Does SPCO, Minn. Orchestra musicians' skill justify their pay?by Chris Roberts, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — As the Minnesota Orchestra and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra continue high-stakes contract talks with their musicians, there is one thing both sides agree on: The general public may not fully appreciate what it takes to play in Minnesota's internationally renowned music ensembles.
Orchestra musicians have a big public relations task in this contract fight; justifying their salaries to the public. The state's median household income is almost $57,000. The average salary for a Minnesota Orchestra musician is $135,000 a year; the guaranteed minimum for the SPCO is almost $74,000.
Both orchestras say they can't afford the musicians at their current pay rates. Both musicians groups say management is demanding concessions that will doom their orchestra to mediocrity.
Administrators at both the SPCO and the Minnesota Orchestra are seeking dramatic reductions in the musicians' pay, but they have only praise for their talent and accomplishment.
"We are in no way trying to say that the musicians are not deserving," said Dobson West, the SPCO's interim president. "They have worked extremely hard, they are very skillful, they are very professional people."
YEARS OF WORK TO REACH 'THE FAMILY'
Rehearsing in his Minneapolis home, Minnesota Orchestra tubist Steve Campbell said many people don't understand the amount of work and money it takes to make it to the stage of Orchestra Hall. People approach him after a concert, tell him how much they like his playing and then ask what he does for his "real job," Campbell said.
Now age 40, Campbell chose his "real job" when he was young. He wanted to be a tuba player and band director, just like his dad. But as he honed his skills, played with better ensembles and felt the rush of the audience's appreciation, his goal became more ambitious than leading a band: he wanted to join a premier orchestra.
"I knew I wanted to make it to this level, if I was lucky enough and had enough fuel in the tank to battle how long it might take," he said. "And it took awhile."
Campbell started at the University of Houston, but then transferred to Boston and got a degree from the New England Conservatory. He graduated with a student debt of $40,000, which he's still paying off. After that, there were stints in orchestras in Boston, Spain, and Florida.
Campbell won his spot in the Minnesota orchestra seven years ago. But to get to the major leagues, he endured 31 auditions. Despite fierce competition, he was a finalist in the majority but not the final pick.
To audition, said Campbell, you need focus, patience, stamina — and cash.
When you try out for an orchestra, Campbell said you pay for everything, from the food and lodging, to the airfare for you and your instruments.
"Every tuba player comes with at least two tubas," he said. "That entails oversize fees, and you know, the orchestra doesn't foot that bill. Any audition you go to you're on your own."
The tab can add up to about $1,000.
But for all that an audition demands, it can be an impersonal experience. Campbell said a month to three months beforehand the orchestra sends a list of sometimes dozens of pieces to prepare.
During the audition, a selection committee sits hidden behind a screen, requesting certain selections. Then a voice says "Thank you very much," which would often leave Campbell wondering.
"You're reading into every little aspect of anything," Campbell said.
Campbell said he'll always remember his Minnesota Orchestra audition. This was a dream job, but more than 60 tubists were vying for one position. Once again, he made it into the semifinals and then was called back to play in the final round. But he was feeling gloomy as he parked himself on a couch at Orchestra Hall.
"I'm just laying there just going over and over in my head, 'they're not going to pick me,'" he said.
The wait for the committee to reach a decision seemed endless.
"I still have a vivid memory of our personnel manager coming in and saying, 'Steve, come with me,' " he said. "She put her arm around me and she said, 'Welcome to the family.' "
A BUSY SCHEDULE
The "family" plays 150 to 160 concerts a year, not including tours to Europe. Musicians are contractually obligated to rehearse or perform up to 20 hours a week, 42 weeks a year, but that doesn't include the home practice time it takes to play perfectly at rehearsals and performances.
Many orchestra musicians also teach. Campbell is an adjunct professor of tuba at the University of Minnesota, where orchestra musicians can earn an extra $15,000 a year or more, according to public records compiled by the Pioneer Press. But teaching adds to an already busy schedule.
And Campbell tries to practice two to three hours a day, whenever he can find the opportunity.
"Forty-five minutes here," he said. "An hour there, 30 minutes here — even 15 minutes. You learn to be very efficient in your practice and very smart about it."
The practicing doesn't stop when Campbell goes on vacation. He takes his instrument with him. He can't afford not to.
CARING FOR INSTRUMENTS A HUGE TASK
The instruments themselves represent a huge expense for musicians.
Fred Bretschger, the assistant principal bass player for the SPCO, spent $40,000 for his instrument, "Maggie," more than 20 years ago.
"I call her Maggie because she was made by a very famous maker from Italy back in 1630," said Bretschger, who's been with the SPCO for 32 years.
Maggie is the creation of Giovanni Paolo Maggini, one of the most influential string instrument makers Italy ever produced.
Even at the $40,000 price, the bass had holes in it and seams that were coming apart. Bretschger had to spend thousands more to get Maggie ready for the stage.
Bretschger's bow was made by the famous German bowmaker Hermann Pfretzschner from the tail hairs of white Siberian horses. He paid $2,000 for it, but a replacement would likely cost $5,000.
The instruments can require as much as $4,000 a year in maintenance, repair and refurbishing costs. But Bretschger doesn't have to pay for insurance — that's covered by a chamber orchestra group policy.
PHYSICALLY DEMANDING WORK
Musicians not only have to maintain their instruments, they often have to repair their bodies. The demands of practice and performance can lead to a range of career-ending injuries, from repetitive motion syndrome to arthritis and hearing loss.
Three years ago, Bretschger needed surgery for a back injury related to his job.
"That took some time and that was very career threatening," he said.
A recent study of Danish professional orchestras found musicians had more and longer-lasting physical problems than the general workforce. Three-quarters of the 400 musicians surveyed reported having to change the way they play and more than half had difficulty in daily activities at home.
But Bretschger said injuries aren't the biggest challenge he faces.
"The most difficult thing is making a mistake and just getting over it, getting past it. And hoping the mistake wasn't such that it jeopardizes your future," he said.
MONEY DEBATE LOOMS
Bretschger said many audience members are surprised to learn playing in an orchestra isn't just a hobby. And he bristles at the possibility that people might think he's overpaid or has a cushy job.
"I invite anybody who thinks we make way too much money to pick up my instrument and play it and go on stage in front of thousands of people, on a daily basis, with perfection expected of you," he said. "I'd like to see if they think we're overpaid after that experience."
Minnesota Orchestra President Michael Henson said he respects that the musicians are virtuosos who've sacrificed a lot to get where they are. But he said the orchestra is spending more than it takes in, and musician salaries need to be part of the solution.
"The challenge that we have to reconcile is that despite all that respect, appreciation of their training, is that we still have to balance what this very generous community will give in terms of how we have to make that work financially," he said.
The musicians counter they're not trying to get rich, but they do want to be paid at a level commensurate with their stature, and that allows them to stay with the orchestras they've helped build into some of the best in the world.
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MPR News Primer: Orchestra contract negotiations
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Minn. Orchestra seeks big cut in musician salaries
September 5, 2012
- All Things Considered, 09/21/2012, 4:49 p.m.