What is the task and what are the responsibilities of an orchestra musician? Is the role model that is used by most established orchestras in the world still apt for the future? Or do we need to adapt that model? These very important question for everyone who is running an orchestra these days. They are also important for young players who consider a career within the symphony orchestra. And the issue becomes hot when the orchestra’s employers are discussing a new collective bargaining contract with the musicians and their union-representatives.
The limitations of agreements are only subject to discussions in other sectors. See left the official cover of the labour agreements for theatre and dance from 2014 – 2014. It says: “This is no longer allowed, isn’t it?” (bullet left).
Until very recently orchestra players in a professional orchestra were expected to concentrate on playing their instrument(s) and their contribution to the artistic level of the orchestra’s performance. All other issues were taken care of by the staff-specialists in the organization. Issues, like the financial well being of the orchestra and what kind of new public could be attracted were not a musician’s business in that model.
From the perspective of innovation and renewal of symphonic practice the limitation to “playing only” is bad news. An orchestra of innovational attitude should seek to get input and collaboration from all members of the organization (including the players) rather than act from a somewhat frozen and immobile situation. The innovative orchestra should seek to create situations in which anything that is necessary to achieve a goal in the context of renewal is also possible. But how can you do that within the traditional setting of the employed musician?
The Dutch concept op the personal portfolio
The collective bargaining contract introduced an instrument in 2012, called ‘personal porfolio’ that could actually become a role model to allow change and innovation.
The new labour contract sets a maximum of hours for musicians per season. Within that limit it allows to use the musicians hours in the collective service, f.e. for rehearsals, performances and recordings. But it also allows to use the musician’s hours for non-collective services. That might be artistic activities like chamber music, teaching or educational activities in very small groups. But it can also be any other kind of activity.
Musician who are not making their hours in a season, are obliged to suggest to the management what else they would like to do to fulfill the hours according to the contract. The management on the other hand is obliged to take care that all musicians actually have enough work to make their hours and may also suggest tasks to musicians who have not yet fulfilled their duties. Management and musicians have to agree individually on the task and the number of hours that are charged to the musicians account to make it a deal. These tasks and the hours are booked under the title personal portfolio.
The musicians at my orchestra, the South Netherlands Philharmonic f.e. , uses these hours for a wide choice of activities. Some of the musicians were trained to be able to perform as actors in productions for schools and kids. Others serve the orchestra by guiding the audience through an evening’s program. One of our trombone players gives workshops in schools and allows kids to play their first notes on that instrument. It is fun for the kids and no previous knowledge is necessary. Others are helping on the orchestra’s marketing department or sit in working groups that are working out concepts and ideas for the further development of the orchestra. Anything that helps is welcome. And any capacity of ability a player might have can be useful.
Two ways to look at this development
One can consider this as a step into the wrong direction. Musicians – in that opinion – are highly skilled and trained experts in playing in a collective and they should not be distracted from that artistic task. Not to use the full hours is not an issue because it allows the individual players to spend more to further develop their artistic skills which will eventually be beneficial for the orchestra.
One can also look at the element of the personal portfolio as a chance for the orchestra. A highly qualified musician in most cases has much more to offer that just his playing abilities. The new input can open ways to develop new services and products based on basic orchestral values. It can lead the way to innovation and renewal. And it will in any case lead to a better understanding between players and non-playing members of the orchestra.
A smart solution
I therefore think that the personal portfolio is indeed a smart solution to enable the orchestra’s musicians to embrace change without having to be afraid of loosing essential qualities. It is a role model that is interesting for many other orchestras.