Senza Sordino Editor Richard Levine: An Editor’s Parting Thoughts

Richard Levine has the distinction (along with the late Henry Shaw) of being the longest-serving editor of Senza Sordino in ICSOM’s history. His thoughts on departing from the post were contained in a long article in the August 2014 edition of the newsletter. Richard has been a friend for a long time, so I will admit to a bias. His article is full of the kind of wisdom that only comes from experiencing the full spectrum of what participation in our industry can bring to a musician – from the terrible experience of having his orchestra fold to being a key part of its rebirth and subsequent success. ICSOM was lucky to have him on the Governing Board, and we are lucky to be able to benefit from what he learned. – Robert Levine

The article below is copyrighted by ICSOM and it is reprinted here by permission of the ICSOM Governing Board and Richard Levine.

An Editor’s Parting Thoughts
by Richard Levine, Editor, Senza Sordino
Volume #52, Issue #2  |  August 2014

As I end 12 years on the ICSOM Governing Board and 10 years as the Senza Sordino editor, some thoughts occur to me that are inspired by the changing landscape we face as orchestra musicians. I take sole responsibility for all the views expressed here, though many are not original. They are the product of countless interactions with many individuals during my 35-year association with ICSOM, its officers and delegates, AFM officers and staff, local officers, negotiators, various legal counsel, board members, management, fellow musicians, and audience members.

I offer this only as food for thought, neither as solutions nor as a “correct” point of view. In no way do I mean to suggest what should be or should have been done in particular orchestra situations, even if I do mention a few. So much for the disclaimers.

I sometimes struggle with where and how we and our orchestras fit into today’s world with all its problems: famine, poverty, war, persecution, and disease, as well as natural and man-made disasters. Humans certainly seem to have a great capacity to ignore the suffering of others. In the midst of it all, here we are offering a drug-like distraction—reveling in some of the finest creative works of mankind. Perhaps it’s just personal bias or wishful thinking that allows me to think our music has the capacity to lift spirits, elevate consciousness, and bring people together; but judging from audience applause and the long history of public and private funding of orchestras, I’m not alone.

In any case, the distraction is incomplete, and social welfare remains an enormous concern to everyone. Over the years some donors have decided to shift part of their support from the arts to social issues, raising concerns in some circles about the relevancy of our orchestras. I am reminded of one negotiation where I made an emphatic case for something the musicians considered vital. A doctor on the board’s negotiating team took issue with the importance I had placed on the issue and made clear that his patients dealt with disease and death. He questioned how we could seriously suggest our issue was so important. It’s hard to argue in that context, but what struck me most was that this same individual was a tireless symphony supporter who devoted countless hours to fundraising for the symphony. In other words, his own actions demonstrated how extraordinarily important the orchestra was to him, even given his daily confrontations with life and death situations.

The belief—the fact—that our art is worthy of support does not imply any challenge to the worthiness of other causes. Within our organizations, there is no room for skepticism about the importance of our art. We need to insist that everyone throughout our organizations are as fervent in their support as we are. Sadly, we too often read laments attributed to orchestra management or board members about the unsustainability of orchestras, dwindling audiences, how our music belongs in a museum, or worse. Although in the right forum these might be legitimate topics for discussion, we see them being fed to the press as excuses for failure by those most responsible for creating successes for our organizations. The crime is that such whining itself diminishes the support for our orchestras that we need to be building and preserving.

But it doesn’t stop there. Increasingly we are seeing managements and boards planning lockouts as a tactic for implementing drastic changes to negotiated contracts, changes unproven as solutions to any problems. They are willing to use sledgehammers to change provisions that they themselves had agreed to just one contract ear- lier. Flagrant examples abound, with Detroit and Minnesota all too current, and looming threats at the Metropolitan Opera and several other orchestras as Senza Sordino goes to press.

What is a proper response? How can we effectively deal with such situations? What types of influence can we exercise, and through what points of contact? What are the best available ways for musicians and our organizations to assert themselves to right situations that have gone wrong?

