Call and Response

A Conversation with Fiona Simon

Volume 111, No. 3March, 2011

Ann Wilmer
Fiona Simon
Fiona Simon, Local 802 member since 1982.

At the age of four, Fiona Vanderspar Simon met the violin and that was it. She knew that was her future.

Simon, a Local 802 member since 1982, began her musical career as many do by taking piano lessons. Her teacher was Iris Greep, mother of renowned cellist Jacqueline du Pré and a teacher at the Royal Academy of Music – a colleague and friend of Simon’s mother.

Simon’s mother, a pianist and music teacher, taught Dalcroze Eurhythmics – music through movement – to students ranging in age from very young children to adults. Her older brother Christopher is principal cellist at Covent Garden and younger brother Edward is principal violist with the London Symphony Orchestra.

In her native England, Simon left school at 16 but continued to study the violin, building a career as a soloist and playing chamber music. Simon never completed a formal college degree. Instead, she steadily increased her skills studying, competing and practicing her way to the New York Philharmonic. “No one has ever asked me whether or not I had a degree. You can either play or you can’t,” she said.

Playing in the Philharmonic has also brought with it another experience – learning how to work within the framework of a large musical organization, something Simon hadn’t experienced as a freelance musician living in England.

“For the first time, my life centered on one organization with a defined internal structure. It was a very big change for me to work in a symphony instead of a smaller group. I also learned to think in terms of being part of an organization.”

Simon added, “To function well in this organization requires many more skills than playing your instrument. I went into this without any understanding of that.”

Union membership has been responsible to a large degree for the new organizational and negotiating skills Simon has acquired on the job. Her colleagues in the 106-member orchestra elect a five-person orchestra committee that is responsible for, among other things, negotiating new contracts. Simon is the current chair of the committee.

“One major part of my life in the last several years has been serving on such committees.” As part of a union negotiating team, Simon said the unpaid but necessary work has been a “fascinating learning experience – my way of giving back to my community of 106 men and women who make music together.”

Simon said it had been interesting to acquire, over the years, new skills necessary to make a positive contribution such as public speaking, negotiating, running a meeting, and working with attorneys. “I care very much about my colleagues and like to see them treated well. If I can help to solve problems I enjoy doing that.”

One of the problems women in other fields might expect she has to grapple with is gender equality. Simon said that has not been her experience at the Philharmonic, though she realizes it has been an issue in the past. “It’s a good time to be a woman in classical music.”

Slightly more than half of the orchestra’s membership is female at present. Simon said the percentage of women may increase in the short term but will eventually even out. She explained that women were not allowed to join the Philharmonic until the 1960’s and are only now beginning to reach retirement age.

During her time at the Philharmonic, Simon said that openings created by a member’s retirement have been filled roughly half-and-half by males and females. “Gender is no longer an issue in hiring. When there is an opening [the orchestra] consistently awards the position to the person who performs best.”

She cautioned young musicians who aspire to a professional career: “You’re nuts to go into it unless you love it. Unless you really cannot imagine yourself doing anything else, you should choose a different profession.” She explained her advice by detailing the years of effort and money invested in training to become really, really good at playing an instrument and measuring that against how little most musicians are paid even at the top of their profession (roughly equal to a starting lawyer).

However, she said that the union has played an important role in sustaining professional musicians. “Historically the union has been extremely important for working musicians. You don’t have to go back so many years to times when even an orchestra like Philharmonic was not a 52-week-a-year job, or when you could be fired because someone didn’t like your face, or when rehearsals lasted until the conductor was tired.”

The union has played a major role in bringing about full-time employment, reasonable work schedules, and a tenure process with some protection from unreasonable dismissal. “The union gives us stability and helps us make our working lives make sense. Is it always a smooth road? No.” Still, Simon said she is a committed union member and has “been in the business for long enough to understand how many things we wouldn’t have if we didn’t have a union.”

Back to the violin, Simon enjoys the challenges of learning new music. “Some of the new pieces we play are interesting experiences. The only way you can sort through any work is to play it.” Although she does not tire of familiar repertoire, she acknowledges that some favorites get played so often that everyone needs a rest. “But whatever we are performing, I try to treat it in a way that is fresh.”

“The heart of my professional life these days is playing in the Philharmonic.” she said. “The whole idea of the community of an orchestra is that we strive to be more than the sum of our separate parts. Coming together on stage to give a great performance is truly thrilling.”