Laura Brownell  

What Were They Thinking?

Laura Brownell
November 23, 2019

Editor's Abstract (Click to Hide)

The dust has finally settled around the Harris Theater dispute. Music students are now comfortably established in their routines for the new academic year and may be looking for guidance as they pursue opportunities to perform. Laura Brownell takes a walk down memory lane and uses her experiences as a student performer to shed light on a long-standing issue: Can the interface among music schools, training orchestras, and professional musicians be effectively managed? This article explains that the problem will probably never go away but it can be effectively managed by following some basic guidelines.

- Laura Brownell


The purpose of a post-secondary music school is to prepare student musicians for professional employment. Successful placement of program graduates is an important performance metric for any professional training program. So why on earth would a music school require its students to reduce employment opportunities in the labor market by displacing professional musicians and doing their work for little or no pay? What were the people at Roosevelt University thinking when they offered up their student orchestra to perform for free for the Harris Theater for Music and Dance? Fortunately, they were stopped in their tracks by the Chicago Federation of Musicians, Local 10, AFM (CFM), a union that clearly understands that Job One of any union is to protect its members’ work.

But why does this keep happening? Maybe they just don’t get it. Let me try to explain.

I put myself through music school by playing in professional orchestras. Notwithstanding the withering disapproval of our old-country master teacher, complete with dark threats of the fate that might befall a hapless student who dared to fund her education through the pursuit of such a base activity (“I will smoke you out…”), many of us at the University of Michigan School of Music put music folders over our faces to avoid detection and furtively boarded the buses that had been sent by the Flint and Toledo Symphonies for the purpose of transporting U of M students to their rehearsal halls.

When I arrived at my first Flint Symphony rehearsal in 1974, I was greeted at the door by the AFM union steward. He said, “Sign your card, pay your dues, and play. In that order.” In that setting, we were professional musicians who happened also to be students, with all of the attendant rights and responsibilities of professionals.

To this day, there are many such long-standing symbiotic relationships between professional orchestras and music schools. The students need the experience and the cash. The orchestras need the talent. A classic example is the Cleveland Institute of Music. CIM students find work in nearby orchestras in Cleveland, Akron, Canton, and Warren, to name a few. They join the union and they get paid union rates. Everybody wins.

These are healthy relationships that must not be jeopardized by the unscrupulous and, indeed, self-defeating actions of music schools that occasionally succumb to the temptation of short term gain and obligate their music students, one at a time or as a group, to work for free for performance organizations that would otherwise be engaging – and paying - professional musicians. This is not a new problem. I wouldn’t even call it a trend. It is more of a “Whack-a Mole” sort of thing. It will keep happening from time to time and the AFM will, quite properly, fight back to protect the work of its professional members. This is exactly what took place in Chicago this summer when the CFM forced the Harris Theater and Roosevelt University to stand down from their plans to replace AFM professional musicians with the university’s unpaid orchestra for a production slated for the upcoming 2010-2011 season. Michael Tiknis, the President and Managing Director of the theater, seemed to think that the union should have met them half way. He said, “…we took the concerns voiced by the Chicago Federation of Musicians very seriously and made numerous attempts to seek a reasoned compromise that would both preserve the collaboration and enhance the excellence of the performance. We have failed in that attempt."

Is there a middle ground? Should the union have compromised? Is it ever acceptable for students to perform for free or for less than union scale? Guidance can be found

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