ulterior motives

Being in an orchestra is much like being in a family. This is the first sentence that I’d use (and most likely will use) when asked what it’s like to play in a professional orchestra. The second sentence that I’d use is: the family can be a happy, functional one, or an unhappy, dysfunctional one. In most cases, the family contains a bit of both. I can honestly say that, on a personal level, I don’t really dislike anyone in my orchestra. That being said, however, being in an orchestra is like being in a family. You may love all of your family members, but you won’t necessarily like them all. Even setting that aside, one might appreciate a person for their basic humanity, but still be annoyed as all hell by them!

It’s pretty easy to be a new member of the orchestra. You are (in most cases) the unknown quantity who just won the last audition, so you’re pretty hot stuff. You haven’t had time to make any enemies (though if you’ve had a prior job, word will have preceded you as to your nefarious doings!) so everyone is the same to you, and you to them. With time, however, you see the patterns: who has what peccadilloes, who has the skeletons in their closet, who has the constant agenda, and why. That’s when things start to get tricky. You see, orchestras are workplaces where the individual musicians have very little power over their environment. So favors from above (either management or the artistic staff) are huge. Getting time off when no one else can, getting support for your pet project or ensemble, getting choice solo appearances in front of the orchestra, and the biggest one of all: scoring major over scale.

Over scale is the dirty little secret that no one in the orchestra (who has it) wants you to know about. Certain players make guaranteed over scale: the concertmaster typically makes 2-3 times basic scale minimum. Principals typically make a minimum of 25% over scale, associate and assistants also usually have percentage minimums. But did you know that one section player can make as much as $5,000 more than another? Seems outrageous, doesn’t it? It is – but there’s often a good reason for such abuses and inequalities. You see, if there is no system of seniority pay, for example, a strong music director will force a weaker manager to give the senior player a weekly bonus over minimum for his or her years of service. By the same token, if an orchestra is having trouble raising overall compensation, they might seek to keep their most valued players in the fold by offering them some sort of over scale. There are many other possible scenarios, but I’d wager that these two are the most common.

Generally speaking, I’d say: It’s a free country, people have a right to negotiate their individual contracts as they see fit, and management has the right to settle with them for what they think is fair. The problem is that we’re a union shop (as are all major orchestras in North America). The whole foundation of a union shop is that we negotiate collectively for the good of the whole: no one benefits at the expense of another. We all rise or fall with the prevailing tide, and if it works well, the richest receive the smallest wage increases while the poorest receive the largest. It’s an admirable sentiment, and when it works, it works well for everyone.

As you might guess, this post is something of a rant, but it’s not so much about how things are in the orchestra now, but how things have been in the orchestra, say 10 years ago or more. I’d say that the players are generally more unified than ever in my tenure with the orchestra (starting year 12). It’s just that every now and then I see the angry heads of rearing beasts from the past that have to do little with what’s happening now. I see old turf battles, old beefs with long-departed managers and music directors, and no small amount of resentment for old indignities which have replaced the speakeasy attitudes of the old boy network, where favors came in many flavors, and people got by easy when they were the “big dogs”. The funny thing is, I was one of the big dogs when I got here – among the first of a wave of new hires that seems like a ripple compared to the tsunami that has taken place over the last five years – I got a bit of over scale, lots of solos with the orchestra, and lots of pats on the back and good wishes from the guy that hired me.

Times have changed: I’m not the hot property anymore (though I can more than hold my own, thank you very much), I don’t get the overt recognition, and I certainly haven’t gotten any additional over scale bumps (other than what the CBA provides for) since perhaps 1998 or so. And you know what? I’m cool with that. The orchestra sounds better than ever. I like many of my colleagues, respect even more of them, and a few of the best earn both. The orchestra stands on the cusp of a new era, in which the stability of our finances might match the quality and heart of it’s players. New ideas have come to town, and the time has come to try them out and to be as bold as we in Oregon fancy ourselves to be. We’ll see how it goes – stay tuned.

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