Letter from Ginny Owens
Dear Members of the Executive Board:
I am a twenty-eight year old violinist and I currently am employed as a violin teacher in Oakland County. As the strike has unfolded I’ve tried to remain open-minded, listening to the facts presented by both sides. But, in the last several weeks I have grown increasingly disillusioned with management’s handling of this very important issue.
Are you aware that the musicians of 56 different symphonies—including organizations such as the Boston Symphony, the New York City Ballet, the Quebec Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the Grand Rapids Symphony—have financially supported the musicians of the Detroit Symphony? And have you weighed the heavy implications of such support? Sure, you can shrug it off as “typical union bonding”—but have you considered that your handling of this strike is creating among musicians a certain, infamous, reputation for Detroit? At this point, what musician is going to want to come and play for the Detroit Symphony? Or, perhaps the better way to look at it is, what musician is going to want to stay in Detroit?
Certain elements in your proposed contract exist as anomalies in the musical world—such as requiring the musicians to cover the costs of their own travel expenses as they give official concerts within a 75 mile radius. Won’t that sort of abnormal contract attract only musicians who can’t get into other orchestras and who will then audition their way out of Detroit and into other cities’ orchestras? That in turn will leave Detroit with a rag-tag, hodge-podge group of musicians comprised of recent conservatory graduates who lack experience and who play without the seasoned, sophisticated unity characteristic of our current DSO. There would be little opportunity for the musicians to settle into a familiar, unified body that produces exceptional music—for with your proposed restructuring of the orchestra, what musician of any stripe is going to want to stay?
The orchestra would become a mill, turning out musicians who will have scraped together just enough experience to allow themselves to climb the audition ladder and leave Detroit. In turn, we would continue eagerly accepting more “young talent” (i.e., novice musicians) who are too inexperienced to get a job anywhere else. Sure, they’ll provide cheap music—and after all, isn’t that the goal of breaking the union?—but it will be a far cry from the quality Detroit is accustomed to. Would there then be more competitive recordings provided by the DSO? Will seasoned soloists continue to avoid performing with Detroit?—a phenomenon you have already experienced and which has already lost you money. I suspect that the quality of concerts will diminish, and that consequently, the number of patrons will dwindle. Already your handling of this crisis has lost you numerous subscriptions as patrons have cancelled their season tickets and given the money to the musicians. Do you seriously believe that a second-rate orchestra will attract a thriving audience? Additionally, have you considered what will happen to the music faculty at, say, Wayne State University, where string instructors are highly-qualified symphony musicians? The Civic Youth Ensembles are affected by your choices as well, for what serious child musician will be enthusiastic about playing in a venue that has forced its great musicians out the door through a series of thwarted negotiations? What sort of musical legacy are you creating—or destroying—for the community?
You, management, are robbing young people of their educations—both the college students and the young musicians who leave concerts inspired to practice with more diligence. You are robbing local businesses of their incomes, since the dearth of concerts has created a commercial vacuum in Detroit. You are betraying the community you claim to serve. You are trying to break the union—force the good, valuable, exceptional, seasoned players out, and bring in new, cheap labor that won’t bother to stick around long enough to cost much. And why would they? What incentives would they have when you propose such an unsatisfactory environment?
You think you are doing your job by focusing on the bottom line—and for all I know, you may be deceived into thinking that you’re doing a good job. But don’t be mistaken: your duty extends beyond merely solving the financial problems of the orchestra. Your responsibility is also to provide the community with good music; or, better yet, to allow the musicians to provide good music. You have adopted tunnel vision—you are so focused on the monetary aspects that you are neglecting other incredibly necessary aspects of your job.
I urge you to do your job—the entire job. Don’t settle for merely shoring up the fiscal security of the orchestra; instead, use your ingenuity to create a musical environment that will continue to provide Detroit with the kind of music it so evidently wants. The plan you currently pursue will not lead you to that end. So far, I think you have done a miserable job. But there is still time. Do the right thing, before it is too late.
Thank you for your kind consideration,