loyalty vs. quality

I’m married to a successful freelance cellist, so I have a pretty good knowledge of what freelancers face in the classical music world, and learn more everyday. The world of a full-time symphony orchestra is pretty insular, so it’s quite possible to get pretty out of touch with how freelancers think, and vice versa. In light of this, I thought it might be an interesting exercise to put these sometimes competing (or even adversarial) mindsets out there in the light of day. Here goes, and if you’re in one camp or the other, please chime in with your additions, subtractions, quibbles, or rants in the comments section below.

On the orchestral side, the hiring of extras or substitutes begins at the highest level – the board of directors must approve an overall budget submitted to them by the President or Executive Director of the orchestra. Within that budget is the subsection for personnel, which includes all the full-time musicians, minus those on sabbatical and other leaves of absence. The CBA might call for reductions in the numbers of string sections that can be retained on a full-time basis, so that will also affect how many musicians might get hired for one-year extra positions (as in the Oregon Symphony, where we’re below our CBA specified quotas for strings via a side-letter, and the shortages are filled each year by shuttling around allowances for one-year hires (mostly within the violin section, which is the most below quota at the moment). Then, the programs are looked at, and decisions are made about which programs or works might require some extra players (Mahler symphonies, Strauss tone poems, etc. need lots more wind and brass players than most orchestras have on full-time hire). At that point, the personnel complements go to the Personnel Manager, who is in charge of hiring the musicians.

Photo: flickr/wonderlane

Photo: flickr/wonderlane

Now, what happens next varies by orchestra. Some orchestras hold yearly or bi-yearly substitute auditions for all of their string sections. Sometimes the Music Director takes part in hearing these auditions, sometimes it is the principal players of the string sections plus some section players from each section. An ordered list of hiring priority is then devised and sent to the Personnel Manager. Other orchestras leave the makeup of the substitute list up to the principal of each section, who gives an ordered list of priority to the Personnel Manager. The difference between these two methods of determining who gets hired is quite simple: it’s a matter of weighing loyalty vs. quality.

The yearly audition method is most often conducted for two reasons: to make sure that the substitute pool is of the highest quality (albeit still determined by a subjective evaluation of an audition committee which is most often not under the strictures of a CBA audition policy), and to ensure that new musicians are afforded the opportunity to get into the pool in a timely manner.

The principal-only method has often worked very well, as it involves the prospective substitute musician playing for the principal at some point, and then being placed (or not being placed) on the sub list. Most often, musicians aren’t required to re-audition, and new musicians simply play for the principal as they arrive in town. So long as a substitute doesn’t get bad feedback from others in the section, they’re retained and often play for years in various roles in the section, either as a contracted one-year member of the orchestra, or on a sporadic, as-needed basis.

For the new guy in town, either of these methods serves him well – just do the audition and see if you get some work. But if you’re an established person in town, the annual audition could be a deal-breaker. You’ve already played for the principal, most likely, or taken the annual cattle-call audition, so why should you have to audition again? It can look like all you’ve got is the chance to lose everything, rather than keep what you’ve already earned. I’ve seen many fine musicians be insulted by the institution of this policy and refuse to take part, losing valuable income in the process. They move on to other ensembles, and the orchestra loses some valuable musicians who have long-standing service and have devoted themselves to being available to work on a moment’s notice. That’s one thing that’s often overlooked by full-time musicians: that the freelancers often are forced to weigh possible work against guaranteed work, and in smaller markets this can be a very difficult thing to do – and there is often a significant sacrifice made to be available to take work in the orchestra instead of the opera or ballet, for example. Some principal players take loyalty to their substitutes very seriously, and try to make sure they get the work when it’s available, and also try to be fair to new musicians to the market. That’s one thing that’s easy to applaud, but it also relies on the availability of high-quality musicians on a given instrument – not all pools are created equal.

The loyalty vs. quality issue becomes even more stark when you look at summer festivals, which often function without any hiring rules and are done at the whim of the music director and/or the personnel manager. The pressure on the PM from the MD is to hire the best musicians available, while the pool of musicians simply want to work, especially if they’ve played for a certain festival in the past. It’s a fine line between maintaining quality while also being loyal to those who have given you their loyalty by being available to play for wages that are often substandard, in the past.

So, do you hire musicians, or are you a freelancer yourself? What is your view of this situation? Light ’em up!

One thought on “loyalty vs. quality

  1. Mahlerrules

    As a member of a regional per-service orchestra, many of our regulars have opportunities to play for more money elsewhere and are forced to make a decision between $68-85/service and $250/service. I am conflicted with the issue of loyalty. I would like our regular musicians to be loyal to us, but I completely understand the need to make money and also have the experience of playing with a top-tier orchestra. We also hire a lot of subs on a regular basis and I do believe that loyalty should hold a little more weight than quality. Definitely when a player’s abilities have fallen below an acceptable level, you have to go with the better player, but I believe when you have a choice between a regular sub who does a really good job and a new person who may do a great job, but also may only be a one time sub… stick with loyalty.


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