In earlier days musicians who wanted something sooner rather than later were willing to strike in order to achieve their goals. There is a fundamental difference, though, to what we are witnessing in the 21st century. In the past, by and large, strikes were reserved for in- equitable or unjustifiable conditions that, when improved, benefited in a very real sense not only the musicians but also the quality of the orchestra. As a direct result, no one can seriously question the high performance standards of today’s orchestras—it is acknowledged all over the world. Could the same have been achieved without job security or full-time employment? No. But can the same be said for a lockout designed to slash salaries and benefits and to gut long-established workplace practices?

Sometimes, even today, there is no alternative to a labor dispute; but are musicians now less willing to go to that extreme? Why does a strike seem less desirable and less effective in today’s world? One source of influence reliably available to musicians has been public opinion; have some gone too far in wanting to keep a dispute out of public view?

Certainly, the methods of resolving disputes, whether labor disputes, armed struggles, or simple disagreements, haven’t changed for eons. People continue to fight with whatever energy they muster until the power relationships change and one or both parties considers compromise preferable. But it does seem that something has changed and that there is less appetite for strikes by labor and more desire for lockouts by management.

So what is it that has changed, and how should we handle that change? The public seems to understand and thus support unions less than in the past. Hard-won benefits of union workers, such as healthcare and pensions, are now derided on radio talk shows, even by workers, as excessive and too costly. There seems to be some driving force encouraging the public, rather than striving to make everyone better off, to support reducing the benefits of those who have it better than the norm.

Those benefits were won at great cost when workers, including musicians, grew tired of putting up with unjust conditions and applied concerted, united action. One thing that has long complicated musicians’ messaging is that we are a niche field, the norms of which are not readily accessible to the public. For example, in order to support what we do, we must have access to highly specialized medical care when the need arises. In that regard, our performance is closer to that of sports figures than to clerical or executive staff. It is not easy to make even those in management or our boards understand the issues.

In the past, we spoke with one voice to address perceived inequities and to make gains. The past was rife with inequities to be righted, and we have been largely successful. Of course, what is inequitable differs from place to place and from time to time. If an orchestra is struggling despite the heroic efforts of management and board, musicians aren’t likely to strike over tour conditions. It’s a different matter when an orchestra finds itself on repeated tours where conductors, soloists, and board members are accommodated lavishly on the backs of its musicians. As many of the inequities in our field have been addressed over the years, musicians now have less energy to fight about smaller problems.

It was usually the “Big Five” orchestras that successfully pushed for improvements in such areas as compensation, work relief, benefits, job security, media work, and tour conditions. Those advances were important for the entire field, though, for once something is attained, it is hard for others to argue its impossibility. Still, it took courageous and visionary musicians who were willing to be leaders, to take a stand, and to demand what was their due. Where would we be today had they not risked their livelihoods for a better future? Further, despite arguments to the contrary, the improvements we attained were never so outrageous as to diminish an orchestra’s quality or so unmanageable as to cause the demise of any orchestra.

With today’s more hostile environment toward labor, it’s no surprise that musicians are also affected. We should keep that in mind whenever we have a message for public consumption. More so than in the past, messages must be well thought out and effectively articulated. We want and need the public on our side. Even with a more hostile environment, we should have an advantage for lining up public support; after all, it is us they come to hear.

Why, then, are some managements and boards opportunistically targeting our employment and our employment contracts? Why do they believe that their message will resonate with the public (sometimes with more success than we would like)?

This isn’t a particularly easy topic to analyze or to discuss, in part because situations differ by orchestra and in part because the dynamics are complex. Some orchestras have long histories of financial successes, some of financial struggles, while others may be transitioning. Some board members have grown weary of constant fundraising that never reaches the mark, while others may have more capacity and are successful, being tremendously inspired by their association with great music making. Some boards seem to care more about a business model than about its product, while others delight in their contributions to the product through the community support they bring the organization. Some managers want to limit expenses to be able to reduce fundraising efforts, while others find new ways of motivating donors to support interesting and worthwhile projects. (I’m sure you can add to this list, so I’ll stop there.)

