compensation or left musicians to fend for themselves. These are among the darkest spots in a dark time.

Musicians are inherently creative. “Driving-for-dollars” orchestra musicians, in particular, are accustomed to cobbling together a living from many different income sources. But the current circumstances—in which many musicians are left to weave their own safety nets from rounds of Zoom lessons while waiting for unemployment claims to process and federal subsidies to arrive—try even the most resourceful souls. Those of you who are struggling—we see you.

International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) Chair Meredith Snow’s account in this section outlines where things stand for the musicians of many ICSOM orchestras as of press time. Like their ICSOM peers, the leaders of many Organization of Canadian Symphony Musicians (OCSM) and Regional Orchestra Players Association (ROPA) orchestras have chosen to do the right thing by continuing compensation for at least the remainder of the 2019-2020 season.

Among ROPA orchestras, the musicians of the Austin Symphony, Fort Wayne Philharmonic, Harrisburg Symphony, Houston Ballet, Los Angeles Opera, Lincoln Symphony, Madison Symphony, Memphis Symphony, Minnesota Opera, Omaha Symphony, Pacific Symphony, Reading Symphony, Rhode Island Philharmonic, and Richmond Symphony will receive full or nearly full compensation through the end of the 2019-2020 season. Many other ROPA orchestras have paid musicians for at least the first few weeks of canceled concerts or will provide partial pay through the end of the season, including orchestras in Akron, Arizona Opera, Chattanooga, Delaware, Duluth, Hartford, Kalamazoo, and Sarasota.

All six Canadian full-time orchestras that treat musicians as employees—Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg, Kitchener-Waterloo, Québec, and Nova Scotia—are eligible for assistance through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). CEWS pays 75% of weekly salaries up to $847; these orchestras will pay musicians an amount at least equal to the wage subsidy to the end of their regularly scheduled seasons. For Canadian orchestra musicians who have self-employed status, the picture is more complex. As of press time, it was not clear whether these orchestras would qualify for CEWS, but for now, every OCSM orchestra whose musicians have a guarantee of weeks or services is paying its musicians at least a partial amount. This includes a number of orchestras, such as the Windsor Symphony Orchestra and the National Arts Centre Orchestra, that have committed to paying their musicians their minimum annual commitment, despite the fact that they may not be eligible for the wage subsidy. Fortunately, self-employed Canadian musicians who lose work due to COVID-19 are eligible to receive the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) of $2,000 per month.

In a few cases, it has been a challenge to persuade managers to commit to paying musicians—even in orchestras that don’t have force majeure language in their agreements and do qualify for wage subsidies through Canadian or US governmental programs. The hard work, creativity, and commitment of our orchestra committees is always one of our greatest assets, and this has been especially true as we work to persuade orchestras to do the right thing.

AFM Symphonic Services Division (SSD) staff in the US and Canada work long hours every week with dozens of orchestra institutions, local unions, and orchestra committees to help finalize compensation packages and to craft media solutions that will allow those institutions to stay visible and remain connected with their patrons, donors, and community during this time when live performance in the concert hall is impossible. We check in each Monday at noon with the leadership of ICSOM, OCSM, and ROPA, sharing challenges and accomplishments. In these interactions, we have been moved, impressed, and encouraged by the dedication our musician representatives at every level have shown to their fellow musicians, their audiences, and their art. It goes without saying that we confront today challenges unlike any we’ve known before, but we do so unified in purpose and energized by the tasks at hand.

If you are a symphonic musician and you are struggling, please reach out to your orchestra committee, your local union, or directly to SSD. We will do our best to help in any way we can. Together, we will get through this.