One of the responsibilities of my position that I feel most acutely is the need to be the public voice of ICSOM. I am afforded several opportunities to do so on a regular basis, including this column in each issue of Senza Sordino, and the opening address to our annual conference. While it feels gratifying to be an advocate for our orchestras and our art form, there are times when some uncomfortable truths must be spoken. In my opening speech at this year’s conference, I addressed a number of issues that are of paramount importance to our ICSOM orchestras and to our Union.
The American Federation of Musicians and Employers’ Pension Fund (AFM-EPF) was at the top of the agenda. While many of our members and our colleagues in the wider union are understandably very upset about the critical state of the AFM-EPF, and some are searching for someone to blame, I do not believe there has been any malfeasance or incompetence on the part of our Fund trustees. No one wants to cut benefits, but whatever solutions can be found must be equitably borne by all members of this Union.
It is deeply disappointing that the Congressional Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Funds has chosen to change the parameters of the proposed Butch Lewis Act such that our pension fund would no longer qualify for relief under the new guidelines. Every member of the AFM needs to contact their Congressional representatives and the Joint Select Committee to urge them to support legislation that will assist our Fund in this crisis. Make your voice heard by using the tools on the AFM-EPF website to contact your Members of Congress and the Joint Select Committee. The millions of Americans whose pension funds are in jeopardy need to speak up and vote for representation at the Federal level this November that will help solve this crisis.
In my address, I called out the insidious problem of our own ICSOM members accepting non-union recording work. Later in the conference, the Players Conference Council (the heads of ROPA, OCSM/OMOSC, TMA, RMA, and ICSOM) held a panel discussion that also touched on internal organizing and educating our members on the vital importance of holding the Union line. AFM leadership cannot negotiate progressive contracts with the major production companies if those executives know they can hire, under the table, from amongst the best players in the country. It is essential that we understand the larger context of our actions within our industry. The recovery of our pension fund is dependent on contributions made through legitimate union work. The ICSOM delegates unanimously adopted a resolution calling on all ICSOM musicians to reject any and all offers of employment for non-union recording.
With the backdrop of the #MeToo movement, a growing number of allegations have been made by our musicians against visiting artists as well as some of their own colleagues. It is the responsibility of our employers to provide a safe workplace, free from discrimination, harassment, and bullying. Where accusations are brought forward, our employers must follow through with an investigation and appropriate action. At the same time, it is incumbent upon all of us, managers and musicians alike, to create an environment in which musicians who have been so affected are comfortable coming forward to speak about their experiences. It is becoming increasingly clear that even though the public persona of the accused might seem incompatible with the alleged acts, that does not mean the accusations are false. Because there is at the very heart of many of these wrongful acts an imbalance of power, the victim must be accorded an unbiased and safe environment in which to be heard. The delegates unanimously adopted a resolution calling on our employers to ensure a workplace that is free of discrimination, harassment, and bullying, and for employers and musicians to foster a culture in which musicians are comfortable coming forward to report instances of abuse.
The need for diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) exists in all segments of our industry: onstage, backstage, out front, and in the board room. If we are to continue to be relevant as an art form and an industry, we must be a vital part of our communities. If we do not reflect where we live, and respond to changing cultural norms while still preserving our historic legacy, we will not survive the shifting economic paradigm. The League of American Orchestras (LAO) has been working for a number of years to encourage diversifying staff, management, boards, repertoire, soloists, and conductors in orchestras nationwide. A panel which included representation from LAO, AFM, management, and musicians, explored where our ICSOM orchestras stand now in relation to DEI. While progress is being made and we are seeing more diverse hiring practices, educational initiatives, and fellowship opportunities, there is a perception that implicit bias may still be affecting our audition processes. Many of our orchestras have screened auditions up until the final round; a handful keep the screen up but still have the option, by committee vote or at the discretion of the music director, to remove screens in the final round. If our litmus test for hiring is truly what a candidate sounds like—their tone, musicianship, and virtuosity—then hearing is enough. If the screens stay up, there is no opportunity for bias to enter into the decision. We have a tenure process to test the character and ensemble capabilities of any hire. As a demonstration of good faith and to preclude the possibility of implicit bias, I believe it is incumbent upon us to hold fully screened auditions. Out of 52 ICSOM orchestras, only about a third currently keep screens up throughout the entire audition process. Delegates at this year’s conference unanimously adopted a resolution encouraging all ICSOM orchestras to adopt a process that retains screens throughout every individual round of the audition.
We, the musicians of these ICSOM orchestras, are in a unique and privileged position to bring awareness of where social injustice and need exist. President Paul Austin highlighted a few of our orchestras doing just that:
- The Detroit Symphony, the Sphinx Organization, and the Detroit Pistons have partnered in a multi-year education initiative to enhance music education for local youth.
- The Grand Rapids Symphony has created a program that sends musicians into health care settings with the healing power of music.
- Members of the Utah Symphony will return to Haiti to bring music training to young musicians from across the island nation.
- The Nashville Symphony performed and recorded on the Violins of Hope, a collection of recently restored instruments that were played by Jews during the Holocaust.
- The Louisville Orchestra premiered an oratorio by their Music Director, Teddy Abrams, The Greatest: Muhammad Ali, a tribute to the extraordinary life and impact of a legendary athlete and humanitarian.
These and others of our ICSOM orchestras have created initiatives that reach beyond the doors of our concert halls and engage with communities at home and abroad. At its core, our Union is a social justice organization. Equal pay, accessibility, and equal opportunity, regardless of race, color, religion, physical ability, or sexual orientation, is a fundamental principal of union labor. The music we play is not just beautiful, it is founded at its deepest level on human aspiration and the search for meaning. By the very nature of what we do, with the talent and capabilities we already possess, we can call attention to these inequities and cut through the ignorance and rhetoric that blind us all to the suffering in our communities. It is everyone’s responsibility to recognize these inequities, work to ameliorate them, participate fully in our democracy, and foster awareness of our universal humanity.