Beyond those complexities, it should be no surprise that some of the calls for a “new model” stem from the hostile environment, with some board members wanting to capitalize on the current economy as they have in other sectors. This is not imaginary, as I’ve heard it expressed by people in management who have tried to move things in a different direction. With such a mentality permeating a board- room, though, what would have happened had management either not resisted or had stoked the flames (as has obviously happened around the country)?

Even though these attitudes are at play, surely it’s not the big picture. Even more important is the degree to which some boards and managements have wanted to run—and judge— our organizations as if they are for-profit corporations. Without understanding all of the intricacies of our business and whether for-profit models are applicable, they have convinced themselves that drastic change is for the good of their organizations, and perhaps even for the good of music.

Board members who truly take their oversight role seriously would spend time and energy learning about and from the many successful organizations that do exist and would work to implement what they learn at the board and management levels. Far too often, though, we hear about the need for a new business model from boards and managements that are not themselves successful by any measure. The changes that are proposed often serve more to lower the bar for board and management rather than to strengthen the core of the organization (which, at heart, is artistic).

I’ve written before of this issue, which stems in part from the board of a non-profit having a dual role, both in overseeing corporate performance and contributing to it. The board hires and oversees a professional chief executive who is tasked with assuring that all parts of the organization run well. If that person pushes board members too hard, though, the board might opt to seek a less demanding manager.

In some ways, but not all, we and our organizations might fare better if we demanded accountability using measurement tools and management techniques from the for-profit sector. Is our fundraising on par with that of competitors, and how is that being measured on an ongoing basis? Can the marketing department justify how money was spent and quantify the results? Are we connecting enough with our audiences in ways that measure how satisfied they are with our programming and the service of our staffs? How are goals set, and who is accountable if goals are not met? What metrics are in place, and how is management using predictive analytics to advantage?

I’m not trying to make the case that such for-profit practices are always needed or even appropriate (even if sometimes they are). If something can strengthen our organizations, no one would argue that it’s a bad thing just because it comes from the for-profit sector. What is frightening is that what is taken instead are extreme anti-labor tactics. They are being used against orchestra musicians to support an ideology that is at odds with great music making, by people with little understanding of what our orchestras are, what they represent, and how fundamentally different they are from for- profit businesses. The tactics themselves underscore this, as it is the talent, commitment, and artistry of the targets of those attacks (i.e., the musicians) upon which the true value of our organizations must be built.

Of course, the call to run things like a business is hardly new to troubled orchestras. What is most alarming is how this mentality has crept into those charged with preserving our most prestigious and cherished orchestras. Clearly we cannot blame ourselves for those attitudes in board and managements. Nonetheless, I fear that our lack of interaction with boards and a reluctance to stand up for what we need as musicians and as employees actually fosters conditions that favor those attitudes. Have we become isolated to a degree that the conversations occurring between management and board members is not influenced by the artistic and human needs of musicians? We all understand that love of music is not the only reason (or, indeed, the only good reason) that community members join a symphony board. But is the commitment of board members and managers to the intrinsic value of an orchestra being stressed enough when there are difficulties?

In a well-run, successful organization, the board and management would themselves be at the forefront of ensuring this. Their commitment to quality and their ability and willingness to bring it about would be driving forces throughout the organizations. It appears, though, that we can no longer rely on others to start the conversation about board or management commitment and performance, or to ask the difficult questions. It’s understandable that musicians would like to limit their attention to performing to the best of their ability. As much as I wish we could afford such complacency, we can’t. It will take hard and dedicated work not only to articulate a case, but also to analyze where we might have success in changing attitudes.

It has always been a minority of musicians who take on leadership roles in an orchestra to fight for a better future. But gains have always been made when the vast majority of musicians agree on what a better future looks like and the importance of attaining it. Gains have been made when musicians stand united and speak with a single voice. It is up to us to educate newer members as they join our orchestras. Many musicians have never known the labor battles that brought about the decent jobs they have landed and may be unaware of their orchestra’s labor history. They may also not realize the importance of unity, a principle that cannot be emphasized too much or too often.

But times have changed, and our methods must also change. A strike fifty years ago did not have the same potential benefits and risks as a strike today, and those calculations must always be considered. In this information age, the tools at our disposal have increased greatly. That places further burdens on musicians who mount campaigns designed to bring about desired change to their orchestras.

