Orchestra 101 Bonus: The Orchestra Model and Professional Sports

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Periodically professional orchestra work stoppages are in the news. One question I get asked is to explain what is going on, and an analogy I go back to relates to professional sports as compared to orchestras. I don’t know if this is an original analogy or not either, but right or wrong it is worth being aware of in terms of messaging and public perceptions of what is going on.

As horn players we are very inside what I loosely call the “orchestra model.” We are musicians. Musicians are the orchestra; management serves musicians. I expand this idea out a bit more in this article, but the general idea is management arranges for concerts to serve the members of the orchestra and the concert loving public. Musicians perform the music and are the orchestra. That is our perception.

On the other side we have what I call the “professional sports model.” We are all familiar with how it works in say professional football. The management is the central organization that calls the shots. Players are hired to fill positions in the organization (team) and, if they don’t play well or want too much money, anyone can be replaced. Translating that to music and a perception by some of the public, an orchestra management is essentially in the business of presenting concerts. They hire people who perform.

That the professional sports model is so easily understood by the public muddies the waters in reality for the average person looking at an orchestra that has been locked out, which leads to messaging problems for orchestral players in negotiations.

My only direct experience in this was ca. 1995 in Nashville. I was Third Horn and we came up on a strike vote in relation to a pay cut. The players voted not to strike, which was right for me and my family at that point in time to be sure. As part of the news coverage a friend saw our salary in the newspaper and could not believe how low it was. Looking at the salary there now they have done well in subsequent negotiations, I hope they can maintain the gains as they go forward.

Back to the comparison, unlike professional athletes, musicians do have job security in the form of tenure, and tenure is never granted lightly. But management I think realizes that the public tends to think musicians are in fact replaceable (Third Horn = linebacker) and perhaps overpaid, just like a player on a professional sports team. It only makes the situation that much more difficult for orchestral players in public messaging. Educate, educate, educate.

I certainly feel musicians are the heart of an orchestra, but recognize also there are financial realities that have to be faced, ones that are more difficult in our present economy. On the whole I am still optimistic about the future of orchestras generally. And with regard to any orchestral players out there involved in difficult negotiations or work stoppages now or in the future, certainly as horn players we need to do our part to support them.

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