I really should know better by now. I should know not to read the comments section on any article anywhere, whether it is about a sporting event or a political campaign or (perhaps especially) an orchestra. Far too often these comments provide an unedited forum for hatred and resentment often spewed by isolated people who find themselves irresistibly offered a vast Internet of readers they believe might actually care about their unenlightened and hopeless observations.
I have learned to avoid those types of comments, or at least to overlook them, as I shake my head and move on unaffected. Surprisingly though, the comment sections to a few recent articles on orchestras have actually provided for some legitimate observations and debate, but I’m afraid I have at times found those observations just as disheartening.
In this time of difficulty for orchestras, there is a legitimate debate about the future that needs to be held, and it needs to be held in a responsible manner. Writers of blogs should be especially careful in presenting their facts, if not their opinions. And those who react should do so with as much information as possible, or the debate will only be stifled.
When the president of the New England Conservatory of Music writes a blog on the Huffington Post stating that the San Antonio Symphony has been on strike or locked out this season, it does harm to the entire debate. As we all know, the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony have reached a settlement after a difficult negotiation, without a work stoppage, and they are now looking to advance their orchestra as they move into a new concert hall in their upcoming 75th anniversary season.
I have personally never commented on an article on a news website, or on a blog. It seems to me that occasionally words can come too easily when responding. Sometime you might read an article that angers you, or frustrates you, and you’ve hit “send” before you’ve really thought it through. While I hold the position of ICSOM chair, I feel an obligation to choose my words carefully and to seek the input of our incredibly thoughtful Governing Board and our legal counsel before releasing my statements. But I do discover now and then that I make intermittent appearances in the comments sections. I find reassurance, though, in knowing that most of what is represented does not reflect anything I have actually said.
Still, I admire those who engage in the debate, and who feel comfortable in expressing their views in such forums.
Recently I was reading the comments to an article that I did not write, though a piece I did write was referenced in the article. Several comments were made by someone who is apparently a staff member for an orchestra somewhere, and I have to admit that the comments were hurtful, because they did not reflect the views ever expressed by ICSOM.
I’ve been through this before, and more personally. Last year, after my keynote address at the University of Michigan, a blogger accused me of “doing a great disservice to his [ICSOM’s] membership” even though his criticism didn’t accurately reflect anything I’ve ever actually said. The attack was easy for me to dismiss though, as it is hard to know how seriously I am supposed to take someone who uses a picture of a talking cat to accuse me of not being serious.
But the recent comments from the staffer really did disturb me. The commenter wrote:
These are heady times for the International Conference of Symphony Orchestra [sic] Musicians (ICSOM) and their ilk. True, their tuxes and tails have grown a tad more maggot-ridden since their early labor movement days. But churning out full-throated, endowment-consuming zombie musicians has proven decidedly lucrative.
That’s all fine so far. The commenter is engaging in sarcasm and parody reflective of the sarcasm in the article being addressed. While I know that musicians took some prurient pleasure in that sarcasm, ICSOM didn’t write it, nor is the writer a member of ICSOM.
But the commenter goes further:
… musicians would rather lumber up and down the sidewalk with picket signs than accept their share of the rational diet everyone else has had to be on for a long, long time.
Well, here is where the commenter injures the dialogue. Truth be told, with the exception of about 36 hours, all of the recent work stoppages in ICSOM orchestras have been lockouts. Of our own will, musicians haven’t chosen to carry signs.
Musicians, ravenous for entitlements, never cease their demands for more and more and more. Hardly a week goes by without another screaming imbecile in a tuxedo crying “unfair!” and demanding more, and more, and more, while the hardworking staff and administrators struggle to keep food on the table for them.
Well, “imbecile”? That is pretty unfortunate. But, I understand. The commenter seems angry.
And then, yet even more:
Why is it that such outrageously bad behavior toward their staff colleagues is not only tolerated in this industry, it’s openly encouraged by the AFM, ICSOM and their members?
These are tough times, and I’m sure that in hindsight the commenter would have phrased these comments differently. But, I would like to be clear about a few things, because I do share the concerns of those who worry that the dialogue is becoming so nasty that it will do irreparable damage. So, let me review what ICSOM has said.
On multiple occasions, I have urged our members not to cast aspersions. I have written in Symphony magazine that the way things are is not the way things have to be, and that the destructive rhetoric that permeates our national discussion only widens the chasm. I have called upon the leadership of the League of American Orchestras to make similar public statements to their membership, but unfortunately as yet that have not done so.
It is true that I offered criticism of the League during my University of Michigan keynote address, but I made those statements in the presence of the League’s leadership and not in late night comment sections on blogs. Even that criticism followed a face-to-face conversation a few months earlier where I urged the League to make a statement distancing itself from the negative rhetoric of one of its board members. I told the president of the League that if he did not distance himself, and his organization, the chasm between the League and musicians would inevitably widen into destructive dialogue.
I was unfortunately dismissed, and my prediction has equally unfortunately been proven true.
But universally, the musicians of ICSOM care deeply about their staff members. Many of them are in the same position we are, facing serious cutbacks while those above them gain dramatic pay increases. And the staff, not being in a union, all too often doesn’t have someone who can speak in their defense. If I can do that more effectively, I assure every staff member toiling away for his or her orchestra’s mission on small salaries that I will be their advocate as well.
The message we have repeatedly delivered in this time of difficulty is that if conversations need to be held, they can’t be held under duress. As I wrote in my Symphony article, I often think that those who advocate major change for our field are simply going about it all wrong. How can we fail to see that destructive rhetoric is the enemy of change?
Sadly, at a time when we should all be pulling together, it is the musicians who find themselves targeted and demonized—even called “imbeciles.” But through positive messages, the musicians facing lockouts are gaining tremendous support from their communities. The musicians offer a message of hope, music, and spiritual and economic revitalization. Sadly, certain managements and boards are offering only silence and deprivation.
The musicians of our orchestras are just like the majority of the staff members of our orchestras; we believe in our cause, and we are hurting unnecessarily.