‘A Musician Never Retires’

Feature interview with Stanley Drucker

Volume CIX, No. 9September, 2009

Stanley Drucker in 2009. Photo by Stephanie Berger

UPDATE: Stanley Drucker died on December 19, 2022 at the age of 93 after being a member of Local 802 since 1945. Please enjoy this interview below from 2009.

Let’s hear it for Stanley Drucker. After a record-breaking 60 years, he’s taking his final bow with the New York Philharmonic. Fellow Local 802 member Howard Heller recently sat down with Drucker and asked him for a snapshot of his musical life, focusing on his relationship with the union.

Howard Heller: It would be very interesting to the union members of today to hear what the union was like back in the day, and how important was the union in protecting the interests of professional musicians.

Stanley Drucker: There was a huge union floor where people went to page other musicians and perhaps the union posted certain jobs that were available, looking for certain types of players. And it was always an exciting place to visit, and it was something that every professional musician did. So one got to meet a lot of musicians and become part of this marvelous fraternity.

I remember a lot of these meetings whenever master contract negotiations would come up – people really worked hard to achieve progress, there’s no question about that. It’s been quite an adventure and we’re partners with the union.

HH: Did you have health and pension benefits in those days?

SD: In the early days there wasn’t even unemployment insurance when the New York Philharmonic season ended after only 20 weeks, but that came in a little later. But the union was always working for the betterment of its members. In the 1960’s we went to year-round employment. It was during the tenure of Leonard Bernstein, and also women came into the orchestra.

HH: I remember when I was in high school in the 1960’s the only female first chair wind player of any of the top five orchestras was the flute player in Boston, Doriot Anthony Dwyer.

SD: Yes, at that time. But today, rightfully so women have won major posts in all of the orchestras.

HH: As you know, the country is experiencing some very difficult times financially and many Americans are being laid off from their jobs and struggling to make ends meet. Some people are questioning whether labor unions still have a vital role to play in the American fabric. What would you say to a new conservatory graduate who is wondering whether or not the union can help them in their quest to make a living in this town?

SD: Well, I think that the union has to be here for all time, because I feel it’s our colleagues that have our interests, who have the same desires that we have, and they understand what we do because they’re musicians. And we need solidarity, we need strength, because the real benefit is for the orchestral musician rather than the great solo chair players who probably do a lot of their own negotiating. That’s where the union really, really shines, because it helps the people starting out, and gives them something to shoot for, and that’s where the real benefit is. It’s in maintaining a great starting point, not just for the top people, even though the union is a big help in that area. too

HH: Now that you’ll be retiring do you plan on continuing as a member of Local 802, will you maintain your membership?

SD: Absolutely. A musician never retires. He may retire from a job, but as long as you can play, you play, and I expect to play as long as I can, and I’m certainly not retiring from music.

HH: Well, that leads us to our next question. Now that you will be free of the demands of your job, after all these years, many people will be very interested to hear your plans for the immediate future. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

SD: Well, I expect to play chamber music, recitals, I probably will do master class situations at universities, not only in this country but around the world. I’ll be free to accept those kinds of things. Some seminars. Attend some annual professional symposium that I haven’t been able to always do because of the time, the scheduling, and I’m certainly going to be active in this area.

HH: And through all of this you’ll maintain your membership?

SD: Absolutely! With no question about it. And in addition, my wife is a member of Local 802 also, she’s a professional clarinetist, has been all her life, so it’s in the family, and for us, it’s what we do.

HH: Let me ask you, it sounds like you spent a lot of time on the road before you got the Philharmonic job, but we hear stories from those days of there being so much more opportunities for musicians, like radio and studio orchestras and recordings and live…every television and radio station had their own live band. Did you do any of that kind of work?

SD: I didn’t actually, because I started playing in symphonies at such a young age. That’s where I made my home, and I know that a lot of musicians were busy playing commercial work. There was an awful lot of jingle work and radio in those days as well as performances where musicians could make more money than playing in a regional symphony like Indianapolis or Buffalo (where I started out).

HH: Sixty years is a long time – but you actually began your career as a professional musician before joining the Philharmonic. Can you tell us a little about that?

