Tag Archives: San Francisco Symphony

Well, I could do that!

This post was written during the San Francisco musicians’ strike a couple of months ago, but was never published. The musicians are now, thankfully, back at work; however, I think this makes some points that still need to be made, over and over again. Musicians of every stripe and level are constantly accused of being lazy, of being overpaid, and of doing something for a living that should be reserved as a hobby for children. So here is my response.

People of the Internet. My name is E, and I’m a freelance violist. It’s nice to finally meet you. I think you should know, I try to be a reasonable person most of the time. I try to give people the benefit of the doubt, not get angry over little things that are really nothing. But right now, after the articles about San Francisco that I’ve been reading recently, I need to correct some serious untruths.

In the past few days, I’ve read two articles that belittle my chosen profession with a heroic combination of misinformation, superiority, and the foolhardy self-assurance afforded by a connection to Wikipedia. The first, by Manuela Hoelterhoff, a Pulitzer prize winner, is incredibly petty. Her main point, culled from between the insults, is that the musicians are whiners who should just be grateful they get to do what they love, and that the administration’s job is way harder, so it makes sense that they make a hell of a lot more money. She goes on for a while about Michael Tilson Thomas’s salary ($2.4 million), but I came away unsure whether she thinks it’s deserved or not. She certainly thinks executive director Brent Assink is a gift from the gods, though.  The second article is by San Francisco investor Anthony Alfidi, who readily admits to knowing nothing about music except that a guy with his last name once played in Carnegie Hall. But he still has an opinion—that the SFSO musicians are greedy for wanting more than the national average income (“They claim they should be paid as much as other big city musicians”! How absurd!) He does a lot of misplaced math in order to make his ultimate point: they could so easily be replaced by high schoolers anyway, the management should just fire them all and start fresh with people who will work for cheap.

And these are just the most recent in a long line of similar articles. The argument that musicians hardly work, are easily replaced, and are therefore greedy whiners has been made at least once in every labor dispute—Indianapolis, Atlanta, Minnesota, and so, so many times in Louisville. The management of the Louisville Orchestra even went so far as advertising for scabs on Craigslist. Have these people ever been to a high school band concert? It’s not pretty—I don’t care how good you think you sounded when you played second bassoon, Ms. Hoelterhoff; how complete your understanding of the bassoon’s role in an ensemble, how solid your oompah-oompah. Chances are, it still probably sounded like a weed whacker hitting gravel, not a top-flight professional.

(Start around 2:45)
So I was sitting here, and I thought, hey! I have a bassoon! Why don’t I just play it in a major symphony orchestra?

Mr. Alfidi says, “If the Symphony needs a scab player for the triangle or tambourine to help break the strike, then I volunteer to perform for free. I’ve had no musical education at all but those instruments don’t look that difficult.”

Thanks for the offer, bro.

Ralph Wiggum with a flute up his nose

I would honestly love to see Anthony Alfidi on stage with Michael Tilson Thomas, terrified and humbled like George Plimpton with Leonard Bernstein. But I love a good dose of schadenfreude, and I don’t think the audiences would appreciate it as much.

I have a challenge for these people. Go to a youth orchestra concert, then go see a major symphony orchestra—perhaps the San Francisco Symphony, if that becomes an option again soon. Try to enjoy it. Try to find something worthwhile in both concerts. (There will be something!) And try, with all your might, to find a difference. If, by the end, you still think they sound the same, then by all means, never set foot in a concert hall again. You have my permission. But only if you also never air your silly, ignorant opinions in a public forum ever again. Do we have a deal?

Let’s look away from bad bassoon for a moment, to another vocation that gets more respect, but which has essentially the same career trajectory as musicians—athletes. Lots of people do it as children, but very few make it to the upper echelons. It relies very heavily on talent in the beginning, then on dedication later. The people who do make it do it by spending thousands upon thousands of hours on their vocation, without the guarantee of success, financial or otherwise. They rely on larger organizations, run by people with lots of money, but who may or may not have ever been in that business themselves. Yes, people were unsympathetic when the NFL went on strike last year because, hell, they make tons of money—like ten times as much as the musicians of the SFSO—but still, you didn’t hear anyone suggesting that those athletes could easily be replaced with the high school quarterback. They could even have said, to hell with the NFL—we’ve got great college football, and that’s just as good! But they didn’t. They wanted both, because they recognized the difference between the two, with the professional league as the pinnacle of that particular sport’s achievement. I know the realities of sports and the arts are very different, but the effort put in by those who produce the entertainment is not. So the difference in respect for their finely-honed skills shouldn’t be so stark.

