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Emily Levin

The Power of Music to Soothe the “Savage Breast”


In a time such as now filled with so much strife and anger, it’s comforting to think that music can soothe the soul (or the “savage breast,” as was written in 1697). It was this power of music, in fact, that ignited in Emily Levin when she was four years old the desire to play the harp. “My dad would tell the Bible story of David playing his harp for King Saul [which would drive away the evil spirit inside the monarch], and that sparked an idea,” Levin says. And even though her mother put her on a waiting list to play cello, it was only one year later, at age five, that Levin was allowed to switch to the harp—and she has been playing ever since.

“What I love is that the harp is unique in that you use both hands and both feet—you have both voices going,” says Levin, a member of Local 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX) and the principal harpist in the Dallas Symphony Orchestra (DSO). “It’s such a tactile instrument. Harpists spend our entire careers trying to perfect our tone; I love how personal it becomes at that point. I love having so many colors available; you can create a world of sound. I find that extremely satisfying.”

“David Playing the Harp before Saul,” engraving circa 1508 by Lucas van Leyden

Levin took lessons from the same teacher until she graduated high school. She completed undergraduate degrees in music and history at Indiana University, and then went on to study music at the Juilliard School under the tutelage of Nancy Allen, a member of Local 802 (New York City). After receiving her master’s degree in music in 2015, Levin began the PhD program at Juilliard. She was only one month into the program when she auditioned for the DSO. “There’s only one harp per orchestra, so when auditions come up, you do it,” she says.

She won the job, which started the following season, so she continued in her doctoral education for another year before leaving the program to head to Dallas.

By this time in her career, Levin was already a member of the union. She joined Local 802 after starting at Juilliard because one of her professors told her it was not only necessary in order to get jobs, but that it was also simply a good idea. “Since then, I’ve learned that being a union member means you’re protected, that there are rules and regulations and that your employer can’t take advantage of you,” she says. “A unionized orchestra implies that your colleagues—and yourself—are all united. Not everyone has that. When there’s tension and divide, it’s noticeable. Having a union where everyone pays the same dues and receives the same protections represents the same idea as an orchestra: We each have a role to play and we all come together to achieve success. It’s impossible to be an orchestra by yourself.”

This philosophy also informs Levin’s love of her career. “In an orchestra, the harp adds layers of texture and color you can’t otherwise get,” she says. “It’s a combination of chamber voice (by accompanying soloists or complementing the string section) and solo voice among a sea of other musicians. It’s an important responsibility.” Another responsibility she has is as a musician in general, because she is a believer in music’s powerful impact on the heart, mind, and soul. “That belief started for me as an abstract concept, and has become more concrete through experience,” she says.

Levin learned the harp through the Suzuki teaching method, which is rooted in the belief that as you work on your musical skills—discipline, focus, collaboration, creativity—you are also developing these skills in your personal life. Becoming a better musician can also help you become a better member of your community. When she performs in concerts she sees the universality of music: that people of all backgrounds, colors, and creeds can feel it, can connect with it in different ways, can be moved by it. “At the end of the day, doing something impactful without actually saying anything was a very strong realization for me,” she says.

This desire and ability to influence people extends off the stage for Levin as well. In college, she participated in fundraisers and school outreach programs; at Juilliard she was a fellow with the community engagement program; and in Dallas with the DSO she has participated in benefit concerts, educational events, and outreach initiatives. “This is a very important part of who I am as a musician,” she says.

As a professional educator, Levin is an adjunct associate professor of harp at Southern Methodist University and is on the faculty at the Young Artist’s Harp Seminar.

In the Dallas AFM local, which Levin joined as soon as she moved to Texas in 2017, she volunteers on the Dallas Symphony Players Association negotiating committee. “We just did a contract with the DSO and I learned so much about our union by being on the committee,” she says. “I learned so much about union rules and things like recording rights about which I had no idea. Seeing all the benefits we get is amazing, like making sure rehearsals don’t go too long, or that the management can’t just throw in a bunch of new pieces to a concert at the last minute.”

