I should begin by stating that the Nashville Symphony, according to ICSOM – 40 Years of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians by Tom Hall, was a member of ICSOM for two or three years prior to the formation of the Regional Orchestra Players’ Association (ROPA). When ROPA was formed, the Nashville Symphony became a charter member. Membership requirements for ICSOM at the time we “re-joined” in 2000 called for an orchestra complement of no less than 60 musicians, each earning a base salary of at least $15,000. According to our 1987-88 contract, we would have qualified at that time, and again in 1997 (In 2003, the salary requirement for membership in ICSOM was increased to $25,000).
In 1984, having hired Music Director Kenneth Schermerhorn and Associate Conductor Amerigo Marino, musicians were joining the Nashville Symphony (myself among them) with the belief that the orchestra was moving in a positive direction toward full-time, major orchestra status. Salaries were staggeringly low (between $4,325 to $9,200 for most – I was making $5,842 my first season) in comparison to conductors’ salaries.
Promises and expectations led the musicians to strike for 7 weeks during my first season in February of 1985. The strike resulted in a contract that increased the core orchestra from 32 musicians to 70 in just four years (and a full complement of 82 musicians), with the bulk of the upgrades (23 musicians) in the final year. Services increased from 200 to 312 over a 43-week period with two weeks of paid vacation. The final year would also move from a three-tiered to a two-tiered orchestra. The base core salary was $17,500 in the final year of the contract.
While the board approached the musicians to change the terms of the final year of the agreement (one proposal included paying the core salary only to those 47 musicians who held core contracts in the 1986-87 season), the musicians eventually rejected the proposals and the board withdrew the offer. Afterward, the new board chairman agreed to honor the final year of that current contract.
Not long after the 1987-88 season began, the stock market’s significant drop in October of 1987 resulted in the suspension of all current and planned fundraising efforts. There was one week of brief take-it-or-leave-it “negotiations” (take the immediate 26% pay cut or we shutdown) in January of 1988. One week later the board did, in fact, shut the whole thing down and laid off the entire orchestra and staff, with the exception of the acting Executive Director/former Development Director.
Undoubtedly, one of many crucial mistakes made by management and the board, aside from the lack of investigating alternate solutions rather than shutting down, was a failure to pay into unemployment prior to the shutdown. This caused an additional debt of more than $500,000 since they had to reimburse the State of Tennessee following bankruptcy for unpaid unemployment contributions.
In hindsight, the musicians also made a crucial mistake by accepting a contract that was heavily back-loaded (a contract which contains the bulk of improvements toward the end), especially in light of charges that the Executive Director at that time had informed others he had no intention of honoring the final year of the agreement. It was the ultimate “bad-faith” bargaining scenario. Another crucial mistake was a lack of understanding about how much the orchestra was (or was not) supported by the community at the time.
Following months of successful musician attempts to raise enough money to pay for our health insurance with concerts and donations, the Association finally filed for bankruptcy in June of 1988. We made a case to the bankruptcy court for reorganization versus liquidation and were able to negotiate an extension to the master agreement that allowed us to return to work in late October 1988 with a 35-week season (from 43 weeks) and a reduced salary of $14,200. Our full orchestra complement declined from 86 musicians in February, 1988, to 82 musicians, with 69 musicians retaining core contracts through the first two years of this extension agreement.
For a number of years following these events, the orchestra was in survival mode and additional concessions were negotiated that allowed the orchestra size to diminish. The musicians didn’t put up too much of a fight because these reductions were achieved through attrition as our players left for other orchestras and other better-paying jobs, including jobs in Nashville’s recording industry. I believe that one of the reasons we’ve been able to attract and retain many of our musicians over the years is due to the recording industry and a thriving college community offering many faculty teaching opportunities.
In fact, we lost every principal string player as well as numerous assistant principals within the first two years following the shutdown. Over the course of a few years, we went from a full orchestra of 86 down to 73, and core reductions fell from 69 to the potential of 55 (though we never hit 55, our core size was 58 when we began rebuilding).
Following additional salary cuts in 1993 and two very successful concerts with Amy Grant, Vince Gill, and Michael W. Smith that helped wipe out the rest of the bankruptcy debt, the musicians negotiated some slight improvements to a contract that included a very successful 50th Anniversary Season. Previous negotiations, including this agreement, included offers of profit sharing, to which the musicians continually responded with pleas to begin an endowment campaign to assure the continued health of the orchestra. The Association implemented a very successful annual campaign, initiated a long-awaited endowment campaign, and the orchestra made two recordings that season.
During the shutdown and bankruptcy, communication broke down amongst my colleagues, and it took some time to heal those rifts. Thanks to information and advice from various ROPA colleagues, our orchestra committee began to communicate effectively with the musicians via a series of newsletters. Following the bankruptcy, our Master Agreement included provisions for orchestra members to elect representatives that serve on the Board of Directors, including the Executive Board, and those members used the newsletter to report on those activities.
