David Lennon (BM ’85, MM ’86, viola) often hears, “You used to play music — now all you do is fight about it.” As president of the largest local musician’s union in the world, American Federation of Musicians (Local 802), Lennon has seen his share of controversy. But he’d rather focus on the rewarding side of his job: resolving problems.
Born into a family of musicians — and survivors — New York native David Lennon has optimism in his blood. His mother was a Holocaust survivor and a member of the all-women’s orchestra in Auschwitz during World War II. Playing music, Lennon says, “literally saved her life.”
The Lennon children all played instruments at an early age; David himself began piano at 4, but discovered a love for viola in his late teens. Despite a late start, he dreamed of attending Juilliard: “I had set my sights and would commit whatever time and work was needed to catch up.” After a few years at Queens College, Lennon began his studies at Juilliard with William Lincer in 1981.
“I started out on the low end of the totem pole,” Lennon recalls-in the back of the viola section of what was then called the Juilliard Philharmonia. By graduation, he was principal violist of the Juilliard Symphony, teaching assistant to Mr. Lincer, and a teaching assistant to the Juilliard String Quartet’s chamber music classes. Lennon joined Local 802 during his last year at Juilliard.
He fondly remembers Lincer’s weekly studio classes, where he and his classmates turned a high-pressure scenario into one of support. The importance of community has resonated with Lennon throughout his professional life, particularly at Local 802. “There will always be the dichotomy of self-advancement and competition in this industry, but by virtue of what music making is, you have to learn how to work collectively … It is very important that you learn how to share your gift unconditionally with the very people that you a re competing against. To me, that is one of the greatest challenges of the professionalism of our business.”
Lennon served as principal violist of the Kansas City Symphony and the New York City Opera national touring company. He played all over New York as a freelancer for classical and Broadway companies — and experienced the power and protection of union representation firsthand. As an orchestral musician, he became an elected member of an orchestra committee and also the union steward, helping to manage difficult negotiations between management and the union. “And that is when I began to realize that, in life, you are sometimes given more than one calling.”
Lennon progressed quickly through the field of union advocacy. Soon he became a union steward, then 802’s Broadway representative in 1999. In 2000, the Local 802 executive board appointed him assistant director and supervisor of the concert field and Broadway field services. This past January, he was elected president of Local 802.
“People have said, ‘You loved playing so much, you were successful at it and making a living; how was it possible to walk away from that?’ I was walking to something, and I consider my work at Local 802 a mere extension of all the training. I could not be an effective union president if I did not come from the very community that I am representing.”
Resolving tough problems is, for Lennon “what fascinates me and draws me to this position.” When dealing with controversy, “there is no one-size-fits-all strategy. When a crisis comes in to union headquarters, it is very important that we go through a process of assessing what the problem is, who the players are, what the relationships are, and how we are going to get from dispute to resolution.”
One struggle is the threat to live music on Broadway and elsewhere — what Lennon describes as the “despicable attempt to replace live musicians with a virtual orchestra machine.” Lennon and the 802 administration have made it their “top priority to maintain the artistic integrity of live performance. No machine can replace the heart and soul and spirit of a musician.”
Lennon — who will visit various Juilliard classes on November 11 — feels deeply privileged that his work at Local 802 will positively impact students and alumni. “The whole goal of the union is to help musicians flourish in what they love to do in an environment that respects them, that re cognizes their great talent and skill. As a Juilliard student, there is so much to focus on and to pre p a re that you often get to the end of your training and know very little, if anything, about the union and what it will mean for you. I hope I can bridge that gap and prepare the next generation of professional musicians for the challenges facing them in the industry.”
Reprinted with permission from the Juilliard Journal and the Juilliard Journal Online (www.juilliard.edu/journal).