Getting more involved in her local has shown Levin the importance of musicians and unions standing together. Local 72-147 recently held a COVID-19 drive to help support its members who were out of work and in need of financial support; the local also donated funds to Baltimore Local 40-543 in 2019 when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was locked out; and Dallas members supported striking AFM members in Chicago (2019), Fort Worth (2016), and Pittsburgh (2016), and locked out musicians in Atlanta (2016). “It’s a comfort to you to know that if the same ever happens to you, to your orchestra, to your local, that the AFM has got your back,” she says.

Photo: Dario Acosta

In addition to her position in the DSO, Levin, now 29, is an active performer around the country and around the world as a soloist, orchestral musician, and chamber collaborator. She has performed as Guest Principal Harp with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Houston Symphony, and regularly appears with the New York Philharmonic. As a soloist, she has performed throughout North America and Europe, in venues including Carnegie Hall (New York), the Kimmel Center (Philadelphia) and Festspiele Mecklenburg-Vorpommern (Rugen, Germany).

In the time of COVID-19, however, Levin has been confined mainly to her house, just like every other musician around the world. It’s been both a blessing and a curse, she says, and she has spent much time focusing on musical projects she would usually not have time for. One important skill she has learned and honed throughout the quarantine period has been technological. She learned audio and video editing while working to record, combine, and post online music performances.

Her latest quarantine project for the DSO has been performing, recording, and editing video duet concerts for the Dallas community to enjoy virtually. The project, called “Open Bar,” features DSO musicians performing short duet recitals. Each concert is paired with a featured cocktail video from local bars.

It has been a digital world for many years, but in the time of quarantine that digital world has become essential. One major question for orchestras is how they connect to their communities if they cannot be together, Levin says. “It’s a remarkable asset in reaching a broader audience, and it helps music be more accessible literally and figuratively,” she says. “Although there is no substitute for live performances, I think it’s imperative that orchestras and individuals continue to use their online presence to share their music with people who wouldn’t normally be able to come hear these live performances (or who haven’t explored classical music before).”

Tools of the Trade
Emily Levin plays a Lyon & Healy Style 23 harp
and uses Bow Brand harp strings
Photo: Mark N. Kitaoka

Yamaha Share the Gift Campaign Helps Rebuild School Music Programs

Music programs for students in Texas and Florida schools have been deeply affected by hurricanes Harvey and Irma. Schools have sustained damage or had to close indefinitely, leaving districts scrambling for resources. The Houston Independent School District alone lost $1 million in instruments across 13 campuses.

Yamaha Corporation of America, in conjunction with the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, is helping to rebuild these music programs. Now through December 31, if you post a photo or video explaining how music education has changed your life with the #YamahaSharetheGift hashtag on Twitter or Instagram, or submit a video through YouTube via the Share the Gift website (www.yamaha.com/us/sharethegift/), the company will donate a brand new instrument to Music Rising, the disaster relief fund of the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation.

Call for Worker Protections for Hurricane Rebuilding

As workers in Houston’s labor force begin rebuilding after Hurricane Harvey, local organizers are concerned with ensuring they will be properly protected and compensated. Even before Harvey, conditions were tough for area construction workers, particularly among Houston’s large undocumented workforce (about 50% of construction workers).

A study with the University of Illinois found that about 40% of Houston construction workers have no benefits. Industry has dismantled worker protections in Texas for decades. No workers’ compensation insurance coverage is required and one construction worker dies on the job every day. Already there are reports of crews spending hours cleaning up only to be denied their promised pay.

