Sharing the gift

Ellen Bardekoff brings music to the next generation, with help from the MPF

Volume 113, No. 6June, 2013

Bettina Covo
Ellen Bardekoff, a Local 802 member since 1976, is an oboist, teacher and entrepreneur.

Ellen Bardekoff, a Local 802 member since 1976, is an oboist, teacher and entrepreneur.

The music scene is undergoing enormous change and its ripple effect can be felt in every area of the music industry. Live music is being put on the chopping block at an alarming rate for many reasons – lack of money, energy, time and resources. More and more music organizations are simply closing their doors, leaving musicians scrambling for work in a decidedly shrinking pool of opportunities. Some musicians are leaving the business altogether, unable to find enough sustainable work.

But there are a number of Local 802 members who are working hard to maintain and create their own opportunities. One such member is Ellen Bardekoff, an oboist, teacher and entrepreneur. Early in her career she founded a not-for-profit corporation, the Bardekova Ensemble, which has provided work for her two ensembles – a quartet of oboe, flute, viola and bass, and a traditional woodwind quintet – for 30 years and counting. And the Music Performance Trust Fund has been there every step of the way, acting as a consistent co-sponsor that has helped Bardekoff sustain a lifelong music career.

The Music Performance Trust Fund was jointly established in 1948 by the AFM and the recording companies of North America, and became part of their collective bargaining agreement. A small royalty on the sale of some recorded music is contributed directly to the MPTF by signatory recording companies. The MPTF in turn grants that royalty money to qualifying applicants to subsidize free performances throughout the U.S. and Canada.

However, just as vinyl and conventional record sales have gone the way of the dinosaur, the MPTF was on the brink of extinction. The current AFM administration was determined to change that. The recently negotiated Sound Recording Labor Agreement includes the first increase of assets into the Fund in more than 50 years. This is largely thanks to AFM President Ray Hair.

“Early on I recognized the importance of the Trust Fund in building audiences for our members to perform for,” Hair told me. “My first contact with the union was through a Trust Fund gig. In my 28 years in the Dallas office, we built the Trust Fund to a program that is viewed by half a million people a year.”

Hair added, “It is a way to bring musicians into the union, a union that is viewed an entity that builds careers. I watched the AFM ignore the MPTF in its bargaining since the late 80s. I wanted to change that.”

At the recent SRLA negotiations, Mr. Hair and the AFM’s negotiation team bargained hard to achieve a new royalty on music licensed to videogames as well as physical products like musical greeting cards. More substantially, they were able to settle several outstanding audits that the record companies owed both the MPTF and the Special Payments Fund. The settlement is considerable: $10.5 million, with $2.625 million of that going to the MPTF. This windfall allows the Trust Fund breathing room while the new revenue streams build up momentum.

President Hair agreed that the MPTF is a viable resource for our members. He told me, “Look at what it does – provide great performances that audiences are able to see as a result of this fund. It is a legacy that lives on from an earlier age when the unions were able to leverage their power to force the industry to do something positive for the public, the musicians and music in general.”

In order to receive a grant from the MPTF, the Fund requires a solid commitment from a presenting organization or venue. The performance must be free to the public and must include a budget based on Public Performance scales. All musicians are paid under a union contract. Currently, the Fund subsidizes up to one-third of a proposed budget. The balance has to come from other granting organizations or private donors – not always an easy feat.

Ellen Bardekoff has met that challenge head-on. She is a deeply committed woman who believes passionately in what she does and it has paid off. Undaunted, she has built up an impressive list of co-sponsors over the years from corporate and private donors to the MPTF and various city agencies including the Bronx Council for the Arts and NYC Department of Cultural Affairs.

It’s not by chance that most of her concerts take place in the Bronx. Bardekoff told me, “Many Bronx folks don’t want to go into Manhattan for a concert.” So she brings the music to them. Bardekoff informed me that over the last 20 years, the Bronx Council grants have increased from $500 a year to $5,500 in 2013. “They have been wonderful with me.” And it clearly continues to be a fruitful partnership.

The MPTF has been a consistent source of funding for Bardekoff over the years and she continues to take advantage of this valuable resource. As Bardekoff said, “I need the MPTF because the presenting organizations want to know that I am receiving money from another source.” It’s all about cooperative partnering. Knowing that the MPTF will sponsor a portion of the event eases the burden on the presenting organization and in turn, Bardekoff has greater likelihood of success in her pursuit of additional funding. As she put it, “One hand washes the other.” It is a fragile balance, but with persistence and fortitude, she has made it work for her.

Bardekoff is also a dedicated teacher who has taught in the public school system for over 25 years. She taught everything from general music to band, but her greatest accomplishments have been teaching high school chorus. She poured her heart and soul – as well as personal time and money – into developing strong, cohesive choirs in a derelict atmosphere of little to no support for arts education. Her choruses have won numerous awards and Bardekoff has received many accolades for her commitment and achievements in the battle for continued arts education in the public schools.

With the help of the MPTF, Bardekoff was able to provide a series of 12 concerts in one of her schools that otherwise would have little to no exposure to live professional performances. The excited students told their teacher how important it was to watch this live, in front of them. More than one student has told her, “It’s much more fun than listening to a recording. Please do it again!”

The positive impact of music on the students is undeniable. “That’s what is so exciting about teaching,” Bardekoff told me. “Seeing the glimmer in their eye – seeing them on stage immersed in a live performance and what that does to them.” The effect is mutual. One student wrote, “Ms. Bardekoff planted the seed of interest for music in our hearts.” Another said, “I didn’t just learn music in her class, I learned life lessons.”

Bardekoff understands the correlation between her live performances and teaching in the classroom. As she put it, “The MPTF is helping the community to receive free concerts and the children are exposed to the same thing. Everything overlaps.” With great pride she told me that four of her students were in the audience at her last concert. That’s the goal – to educate the audiences of tomorrow and inspire them to go out and see a concert. The MPTF has been a substantive part of that.

Bardekoff is constantly searching out new, interesting and relevant repertoire for both her ensembles as well as her student choruses. “I want to make the performances accessible to the audience, just as I want to engage the students,” she told me. Her programs will often mix Joplin, Ellington and George M. Cohan with Mozart and Beethoven to help attract an audience. One audience member confided in Bardekoff that she had tickets to a professional orchestra that night, but came to her concert instead because she preferred the intimacy of Bardekoff’s performance. The MPTF helps to make all that possible. As Bardekoff put it, “The MPTF enables us to perform and share that experience with the audience. As a performer, that’s what it’s all about.”

With great perseverance and determination, Ellen Bardekoff has created a wonderful career for herself, full of performing and teaching, continually sharing the gift of music that literally helped her through a life-threatening illness. She has shared that life force, that power, that passion and ebullience that comes from music with her audiences and students for 30 years and will continue to do so, supported by organizations like the MPTF, for as long as possible. And as Bardekoff puts it “If you believe in yourself and your dreams, then all things are possible.”