This is the second time in my professional career that I have been forced into an extended work stoppage over which I had no control. The first was four years after I joined the Nashville Symphony, when the board shut the orchestra down in early February 1988, ostensibly because of the effects of the October 1987 market crash. Our return to work took nearly nine months. In those nine months, I saw the orchestra, which had been a united group of musicians, torn apart by suspicion and ill will.
Initially, the orchestra members worked together to get the message out: we were still contributing members of the community. We fanned out and performed wherever we could, thanks to friends, patrons, and Jobs With Justice (who paid the hall rental fee to allow us to repeat our final concert the very next day.) Our Music Director, Kenneth Schermerhorn, joined us to conduct a pops concert that included an arrangement of How Do You Keep the Music Playing, which was then recorded in a studio for a series of public service announcements featuring numerous artists and community leaders. We were united.
As time progressed, some musicians were able to find work with other orchestras; others found work in other fields of employment and did odd jobs, all with the goal of joining together again as the Nashville Symphony. The orchestra committee became the de facto negotiating committee (to avoid committee burn out we elect two separate committees, with the ICSOM Delegate and Union Steward serving on both committees.) The committee negotiated for a few weeks at a time but kept running into roadblocks and changing board representation, which meant they had to start over.
Other committees scheduled public concerts and media events, but with colleagues scattered across the country and busy working, we didn’t have much contact. It was only at these concerts, events, and periodic meetings called by the committee to update the orchestra, that we were able to see and catch up with each other. However, with little being accomplished with regard to returning to work, I suspect the committee felt it wasn’t worth pulling everyone into numerous meetings if there was nothing to report.
On a certain level I guess I can understand that rationale, but unfortunately, with so many fearful musicians questioning whether we’d ever return to work, little cracks became gaping chasms of suspicion and ill will—including name calling and members filing charges against other members with the Local—and the orchestra became seriously divided.
Yet, in the midst of this atmosphere of ill will, I attended my first ROPA Conference and began to find direction and answers to help guide me and my colleagues, as we spent the next few years trying to heal those divisions. We did it by communicating with our musicians through newsletters, phone trees, and meetings. It was the advice I received at those ROPA (and later ICSOM) conferences, hearing other delegates speak about how their orchestras handled communication, that guided me as a committee member and as union steward for 25 years, as we tried to educate our new members, to bring them into the fold, and to make sure the lines of communication were open. That’s not to say mistakes weren’t made over the years, but it was always our goal to make sure our musicians were kept in the loop as much as possible.
I have shared what I learned with delegates, friends, and especially those who were about to face their own work stoppages. One of the best examples of musician communication I am aware of was provided by the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra, who stayed united while weathering a 16-month lockout. I attribute much of their success to scheduled weekly orchestra meetings. Even when there is nothing to report, musicians need the chance to talk and air their questions and concerns—they need to know they’re being heard.
I raise this issue now because the fear factor is even higher now—but our inability to perform is industry wide. There are no options to find employment with another orchestra. Plus, we have no clue how long this situation will last. We all watched back in March as nearly every performance in the country was cancelled within 24 hours. This was followed by cancellation extensions that have obliterated our seasons; we’re not only questioning when we’ll return, we’re asking how we’ll return. Reports about possible orchestra configurations abound, but there is no definitive science yet to tell us the best way that our orchestras can reconvene. The government isn’t helping, as politics and financial and economic concerns seemingly take precedence over our personal safety. We are lucky to have great minds such as our own ICSOM Counsel Kevin Case, and AFM-SSD Director Rochelle Skolnick doing everything they can to offer advice and guidance about how to approach these issues with management.
The other day I asked my colleagues on the ICSOM Governing Board whether they felt communication was being handled well in their orchestras, both between management and the musicians and between the orchestra committee and musicians. Many reported that management had communicated via email and zoom but the amount of communication consisted of few—or in one case, no—meetings. Communication between the committee and musicians appeared to be mixed as well. Some communicated during management’s video meetings, while others were also holding separate meetings with musicians alone, without management. With so much unknown, musicians not only want answers, but many have ideas that might be worth discussing.
During negotiation preparation, we in the Nashville Symphony schedule roundtable and potluck dinner discussions to listen to issues of concern. These are obviously not possible in the days of COVID-19, but as we consider what our workplaces will look like in the future, it’s important to hear everyone’s opinion and try to reach consensus. We must be united in determining how to ensure that we are safe when we return to work. We cannot put people at risk by returning to work too early without proper testing and social distancing, and we should not pressure colleagues who have serious concerns that they or their families could be harmed by their return.
We should also make extra efforts to connect with our friends and colleagues in this difficult time. Our own families are certainly our first concern, but consider reaching out periodically to check on your friends in the orchestra. Not everyone uses social media; they may be unaware of what is going on with the rest of their colleagues. They may live by themselves and would appreciate hearing from others and sharing their thoughts. Now more than ever we need to keep the lines of communication open: we need communication between management and the orchestra, between the orchestra committee and the musicians, and between each other. The only way to fight fear and suspicion and to build unity is to make sure our musicians receive updates and feel their voices are being heard. For more than 30 years I have argued that management should be listening to our musicians, because we have history and knowledge and ideas that should be heard and considered. I still believe that argument—we’re strongest when we have our best minds and ideas engaged in obtaining the same goals—and it’s how we communicate that can help us achieve the best results.
Note: the author is ICSOM secretary.