Texas Workers Relief Fund

Unions Reach Out to Those in Need

Texas Workers Relief Fund

The AFL-CIO estimated that 360,355 Working America members and household members were affected in Texas, while another 1.2 million were affected in Florida. The infrastructure and communities of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have been crippled by the disaster.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, the Texas AFL-CIO set up the Texas Workers Relief Fund. The national AFL-CIO donated $100,000 and announced it was raising $5 million more. The AFL-CIO Housing Investment Trust announced it would invest $500 million over the next five years to provide affordable housing in the areas affected by Harvey. This was all before hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall.

Local 389, the Central Florida Music Association (Orlando, FL) reports that Disney, its largest employer, waived the Act of God clause so that musicians and other workers would be paid for the time they were unable to work due to closures.

In September alone, more than 700 union members offered their time to volunteer in relief efforts. When Harvey hit, volunteer nurses from National Nurses United and IBEW electrical workers rushed to Houston to pitch in. The Building Trust Fund, a bank collective trust, began work with the AFL-CIO on job-creating, real estate, and infrastructure investment.

The most difficult to reach Working Americans live in Puerto Rico. When it was reported that thousands of shipping containers full of food, water, and medicines were stranded at the Port of San Juan, more than 100 truck drivers, members of the Teamsters union, volunteered to travel to Puerto Rico to help.

The AFL-CIO, the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the Air Line Pilots Association, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, and United Airlines teamed up to fly more than 300 first responders and skilled volunteers to Puerto Rico to help with relief and rebuilding. Volunteers represented 20 unions from 17 states. The work was coordinated through the Puerto Rico Federation of Labor and the city of San Juan.

United Airlines volunteered a 777-300 to airlift the relief team. The Teamsters Disaster Relief recently completed a two-week mission on the island. Union pilots, flight attendants, members of SEIU, and more, all volunteered their time for the flight originating from Newark Liberty International Airport, transporting more than 35,000 pounds of emergency relief supplies—food, water, and equipment. Puerto Rican evacuees received complimentary seats on the return flight.

“Our movement is at its best when we work together during times of great need,” says AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. “But we are even better when we find common ground and partner with business and industry on solutions to uplift our communities.”

joe ely

After Years on the Road, Joe Ely Takes a Literary Turn

joe ely

Writer, musician, and longtime Local 433 (Austin, TX) musician Joe Ely says the solidarity and protections of the AFM are important to him. He’s been inducted into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame, was named 2016 Texas State Musician, and most recently was inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters.

Joe Ely of Local 433 (Austin, TX) was recently inducted into the Texas Institute of Letters, which he says came as a shock, something he never saw coming. But it’s storytelling, after all, and no one tells a story like Ely. He’s been writing songs since he was a kid growing up in Amarillo, and later, in Lubbock. Ely says, “I was always listening to things, background noise, the wind blowing a branch against a screen window.”

Ely has kept journals for years and often sketches to have a visual. He recalls Tom T. Hall once telling him, “Some people can travel all around the world and not see a single thing, others can travel around the block and see the whole world.” “That made me continue to keep writing down observations and eventually building them into a form,” says Ely. The University of Texas eventually published some of the journals as raw material titled Bonfire of Roadmaps.

As a songwriter turned novelist, it was difficult for Ely not to keep the words to a minimum. “Instead of a line in a song, it’d have to be three pages in a book. It was the first thing I had to overcome,” he says. Like Larry McMurtry and Cormac McCarthy—of whom Ely is a fan—he draws on the landscape to deliver the emotional depth of his characters. In his autobiographical novel, Reverb (2014), he writes of Lubbock in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s a gritty world, but Ely digs into the story of young working-class men, usually in trouble, driving barren roads, living with the threat of going to war.

It’s easy to imagine the narrative running through his life. Ely left home at 16, went to Fort Worth and joined a band. From there, he went to Houston and Los Angeles. “My daddy died a few years before that and I was not doing good in school. I just didn’t see any future in Lubbock. I was playing in bands. I was kind of the sole breadwinner in the family. I’d play till midnight or one in the morning and try to go to school the next day. After school, I washed dishes at an old fried chicken place. I didn’t see an end,” he says.