It is easy for musicians to feel overwhelmed at the prospect of doing more than perform as instrumentalists. We take pride in our proven abilities and see our concerts as accomplishments. When we move away from that, we are taking time away from what we care about most. Still, there are musicians who do enjoy other pursuits and who are extremely talented in many different ways, and we must capitalize on those resources.

This is different from managements wanting to supplement their non-artistic staffs with musicians. Our organizations depend on and deserve staff who are in their positions because they are good at what they do and are evaluated on that basis. Management should under- stand that, as well as how much energy can be sapped from creative employees by forcing them to do what they never signed up for.

The same holds for finding musicians to do the work necessary to negotiate contracts and to interact with our unions, managements, legislators, and the public. It’s wrong that only a few individuals do all the work, as they will eventually suffer exhaustion and burnout. We must find musicians within our orchestras who are both good and willing to do specific tasks that combine to support our futures.

I remember one ICSOM Conference where Brad Buckley surprised me during his chair report. Rather than appealing to the delegates that they should do more and be more conscientious in their efforts, his message instead was that it was okay if they didn’t have the energy to perform their duties as delegates—they should let someone else do the job and not feel guilty about it. At that time, ICSOM delegates were not necessarily the most influential people in their orchestras. Since then, I think ICSOM has made great strides in connecting with orchestras. There is still a lesson to learn from Brad’s approach, though. We need to organize ourselves with the recognition that supporting one another as best we can implies that some people will do more than others, but everyone must consider how they might help—and then pitch in to the best of their abilities.

There was a time when we could afford to have an orchestra committee or negotiating committee that took care of everything, with our ICSOM delegate being a liaison to other orchestras. Those days are over. In the past committees called upon the entire membership of their orchestras to participate mainly in advance of possible labor disputes; now we must do so on an ongoing basis—and there is plenty of work to go around. In order to be prepared for the next problem, whether that is a financial crisis, a need for legislative action, or a labor negotiation, there is a lot to have in place.

More and more, musicians find value in having a website that continually attracts audience members with new content. Beyond that, social media has proved to be an invaluable tool. We must maintain media contacts as well as labor, board, and political ties. We need press releases, website content, and PR pieces. We can also find many good uses for interesting photographs, both of musicians at work and in our communities.

Managements and boards are already set up to capitalize on these types of resources. If we are not, we are disadvantaged. The good news is that, given enough lead time and effort, we can and will find musicians who are both good at and willing to perform these tasks. Some musicians hate social media sites, others live on them. Some musicians are deeply involved in political causes. Some musicians know how to run websites, while others might be great photographers or proficient writers. The list goes on, but unless there is a commitment by an orchestra to put such an infrastructure in place, it won’t happen.

Let me give one example. I have been working with AFM lobbyist Alfonso Pollard and others in our field on efforts to ease or eliminate restrictions on travel with instruments and bows containing ivory. Think of how powerful it would be if we could easily coordinate local and national pressure on all the legislators who represent the musicians in each of our orchestras. If your orchestra received an email tomorrow asking for your immediate assistance on this, could your orchestra respond appropriately? The time has come that orchestras must be able to answer affirmatively.

And there are even bigger questions. There is already much duplication of effort being expended by musicians in different orchestras. If every orchestra follows through on establishing the infrastructure I am suggesting, there will be even more unnecessary duplication that will need to be eliminated. Both ICSOM and the AFM SSD have already taken steps to reduce that, but much more thought and staffing is required to make it happen.

Similarly, how much extra cost and duplication of effort are ex- pended by orchestras in negotiation, in crisis, or simply wanting to penetrate their local media to get positive PR? This is something that should be discussed. Solutions should be found. It’s a bigger question than it might seem at first glance, though.

We must not be afraid to ask the big questions, no matter where the answers might lead (and I am not suggesting where that might be). Recently in the Twin Cities, we saw how multiple labor disputes can significantly impact a local’s financial health. Should we be considering union structures that are more robust and cost- effective? Would it make more sense to have a fewer number of geographic (regional) orchestra-only locals, or perhaps to assign orchestras to orchestra-only locals according to budget size? What impact would removing orchestras from our current locals have nationally? Would a restructuring with that in mind strengthen or weaken the AFM?

