I had the pleasure of playing a union gig for the first time this past week. Immediately, I could see the benefits of working in an environment that conformed to the standards set by the Chicago Federation of Musicians (a subset of the American Federation of Musicians). The rehearsal environment was organized, professional and relaxed. A specified union representative (playing in the orchestra) ensured that breaks began on time, that the rehearsal ended on time, and that everyone was well informed about important details.

The symphony orchestra is probably the least democratic musical environment there is. And there’s nothing terrible about that: with up to 100 people making music together, it makes sense for just one person to be in charge. But this makes unions extremely important! In a culture where everyone calls the condutor ‘maestro’ and does exactly what s/he asks, it can be pretty awkward to remind your ‘boss’ that rehearsal was over ten minutes ago and nobody’s getting overtime.

This particular concert began 35 minutes late and included a lot of costume changes, dramatic curtain calls, and lengthy speeches. In another setting, the instrumentalists might have been stranded onstage: stuck at work much longer than they were paid for. In this case, our union representative helped ensure that the musicians were able to leave the stage at a reasonable time. (The audience was not so lucky – this concert was almost four hours long!)

I left this experience with enormous respect for the AFM and its Chicago members. When I visited the CFM’s website, I found an interesting open letter to the students of the Roosevelt University Orchestra. Turns out, the Mark Morris Dance Company tried to use the student orchestra (for free) for an upcoming performance at the Harris Theater. The CFM rejected this plan, however. As they explain in the letter: if major institutions like Mark Morris are allowed to use free student musicians instead of paid professional ones … will there BE any paying work for conservatory grads?