In the mid-1960s Ely would periodically return to Texas to appear before the draft board, which at the time, he remembers, was drafting about 50,000 kids a month. “I’d always come back and regroup and go somewhere else, from one coast to the other,” he says. In New York City, he ended up joining a theater troupe and going to Europe. “That’s how I started traveling and collecting songs, during that era.”

In the summer of 1971, back in Lubbock, Ely teamed up with friends Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to form the country-folk group, The Flatlanders. The band toured extensively, headlining small shows and opening for bigger acts. Among these, remarkably, was the punk rock group The Clash. (In fact, Joe Strummer was supposed to record with Ely’s band, but died before it happened—one of Ely’s greatest disappointments.)

Such offbeat arrangements are not unusual for Ely, who once made a record with German opera conductor Eberhard Schoener. Ely says, “He had the first Moog synthesizer, which he bought from John Lennon—who hated it. We worked with that synthesizer and two acoustic guitars and did an experimental piece. A couple of years later, I bought an Apple computer and started working on songs as an experiment. He kind of inspired me.” 

Ely has always been something of an artistic maverick, seamlessly moving between country music and rock and roll. In the 1970s and 1980s, especially, he championed the progressive country scene in Austin. “At a young age, I discovered Woodie Guthrie, who lived in Amarillo for a good part of his life. In my teenage years and early 20s, I just happened to run across some of the songwriters who would influence me for the rest of my life,” he says.

Ely has played with mandolinist Chris Thile of Local 257 (Nashville, TN) on A Prairie Home Companion and with Bruce Springsteen of Locals 47 (Los Angeles, CA) and 399 (Asbury Park, NJ), James McMurtry, The Chieftains, Tom Petty of Local 47, and John Mellencamp. With Guy Clarke, Lyle Lovett of Local 257, and John Hiatt he formed a group that played 40-50 shows a year for about 20 years. “We’d go all over the states, a different city every day. We’d all sit on stage together in a guitar pull, where one person does a song and passes it on to the next.”

On his albums, Ely likes to incorporate cover songs, especially ones he feels have not gotten their due. When he was working on Letter to Laredo, he was just about finished with the record when he went to Europe for a few gigs. “I was in a bar in Norway and heard a song on the jukebox about a guy who crossed over into the US with a fighting rooster and went up and down the coast of Texas and California trying to win enough money to buy back the land that Pancho Villa stole from his family,” he says, explaining that the song eventually made its way onto the album.

A member of the AFM since 1972—when the first Flatlanders’ record came out in Nashville—Ely says the union is an important part of being able to make a living, especially as a traveling musician. That solidarity informs his work. The Flatlanders song, “Borderless Love,” (2009) about the fence on the US-Mexico border, is even more relevant amid today’s political tumult so the band has reintroduced it to live sets.

“I think you take from what’s been and give to what will be,” says Ely, who now lives in Austin and works with a number of young musicians there. Just after the 2015 release of the more literary and deeply personal Panhandle Rambler, he was inducted into the Texas Songwriters Hall of Fame and was named the 2016 Texas State Musician, an honor previously bestowed on Willie Nelson of Local 433 and Lyle Lovett.

Along with 25 albums to his credit, the 70-year-old Ely has about five books of poetry written, which he hopes to compile into a single collection. He’s led symposiums for Texas Tech University; he recently conducted a solo acoustic tour in the Midwest; and for the next couple of months, he will tour Texas and California. “I like to mix it up. Playing with a band full time can be restrictive. You’re always herding people. I prefer to go out, me and the guitar and a bag of stories.”

Assistance for Union Plus Storm Victims

Union members who participate in Union Plus programs (credit cards, insurance, mortgages, etc.) and live in areas impacted by the recent severe storms and widespread flooding in Texas and Oklahoma, may be eligible for financial assistance. Disaster Relief Grants of $500 are available to help participants who live in Harris, Hays, and Van Zandt counties in Texas, and Cleveland, Grady, and Oklahoma counties in Oklahoma and are facing financial hardship due to this devastating natural disaster. The money does not have to be repaid.