SD: When I was 15, I was a student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. I had won entry to the school through competitive audition – it’s an all-scholarship school to this day. At that time it was a little over l00 students, all won their position there in the school by competitive audition, and like one big family, we had kids that were very, very young playing the violin and the piano, and there was a wonderful wind department. So actually, I got to be exposed to a lot of music at a fairly young age. I’d already been at the High School of Music and Art in New York before taking the audition for the Curtis, and played in the community orchestra in Brooklyn where I was born and grew up, and I was taking private lessons at the time, and I just attended everything I could attend, that I could get in to, and go from one rehearsal to another with what they call these community groups or small ensembles, and anyway, while I was at Curtis we had a weekly radio broadcast that the Curtis Orchestra performed in that was sponsored and it was in CBS in Philadelphia…

HH: So this was a professional engagement?

SD: This was a professional engagement; I was at that time l5 years old…I was the first clarinet player, and we had some pretty good players in that orchestra. Aaron Rosand, the violinist, was in it. Seymour Lipkin had a lot to do with it; he was the assistant conductor to Marcel Tabuteau, and some really outstanding young players.

HH: Do you remember the local?

SD: I remember going down to the local, it was Local 77, and it played a very big part in my future career actually, because while I was at the Curtis, Fabian Sevitsky, who was the music director of the Indianapolis symphony, was going around the country auditioning players for his orchestra for the following season and I went down to the local and that’s where I played my audition for Sevitsky and the Indianapolis Symphony, and I won that audition and joined, of course, Local 77.

HH: How old were you then?

SD: I was 16 then, not knowing exactly what to do, I’d been in the school one year, and I went to the director of Curtis who at that time was Efrem Zimbalist, the very famous violinist, and I asked his advice as to what to do and Zimbalist said, “You must take the post, you can always come back to the school.” Some people stayed there ten years. So anyway, I took the job, and I never came back. I was, I guess, probably their most famous dropout.

When I was a student at the Curtis Institute, everybody belonged to the union. It was just understood that that’s what one did if you wanted to be a professional musician. I was always taking a lot of auditions in those days; that’s what one did. Because one went to a job that paid a little more every week or perhaps had a longer season. I auditioned for Adolf Busch, who was the conductor of an orchestra called the Busch Chamber Players and the Busch Little Symphony.

I went to the Buffalo Philharmonic after touring with Busch and that was the season, l947, 48, when I was 18, and it was while I was in the Buffalo Philharmonic, I was notified about an audition at the New York Philharmonic. I was asked if I wanted to do an audition for Bruno Walter and the committee of principal players and of course, at that age one doesn’t think too long on any subject, you do it.

So I went to New York and I auditioned, and I won that audition, and that’s how I began my New York Philharmonic career, starting in the fall of l948. I was l9, and that was my first season. Bruno Walter was the chief conductor. The guest conductors that season were Charles Munch and Leonard Bernstein and others of that caliber, so it was a pretty good roster.

HH: The New York Philharmonic is the oldest orchestra in the United States. How did it feel to join it?

SD: Of course the Philharmonic was a great orchestra even in those early days, it was venerable, it was founded in l842, so when I joined the New York Philharmonic it was its 107th season and this is the l67th season. They keep those kinds of records, you know, and they tell me that the Philharmonic has played over 14,000 concerts, and because of those records they keep in their archives, which are fantastic, I’ve played over 10,200 concerts with the Philharmonic which is like, I don’t know, 70 percent of their entire concert output, of all those years. Of course, the early years they didn’t play so many concerts as we do today, but the facts are mind boggling, considering that I played with 450 Philharmonic colleagues, which is the equivalent of four and a half orchestras, during my years.

HH: Mr. Drucker, as you walk off the stage for the last time, you leave behind an empty chair which will be very difficult to fill. On behalf of Local 802 and all musicians everywhere we want to express our sincerest gratitude to you for all the wonderful music you’ve given us and now that we’ve heard there will be more, we’re very happy about that.

SD: Well, Howard, thank you very much. I’ve known you a long time, and I count you as a good colleague.

HH: Thank you very much, that’s very flattering. Thank you for spending some time with us today.

SD: A pleasure.

Stanley Drucker died on December 19, 2022 at the age of 93 after being a member of Local 802 since 1945.  The interview above was published in the September 2009 issue of Allegro, the magazine of the NYC musicians’ union (AFM Local 802). For background, see