Orchestra musicians pay a lot of dues to both our locals and to the national AFM, and it’s not heretical to think that our needs should be met for that. Especially when similar services are needed throughout the country, it’s reasonable to think that the national union, or at least something larger than our locals, should handle that need.

Many things come to mind. For instance, what economies of scale could be seen if we had (in sufficient numbers and highly skilled) labor lawyers, public relations experts, negotiators, and webmasters— all on staff or retainer, available to all orchestras and to all locals, whenever needed? Shouldn’t there be paid staff collecting information for the wage chart and other data necessary for negotiations? Who facilitates providing the work product of one orchestra’s negotiation to another when appropriate? Who maintains current press lists? If we had a sufficiently large staff of excellent and experienced negotiators, would locals and orchestras need to hire costly counsel to represent them for each contract negotiation? Might we get even better results with a different arrangement? Might the cost and effort of negotiating little used national media agreements someday be better addressed through local negotiations if there were sufficient expert help available from union staff who know and understand the many intricacies and potential pitfalls of media work?

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve seen tremendous improvement in the service both locals and the SSD provide over the years. And the AFM has had to deal with tremendous financial constraints. However, are we getting our needs met in a robust and cost-effective manner, or are there better ways to explore?

This takes us full circle to the question of how to assert the influence we have effectively. Whether it’s to develop better union resources or to attain a better contract, we need to be organized and united, and we must speak with one voice. First, though, we need to develop a consensus about where we are headed. The fundamental principles are always the same, even when discussing organizational change that cannot come directly through contract negotiations (such as changes in board attitude or commitment, or changes of music director or CEO). We must organize, analyze, involve as many as possible, make strategic plans, and execute them. Managements and boards seem to be getting better at this, even if for dubious purposes. Are we prepared?

Finally, although I firmly believe that we must have musician leadership that is resolute and adamant in the need to protect musicians and to hold managements and boards accountable for living up to their agreements, when management and board do display a true commitment to our orchestras, it’s important that we appreciate that. If possible, we should find ways to support board and management efforts without being unduly compromising or sacrificing our needs. I am not referring only to contract negotiations and waiver requests. Perhaps equally important is the building of human connections that are not based upon work issues, for if trust and understanding are developed among people when times are good, that will help overcome disagreements during stressful times.

To that end, has your orchestra considered sending greeting cards to board members for no reason other than to let them know that their service is appreciated? If musicians interact with board members on subcommittees, is an effort made to get to know them?

This is an area where smart managers would do well to facilitate social interactions. Managers should guard against the instinct to isolate their board from musicians in an attempt to limit their influence. If a manager is up to the task of running an orchestra, that’s a very short-sighted viewpoint. Board members who get something personally out of their association with an organization will be much better ambassadors for and supporters of the organization. Since board members are more willing to go to a social event when asked by a peer, managers should consider facilitating social events that invite both the full orchestra and the full board—without any motive to engage in shoptalk. (Of course, musicians need little encouragement to voice their opinions, so orchestra committees would do well to remind their musicians in advance of the need to speak with a single voice on contract matters and to either avoid such discussions or to refer them to the elected musician representatives.)

This same openness might even go a long way to foster community involvement and support. As you probably know, my orchestra, the San Diego Symphony, had a long history of past financial troubles. In the midst of that, largely at the instigation of musicians, the San Diego Symphony opened up our hall for what was known as “Symphony Sunday.” It was a free opportunity for the community to visit and tour the hall, to meet musicians, and to interact with the orchestra. The music director played ping pong; a violinist who was a chess master played multiple chess games at once; there were refreshments; and musicians volunteered at various times throughout the day to connect with the public. The event only occurred once a year for a few years, but it was amazing how much positive feedback it continued to generate long afterward. Something as simple as being onstage at a performance facility gave our guests a special feeling they couldn’t get anywhere else.

When board members, musicians, and managers really do share a common goal, there is truly no limit to the successes we can still achieve.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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