The depressing truth is that, when people look at the NFL, they realize it’s not something that they could just run out there and do. They remember high school gym, how hard it was to even run a mile or pass the Presidential fitness test, and give the professionals their due. They might think the players make too much money, but they at least realize the players are doing something special. But for some reason, when people look at professional musicians, they remember their high school music classes and think, yeah, that was easy! I could totally do that.

Yeah, maybe you could, but you probably shouldn’t. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, for instance, is famous for its brass section because of the individual players. Dale Clevenger, Charlie Vernon, and Gene Pokorny (among others) have made that section famous because they’re incredible players within the structure of the orchestra. Without them, it wouldn’t be the same—in fact, Dale Clevenger is retiring this season after 47 years as principal horn, and he will be sorely missed.

(28:11) Chicago with Barenboim—Dale Clevenger

Berlin with Karajan—most likely Gerd Seifert

Both amazing performances, which sound quite different because of all the different personalities involved.

The Cleveland Orchestra’s famous strings would suffer without Bill Preucil and Robert Vernon because of the years of trust they’ve built up with their sections, and the musicians in the rest of the orchestra. The Philadelphia Orchestra’s famously glittering sound is the sum of the contributions of each individual player. And San Francisco lost their principal oboist, Bill Bennett, to a brain hemorrhage just days before they went on strike. That’s enough of a loss for a group of people who depend on each other so heavily and intimately as musicians do—starting mostly over with a new crop of recent Juilliard grads, who, I’m sure, would be great players, definitely would not result in the world-class orchestra that San Francisco deserves. You can’t just replace them, even less than you can instantly replace NFL referees or air traffic controllers. It takes years to build an orchestra of that calibre, not days or weeks.

I think the problem is this. Non-musicians, including (but not limited to) Anthony Alfidi and Manuela Hoelterhoff, have this idea that music is something that children do, not real adults. It’s something they learned in school, perhaps on a recorder or a little plywood violin, and then never really encountered again. And as such, it’s not really something that should be a grown-up’s only source of income—it’s a hobby, not a career. Sure, every little suburban kid should take piano lessons, but once they go off to college, they should major in something useful, like business, nutrition, or creative writing. Just imagine a grown man who still plays in his garage band from high school—childish, right?

“But these musicians do get paid, and they to do so little work, and it’s fun for them! My job’s not fun, and that’s how work should be! You can’t make a living doing something you enjoy!” these people seem to say. So yes, if you think that way, it might seem ridiculous that the musicians in the SFSO have a starting salary of about $141,700. But let’s try to get a picture of how much work they really do—because, as we should all know, it’s not actually so easy as “just rehearse, play and go home,” as Ms. Hoelterhoff believes.

You start with time actually playing with the orchestra. On a light week, you might have eight hours of rehearsal and four of concerts—12 hours. Most musicians also practice between three and five hours a day, every day. This is time they need to learn the music for concerts and keep their chops—21-35 hours. Then, you get into research. Professional musicians want to know the pieces they’re playing, so they’ll spend several hours a week listening to other recordings and studying the score, even if they’ve played the piece before—easily 5 hours. Then, you have things completely outside of the orchestra—teaching, chamber music, and other outreach activities. These benefit the orchestra indirectly, but never show up on their expenses. They’re completely variable from musician to musician, since they’re voluntary, but no one I’ve ever met only does their orchestral work and nothing else. So let’s give this category a low-ball 10 hours a week. And let’s not forget—the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra plays a 52-week season.

Add those up, and you get 48-62 hours a week. That’s up to 50 hours of work beyond what you see just on the symphony’s rehearsal schedule. Having grown up in a household with a full-time professional musician as a father, and now becoming one myself, I can vouch for these numbers. They’re even a little conservative, but they’ll serve our purposes. In a 52-week season with a $141,700 salary, they’re making roughly $45 an hour (for a 62-hour week). Sounds pretty good, until you look at, say, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a comparably sized, full-time orchestra in reasonably good financial health. Their starting salary is around $135,000. Chicago’s cost of living is 5.1% higher than the national average, and (as Alfidi states in his article) San Francisco’s is 18.36%. Bring Chicago’s salary up to San Francisco’s cost of living, and, voila, you find that a comparable salary for San Francisco would be more like $151,600, or $47 an hour. Then, you look at listings for software engineers in San Francisco with 15 years of experience. (I looked up median salary offerings on payscale.com and chose software engineer because it sounded sufficiently banal to impress Anthony Alfidi.) If that software engineer works 40 hours a week and makes $144,890 a year, they’ll make $52 an hour. That’s more money for less work.