To qualify for a Union Plus Disaster Relief Grant, a union member must:

  • Have been a victim of the severe weather in counties designated by FEMA as qualifying for individual assistance.
  • Have experienced a significant loss of income or property within the last six months due to the disaster.
  • Have had a Union Plus Credit Card, Union Plus Insurance policy, or Union Plus Mortgage for at least 12 months with the account or policy in good standing (be up-to-date on payments).
  • Describe his or her circumstances and document the income or property loss.

To apply for a disaster relief grant, Union Plus participants can call: 1-800-622-2580 (Union Plus Credit Card) or 1-800-472-2005 (Union Plus mortgage or insurance: 1-800-472-2005).

Union Plus Mortgage and Credit Card holders may also be eligible to receive payment extensions or other special help.

Festival Brings Free Live Music to Denton

At the end of April, the Music Performance Trust Fund (MPTF), the Film Funds Trust Fund, and Local 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX) helped Denton, Texas, celebrate its arts community at the Denton Arts and Jazz Festival. This free public event features around 3,000 performers and attracts more than 200,000 attendees annually. All of the musicians paid to perform at the event are union members.

This year’s acts included Dr. John, a member of Locals 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) and 802 (New York City); the University of North Texas Faculty Jazz Ensemble, members of Local 72-147; and Denton’s own Brave Combo, also members of Local 72-147.

Because Denton is AFM President Ray Hair’s home town, each year he rolls up his sleeves and heads to Texas to help run the event over the entire three days. It’s a chance for him to interact and connect with member musicians in their community.

“We started the event as DentonJazzfest 30 years ago, on a Sunday afternoon, on a flatbed trailer, in the park, with Brave Combo and the UNT Jazz Faculty, all sponsored by MPTF and former Fort Worth Local 72,” says AFM President Ray Hair. “Each year, it became more popular and eventually morphed into Denton Arts and Jazz Festival, attracting hundreds of thousands of festivalgoers.”

This year AFM Freelance Services Membership Development Director Paul Sharpe also attended. Sharpe interacted with performing musicians, discussing musician issues and needs and answering questions at the grass-roots level. He also collected a wealth of video commentary about the union from its members.

For the first time, MPTF Trustee Dan Beck and Film Funds Trustee Robert Jaffe visited the event.

“What impressed me most was the spirit of joy and participation, not only among the performers, but among the attendees as well,” says Jaffe. “Despite some unpredictable, and sometimes downright inclement weather, the attendance was great, the music was outstanding, and the crowds were unbelievably responsive.”

“The festival’s impact on the entire Denton community was visibly evident. Beyond the free public performances of celebrity talent, the extraordinary participation of music students at all age levels was impressive and every bit of what the MPTF advocates,” concludes Beck.

Dr. John the Night Tripper, a member of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) headlined the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival

Dr. John the Night Tripper, a member of Local 174-496 (New Orleans, LA) headlined the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival

AFM President Ray Hair (center) at Denton Arts & Jazz Festival with MPTF Trustee Dan Beck (left) and Film Funds Trustee Robert Jaffe.

AFM President Ray Hair (center) at Denton Arts & Jazz Festival with MPTF Trustee Dan Beck (left) and Film Funds Trustee Robert Jaffe.

Local 72-147 member Jordache Grant performed with the Mark Harper Project.

Local 72-147 member Jordache Grant performed with the Mark Harper Project.

Bassist Drew Phelps performed with his sons, Garrett (pictured) and Nathan; all three are members of Local 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX).

Bassist Drew Phelps performed with his sons, Garrett (pictured) and Nathan; all three are members of Local 72-147 (Dallas-Ft. Worth, TX).