How music teachers can make a difference

Volume 122, No. 10November, 2022

Julia DeRosa

Part of my education at Juilliard was understanding the history and importance of the union. My oboe teacher, Local 802 member Elaine Douvas, is also the chair of the Woodwind Department at Juilliard, and her respect for the role the union plays in music has been very important in shaping who I am as a professional.

Every once in a while some unsuspecting young oboist would check their email and find, to their delight, an offer of “real professional work”! Inevitably this would conflict with oboe class, a three-hour session held weekly for the oboists of Juilliard, covering etudes, reed making, orchestral literature, listening to excerpts, English horn instruction and so on. This class was a goldmine of information. There are literally hundreds of oboists across the country (and around the world) whose careers have been shaped by this one class at Juilliard.

The sequence of events would play out the same way every time. The student would write an email to Ms. Douvas asking if they could please, maybe, just this once miss oboe class so they could play this gig?

Her reply would be a “reply-all” to all of the oboists at Juilliard. Subject line? 1-800-BAD-GIG

The email, which I have permission to excerpt here, reads:

Dear Oboists,

Here is my opinion: John Doe was offered a job playing some opera premiere that conflicts with etude class #1. I told him not to take this job for several reasons, and I am telling you, because I don’t think any of you should accept this job. It involves 6 services for $750; although this sounds like nice money, do the math. This is $125 per service, some of which are 4 hours long. Location unknown. This is a union-busting, unfair to musicians job that is supposed to be reported to the union for the “Unfair List.” Everyone would like to hire excellent Juilliard students at half the legal union rate instead of paying the hard-won union rates. If everyone did this, musicians would no longer be able to make a fair salary. No one can prevent you from accepting such work, but try to think of the big picture. It is ethically wrong.

The response? Across the board, students were glad to have the information! These requests were always innocent– and this was such an important teaching moment for all of us. We got it, and I can tell you from personal experience that not one of us has taken a nonunion gig since without at least suffering a serious case of guilty conscience.

This is not intended to shame anybody for accepting nonunion work in the past, nor is it meant to call anybody out. This is simply my personal call to action, because I know we are far stronger together than we are alone.

We find ourselves at 802 engaging in a constant game of whack-a-mole because the 1-800-BAD-GIGS  are popping up fast and furious. We need your help!

The quest to get work under union contract (or “organizing” as it’s referred to around Local 802 headquarters) is one that is very important for all of us. I know that many in my generation are simply not particularly enticed by pension contributions that feel far away. We also tend to undervalue contributing to the health plan, which is vital to so many of our colleagues. However, we all can get behind fair pay and decent working conditions, all of which are protected under union contracts. I can tell you personally that the ways in which conservatory students are taken advantage of have only gotten more outlandish.

I believe that union contracts, when upheld and maintained by the musicians who work under them, allow for the highest artistic standard possible. Working under union contracts means that musicians can focus all of their time and devotion to their craft. I fear that if we stray from the standards that are needed to make a living in this rare and special way, we will lose the luxury of prioritizing our music.

What is it I am suggesting we do?

We have all had a rough few years–we know that not all of our members are in a financial position to turn down work. It’s not always going to be possible to say no for the sake of ethics, but there is still plenty each of us can do; individual voices can make all the difference. If you find yourself being asked to play a 1-800-bad-gig, here’s what I suggest you do:

  • Report nonunion gigs to the Local 802 hotline. You can do this anonymously, and it gives Local 802 the chance to track nonunion work and even take a shot at turning the job into a union job. You should do this regardless of whether or not you accept the work.
  • If you are turning down the work, speak up! If no one tells employers they are not getting the best players because they are not filing union contracts, how will they know?
  • Teachers: educate your students about why this matters.

The union has your back! We fully understand the financial burden we all face, as well as the delicate nature of reputation in the business. We take anonymity very seriously. If you are in a financial position to say no to nonunion work please do so, and tell the employer why. If you must say yes for financial reasons, at the very least tell Local 802 about the gig! You can do so anonymously, and you won’t get in trouble. And you may succeed in getting the gig covered by a union contract that offers all the players decent wages and full protection.

Julia DeRosa is an oboist and a member of the Local 802 Executive Board. She has been a member of Local 802 since 2010.