Who’s whining now?

So. That estimation tallies with a full-time orchestral musician’s life after they’ve gotten that one big dream job. However, it doesn’t even get into the countless hours of practicing and studying, the classes, the extracurricular activities (at one point in high school, I was in four different youth orchestras), the degrees (probably at least two, in this day and age, complete with the requisite loans), and the innumerable auditions that the musicians had to undertake to even get to this point. Most professional musicians have devoted between 10 and 20 years to perfecting their art before they even begin a full-time job with a livable wage.

If that’s not work, I don’t know what is. Passion for your work doesn’t change the fact that it is still work.

In the case of most of the recent locked-out orchestras, the musicians who had the opportunity moved over to other orchestras. I know a violist who was in the Louisville Orchestra, but went to Cincinnati during their lockout. Detroit had several people leave for more stable jobs. Minnesota has already had several. Indianapolis and Atlanta weren’t locked out long enough, as far as I know, but I’m sure they would have, had their strikes gone on longer. San Francisco has already lost their principal timpanist (a decision made before the strike, but inspired by a lot of the same things) to Chicago. These people really are at the top of their field, a field which requires incredible dedication and years worth of work, and other orchestras will compete for them. If you want them to stay in your community (and you do), you have to give them a reason, like any high-skilled professional. So implying that they don’t deserve competitive wages is frankly ridiculous.

These absurd articles shouldn’t simply be dismissed as the product of ignorance, though. They are ignorant, don’t get me wrong—but they speak to a deeper misunderstanding in wider society about what it means to be a musician. As I said, this gets brought up all the time, not just by these two writers. Every time any orchestra goes on strike, I hear pretty much the same thing, from local bloggers, journalists, even board members. Musicians are lazy, unreasonable, and intractable. They should be grateful for what they get, because they get to play all day and do what they like. It’s musicians’ responsibility, as the slighted party, to defend our profession. We know we aren’t lazy. We’re some of the most focused, directed, talented, dedicated, persistent, insanely career-focused people on the planet. What’s more, we’re collaborators. We depend on each other for every performance, so we have to trust our colleagues’ judgment. In the same vein, if anyone, confused about what it means to be in our profession, decides to attack it in a public forum, even one so unfocused and broad as the Internet, we have to be prepared to reply.

So, here are my conclusions. The musicians of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra are not overpaid—they’re paid comparably to other musicians in similar major symphonies. (If you think the entire industry is overpaid, well, that’s another conversation entirely.) It sounds to me like their union’s demands would help them keep up with the benefits offered by the other symphonies at their level. (And, beyond my obvious bias as a musician, I have no interest in this particular fight—I just hope everyone gets a fair deal.) Musicians, as a whole, are not lazy, and are, in fact, some of the hardest-working people in the world—a fact that we would do well to remind people of as often as possible. Musicians are also not as interchangeable as people seem to believe—they are creative individuals who bring something unique to each performance. They’re not out for the money. If they were, they’d be in something more lucrative, like rock music or finance. The musicians have dedicated their lives to creating this music, which is ultimately the only product that the San Francisco Symphony has to sell. Perhaps, if this goes on long enough, they will form a Keep San Francisco Symphonic group, as they did in Louisville, just so they can keep bringing the music they love to the community they’ve made their home. The last thing the musicians need is uninformed financiers and dabbling writers publicly insinuating that their highly-skilled job that they slaved for years to qualify to get could probably be done by the pimply kid serving your Slurpees at the convenience store.

No serious professional will risk blacklisting themselves just to take someone else’s hard-earned job. Open up auditions for scabs, and this is all you’ll get.

Auditioning for principal trumpet…

On second though, that’s awesome. You’re right, smug Internet writers. Replace that piccolo player with your fifteen-year-old kid who totally just got second chair in All-State band and you’ll get exactly the same results. I don’t know why we didn’t think of that before.