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Gettin' Paid (Money, Strikes, Unions and Money and Money)

As most of you are aware, the musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra are in the middle of a protracted lockout, which threatens to undermine one of the great orchestras in the US. Regardless of the side you might take in the debate, we all know it is a shame to see such a great musical institution in duress.
But that is not what interests me about the issue. Joe Patti, who blogs at Butts in the Seats, has gathered together fifteen different bloggers who published their opinions on the current state of the MO and in particular the lockout. He created this initiative in response to the current orchestra President and CEO Michael Henson, who said, "blogs are senseless and must be ignored." It makes for some interesting reading, but I think there is more to it for us in the American choral world.
My thoughts when I look at this issue through the lens of a choral conductor, in no particular order or relevance:
  • Choir singers are not generally regarded as professionals. Or at least the professionalization of the field is relatively small compared to the instrumental world. What percentage of good choral singers (I know, I know, "what does that actually mean?" Just roll with it.), ever get paid for what they do.
  • I don't like that.
  • We also don't have singers unions to fight for things like compensation. 
  • I have mixed feelings about unions. On one hand, I recognize that when I was a public school teacher, my salary and benefits were what they were because of the union. In 1998 my starting salary was $31,500. That's not horrible at all. It's more than some starting salaries in North Dakota today, which is a "Right To Work" state.
  • On the other hand, I resented unions protecting bad teachers. And I also resented their resistance to assessing teachers and accountability. At the time, I wanted them to evaluate me against the older more established teachers. 
  • I cannot for the life of me imagine abandoning even one concert for a lockout or strike. It makes me ill to think of it.
  • Yet I am often disappointed when people ask me to provide expertise, but don't expect me to be compensated (service to the profession aside).
  • I know of one "professional" choir that is quite excellent, that pays their singers minimum wage. My first thought is "how cool is that!" and my second thought is, "minimum wage?" and my final thought is "at least it's something!"
  • The average salary for a MO player was $135,000 in 2011.
  • The lack of these kinds of drammatic confrontations in the choral world is a wonderful thing. The orchestral world has been struggling with these issues for some time.
Go and read the different blog posts. Then go read the MO Website where they justify their positions. Try not to take a musician side or a management side. Try to take a "choral" side. Tell us how you feel.
on September 7, 2013 9:31am
I sang in the Minnesota Chorale during the 2003 - 04 season. Most of the concerts were with the Minnesota Orchestra. I can't help but think that due to the lockout, there is much less of an opportunity in the Twin Cities to hear live great choral/orchestral works.
That is me as a choral musician speaking. I was going to write other things, but the very statement "Try to take a "choral" side" rubbed me the wrong way. It is my humble opinion that singing in a choir is a counter-cultural activity. Instead of asking "What's in it for me?", the question needs to be "What's in it for us?" I believe that transformation can also transfer to a general life philosophy. I am a conductor and singer, but in more general terms, I am an artist. As Robert Shaw said, music is not a luxury, but a necessity. To go one step farther, I believe that all arts (vocal, instrumental, theater, dance, visual art) are a necessity. Our society is greatly enriched by all of the arts. Isn't choral music enhanced when there is collaboration between various artistic forms? Isn't society enriched when there is collaboration between art forms? To think, "Try to take a "choral" side" feels antithetical to what I believe as an artist.
As a human being, I am saddened by the lockout because there is less live art in a part of the world in an age where art is sorely needed more than ever.
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on September 7, 2013 10:10am
I live in a union town--a BIG union town---what other city do you know who named their band shell after the first president of the Federation of Musicians?  And in Our Town, the symphony chorus singers--at least they used to--belong to a union.  One of my best friends (he was the organist at my wedding) was the long time union rep for this symphony depending on the place and situation, choral singers CAN belong to a union. Since they are not singing every concert, of course they will be paid less.
One of my sons was the personnel director for a smaller local professional symphony which was a union shop.  During rehearsals, there were strict guidelines for him to make sure were enforced. He had a clock and a thermometer (!) because in their union contract, the temperature of the rehearsal space was specified and the number of minutes of the breaks had to be talled exactly. And he had very strict orders about who to hire as a sub and in which order they were to be called.
Knowing what I know, it is rarely only about money.  My worry is about the stability of the organization.  And both sides will suffer because of this prolonged situation.
on September 7, 2013 1:19pm
 I sent this post to two very good friends of mine who are outstanding instrumentalists and here are their responses:
I'm tired of the unions getting bashed.
We all lived better when unions proliferated.
I'm tired of those who bash teachers unions for "protecting" bad teachers. Teachers unions don't hire and fire; rather, they oversee and protect the various due process mechanisms that were hard-fought victories for teachers. Administrators hire and they should fire when its necessary.
I'm tired of people using a few select professional orchestral musicians' salaries as evidence that musicians are greedy. In the case of the MSO, these musicians are among a tiny handful - a statistical anomaly - of all musicians in terms of skill. Their skills are comparable to highly-paid professional athletes, CEO's of the largest companies, and the most successful corporate attorneys. The difference? These people all make way more money than even the most highly-paid symphony musicians.
I have trouble equating the skills of the average choral singer with what professional symphony instrumentalists do. To introduce that level of singer (we're not talking about the truly great soloists and opera singers, after all)  into this argument does not serve the discussion.
My two cents.
Very thought provoking and it shows how far apart the two skills are in their justification for wages earned.
From an instrumentalist view, my horns each cost $3K, reeds are $26/ box, hours of practice per performance innumerable, some instruments are far more expensive and require more upkeep. Add mouthpieces. ligatures, constant stages of improvement to make the performance experience as professional as possible, it is a lifetime commitment with endless hours of up[keep to stay at the top of ones game.
Comparing choralists and instrumentalists is apples and oranges. Actually Guavas and Grapes.
Fruits of a sort but way different in makeup and effect.
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