JULY 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 6

JULY 2020: Recovery Edition, Part 6
June 30, 2020 leonard slatkin

“How did it get so late so soon?”
—Dr. Seuss

Facing the facts is a rough business. Those of us in the arts are dreamers, always seeking to find what is next. But what if there is no next? We have come to an important crossroad during this pandemic that is forcing each of us to consider options that were at one time unthinkable.

These actions will have consequences not only for us in the orchestra business, but also for musicians in every sector of the performing world. The possibility that our work, which has come to a standstill, might disappear altogether is slowly sinking in. Consequently, soul-searching and devising workable solutions are at the forefront of our thinking.

There are two aspects that intersect when it comes to orchestra members. One of those has to do with musicians who are entering the workforce, and the other concerns those who are leaving. Contracts in the United States are generous. They allow for tenured players to remain in their home orchestras almost indefinitely. Unlike their European counterparts, they do not have a set age for retirement. They literally can go on until God removes their job security.

Depending on the agreement, once players reach a certain number of years’ service in an orchestra, not only do they collect a weekly salary, but pension payments also start arriving, along with seniority pay and various increases accrued over time. They have little incentive to step down, even if their performance skills may have deteriorated. These days, very few orchestral musicians are dismissed.

In some ways, that is a good thing, as it allows a knowledgeable performer the opportunity to engage with the young musicians who come into the workforce. The other side of the coin is that this experience can have a deleterious effect. Musicians are loath to recognize when it is time to stop.

The sweeping impact of the coronavirus has forced the issue for some. With no guarantee of employment or a salary in the near future, several orchestra musicians are contemplating leaving the field. And who can blame them? If you have served enough years to receive all the benefits, but are unsure as to when that next weekly paycheck will show up, why not cash in now? Early predictions are that approximately fifteen percent of current full-time musicians may very well pack up their cases by the end of their current contracts or even immediately.

Which brings us to the logical next question: Who will replace them? Auditions will be very difficult to pull off. With halls shut down, social distancing measures in place, musicians scattered around the globe, and vacancies needing to be filled, no one is certain when anything can proceed. Even if a venue is available, there will be many potential candidates who will fear flying. As I write this, you cannot travel between New York and Florida.

Earlier in this series of articles, I wrote about the necessity to stay local. But that was mostly concerning the conductors and soloists. Now it is clear that the same must apply to the orchestral workforce. Most ensembles have a list of substitute musicians who are engaged on a regular basis. There are always absences, leaves, and vacancies that require the services of alternates. Thinking ahead of the curve, orchestras should all consider hiring local players for at least the first half of the 2020-21 season, if not the entire concert calendar.

Most people in the profession are coming to realize that nothing can move forward until there is a proven vaccine. But even when that time comes, we will not be assured of how many people will have gotten it. There are no guarantees that this will be enough. Remember how the various flu strains still stayed with us? Even some who got the shot still came down ill.

There must be guidelines, nationwide, that tell us when it will be safe to return. The earliest that will occur is just after the new year. By that time, however, orchestras will have exhausted their windows for announcing an audition schedule. It will not be until March or April when new musicians can be selected. This wipes out any new members joining ensembles for the season.

It is long-term thinking that will get us all through this wearisome time. We must recognize that orchestras will lose some musicians and will not be able to replace them quickly. Adjustments will need to be made to programming. Audiences will have to be kept informed and the donor base secured as much as possible.

When musicians do return to the stage, I anticipate that skills that go beyond artistic talent will become increasingly vital. The orchestral musicians of the next decade will be a different version of the traditional. The capacities to communicate well, understand technology and bring innovative ideas are bound to become part of the hiring process. Understanding the full range of capabilities each person brings to the job is more important than ever.

I wish all those who choose to leave the very best. You have served the musical community well and deserve its gratitude. And for the musicians that will eventually take their place, I urge you to understand that we have entered a time when everything is changing. Take advantage of the opportunities you are afforded. Bring your very best.