Upcoming Performances

July 12, 8:30 pm Central European
Guest recitalist, Cathedral, Rieux-Volvestre, France

July 22, 7:00 pm Eastern
Petr Eben Windows with James Stokes, St. Luke's Episcopal Church, Boone, N.C.

August 26, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Church of the Savior, Newland, N.C.

September 23, 4:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Schantz organ 40th anniversary, Culpeper Baptist Church, Culpeper, Va.

September 28, 7:00 pm Eastern
Guest recitalist, Camp Hill Presbyterian Church, Camp Hill, Penn.

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The irony of a musicians union

It’s time to write about this. And it won’t be pretty.

Orchestras all over the place are in trouble. And it always seems to be about money. And it usually involves some toxic combination of an administration, a Union, and a healthy pinch of myopia. It never seems to include idealism or an interest in music.

For the record, most administrations are myopic. There’s not much more that need be said about that. They should all be fired and replaced with working musicians. Failing that, I’m taking the Union to task now:

In terms of pay, musicians get raped all the time. But it’s our own fault, because we are often too willing to give our art away, out of love for the art. Sometimes there’s just too much energy involved with educating a presenter on the expenses of art. It’s just like educating couple after couple, bride after bride, on what is appropriate in church and what is not. The battle is sometimes too taxing on our time and energy to continue. Fortunately the Union can sometimes do that battling for you. BUT:

Although I’m not a struggling musician, I still negotiate recital fees rather than set them in stone take it or leave it. I enjoy performing more than making money, and I enjoy bringing my brand of the art to an appreciative audience more than in staying home in protest over the compensation package for a recital. I know some organists who don’t leave home unless they make a profit. I also know that they are jackasses in general. And so I have established my own common ground, and I can live with that. The Union would probably not be so flexible.

I have never joined a musicians union. Few organists need to. They’re usually already employed by the presenting venue where an organ will be used. And they are rarely called on to play someone else’s instrument, unless there has been an easy mutual agreement reached. And so my experience working with Union musicians has come from only one perspective, from the outside. Unfortunately, aside from the occasional contractor who was also a friend, my experiences have rarely been positive.

The Unions exist many times to protect musicians from getting raped in the pocketbook. But what about protecting the musician from the unpleasantness of working with a jerk of a conductor? I should think it would be pretty easy to blackball a venue or conductor after just one or two bad experiences. God knows I have quietly blackballed some places on my own behalf because the director of music was a complete jackass. It’s not that difficult. However, with the Union on your side, you can continue to go play for that venue and be guaranteed pay. But for me, there is a choice between getting paid and having to deal with a jackass in the first place. That really is a viable choice after a certain point in one’s career, and I believe the Union's guaranteed pay might cloud that choice until it’s nearly too late.

If the Union protects the players, it ought also to insist that those players be the very best they can be and play the very best they can play. But that has not been my experience. I have seen Union orchestras play like pigs and then revolt when rehearsal runs late. I have seen a concertmaster slump in his chair and doodle in the floor with the tip of his bow at the end of the Tchaikovsky Sixth, where the violins have nothing to play. I have seen a Union flautist request a rehearsal break so she could practice her part. American orchestras routinely clear the opera/ballet pit at the end of a show before the conductor has arrived onstage to acknowledge them; the audience is applauding madly, but the conductor is acknowledging an empty pit. I have been blamed for holding chords after cutoffs, when it was really the Union horns who weren’t paying attention over and over. I have heard many Union musicians complain that they can’t hear the tempo, even while the tempo is being presented visually right in front of them on the conductor’s box. I have seen too many Union musicians glare at me and tune sharp because they don’t like the A that the organ gave them. I have heard a Union violist complain that the organ was coming in early (with the baton, actually), while the orchestra was coming in behind the stick (but with each other).

I’m sorry, but the Union musicians I have worked with default to laziness, and only the better conductors can pull them out and make them play as well as they were trained and are being paid to. But I default to being the very best I can be, and THEN I back off if I discover that it’s just not worth it. I’m sorry, but I have never seen a Union musician enjoy the music; I have only seen them enjoy being Union musicians. This is a foreign concept to me. I am constantly in awe of what composers have left us to play and enjoy, and it is astounding to me the number of professional musicians out there who hate music.

Union musicians: your pay is important. Keep fighting for it. All I’m asking is that you fall back in love with the music and with your instrument and with sitting up straight and playing well no matter what else is going on. You know, just as organists have been replaced by canned music in some churches, we organists could replace you. I can play Messiah and Elijah as well as you can. And back in the day, people like my teachers used to play entire oratorios on the organ every Sunday for Evensong. And quite a number of organists are transcribing full symphonies and other big works for organ solo these days. Rediscover the music, and find the balance.

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