In the mid-1990s, I recommended we begin holding orientation sessions for new members of the orchestra at the beginning of the season in which we negotiate. We educate our new members regarding the history of our orchestra, as well as introduce them to the functions and members of our various committees, board members, etc. Since their inception, these sessions succeeded in recruiting volunteers to serve in numerous capacities. A written orientation packet is also sent to new members when they join so they can get the “lay of the land” before they arrive.
The success of the 50th Anniversary Season emboldened us to begin fighting back for restitution and taking a stand against apathy. Allegedly, at least one board member relayed to the musicians that the shutdown was retaliation for the 1985 strike, so the musicians had been very gun-shy, but no more. Thanks to the work of CPA Ron Bauer, whose fee was shared between Local 257 and the AFM, he tracked our salary growth (and lack thereof) for the previous 10 years, from 1987 to 1996. This information was vital in allowing the negotiating team to begin pressing for “restitution” for how far we had fallen those past 10 years. Through some creative wording in the new contract regarding salaries, the musicians began to see more significant increases than previous years.
Once the orchestra size had been reduced, the string sections continued to be enhanced with numerous extras, including some that could not make commitments or would cancel at the last moment. We also faced vacillation by our Music Director regarding “quality versus quantity” when hiring extras for classical series concerts. Regardless of his reasons, our music director began pushing hard for the addition of new string players that would be permanent.
The Music Director and Executive Director were pushing for a fourth tier of “special” special contracts only for classical series concerts. Instead, the union and orchestra committee successfully argued that the orchestra would not be able to attract the talent required unless those positions were core contracts, as students and out-of-town musicians would require travel and per diem allowances our contract did not, and still does not, provide.The core string players were added to bring the size of the orchestra back to 1988 levels. In 2005, the second tier contracts were upgraded to core making the NSO a full-time orchestra.
In 1987 we were heading in the direction of ICSOM membership, but became sidetracked. In 2000, we made some strategic moves:
· The musicians voted to join ICSOM (I agreed with the decision despite the fact that I was about to become the leading candidate for ROPA President since Andy Brandt had finally decided to step down, a subject I did not share with my colleagues when voting.)
· The musicians also voted to join the AFM Strike Fund.
We believed this would send a powerful message that we meant business. Many of us had been talking to our new Executive Director, Alan Valentine, about the fact that with so many new musicians in our orchestra, we’d have a hard time holding onto them if we didn’t begin to see meaningful increases in our salaries. We had just come back from a very successful East Coast tour and Carnegie Hall debut. With so many Nashvillians traveling to NYC to hear the concert, momentum toward the building we will open this September – Schermerhorn Symphony Center – was begun.
I read Blair Tindall’s book Mozart In the Jungle a while ago, and one excerpt in particular amused me. She claims to have taken an oboe audition in Nashville in the early 1990s that either never happened or did not occur in the way she describes it. However, she did get one thing right: she spoke about sitting in a Printer’s Alley bar at that time and telling the bartender she’d taken an audition for the Nashville Symphony. The bartender responded with “Nashville has a symphony?” Exactly.
When my colleagues and I joined the Nashville Symphony in the mid-1980s, the city had little knowledge of us. After the shutdown, we were placed on balconies in hotel atriums to play for conventions, and additional outreach programs were added, some that were and some that were not effective. In 1990, we put ensembles into the schools to supplement the smaller chamber orchestra already performing school concerts. Over time, the ensembles took over school concerts exclusively, and orchestra concerts were moved to our performing venues. We also performed a lot of “outreach” concerts in city parks, antebellum homes, and the botanic gardens. Many have disappeared over time, some due to dwindling attendance, but more I suspect due to summer conditions. Many concerts were rained out, temperatures either too hot or too cold, and the bugs too annoying (especially during cicada plagues!). The orchestra happily moved some of our summer concerts indoors a few years ago, and they are quite successful.
It would be a rare occurrence in 2006 to find someone that does not know there is a symphony in Nashville. Our success required an investment by the various constituents of the Nashville community, and that required a much higher profile for the Nashville Symphony. Creating that higher profile included very public “opening” concerts (the Library, the football stadium, the Frist Museum, et al); as such, the community was invigorated to support building our new hall. Pride in the orchestra was also built through our various recording projects (we are, after all, a recording town!).
We’ve also had a bit of luck. We had a Music Director, Kenneth Schermerhorn, with some vision, a progressive President and CEO (Alan Valentine’s new title), and two extraordinary women who were very committed to the success of the Nashville Symphony. I previously mentioned Amy Grant, whose concerts not only helped us exit from bankruptcy but continued to raise donations for the NSO in excess of $1 million. The other, Martha Ingram, is the heart and sole of support for the entire Nashville artistic community. It is her vision as well that continues to sustain us. As a result, we are all better off.
It also took hard work and persistence by our musician leaders. They’ve done a remarkable job these past 18 years. We have a great deal to be thankful for and will work very hard to sustain this growth.