Respect the power of our teaching artists!

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Volume 119, No. 11December, 2019

Janet Axelrod

THE NEXT GENERATION: A brother and sister work on their tone and technique with their flute teacher, Janet Axelrod.

The best teachers draw out of you what you didn’t realize was possible. With the warmth of a family member or with the aloofness and drive of a team coach, a great teacher can guide you to finding your own path. I want to share a personal story as an introduction to what I hope will be a series about teaching artists and union involvement in that field.

My first influential teacher was the chorus teacher at my elementary school in San Antonio. She held auditions at which we had to sing the national anthem. She forbade us to scoop any note, effectively teaching us to hear the pitch before we sang it. She was strict and opinionated and had high expectations for us. I never forgot her lessons.

I got lucky with great teachers again when I started to play the flute. I looked first for a teacher in 8th grade, but the teacher who was recommended had no vacancies in her studio. (We also couldn’t afford her!) But she had some high school students she recommended, and I ended up with a year of lessons from a terrific flutist, a high school senior. I recall her putting on a coat of nail polish while I played the material I practiced, then I watched 16th notes fly by as she demonstrated the etude she herself was practicing. I was just learning how to read basic notation so I had no idea where she was in the etude. This was not a great start!

She graduated, and the next fall I started with a different high school senior. Our lessons were in her room at her home where there was a large poster on the wall of Simon and Garfunkel. In my hyperventilating flute-learning state, I often stared at that poster while playing my scales from memory and saw that no matter where I leaned, Art’s eyes would follow me. I would break down laughing, sharing Art’s traveling eyes with my teacher until we were both weaving around, trying to get away from his stare. We played scales, Art following us, and laughed until we cried. I couldn’t wait for my weekly lesson.

Finally, the following fall, I started lessons with Mrs. Wynn. She was loquacious and high energy, married to a high school band director, and had three daughters. I remember going to her house and into her studio which had two chairs, a stand and shelves piled with sheet music. That unknown music was so exciting to me. After a little time, I knew which students were playing from which shelves because they were organized by difficulty, and Mrs. Wynn would subtly let you know that others in your age group were already more advanced. Brilliant.

She graduated from Peabody and was a part of the great American flute legacy, but she was also of the generation when the decision to move with her husband to his job location, raise her children and teach from her home was de rigeur. She shared with her students how to produce a personal, beautiful tone, excellence in technique, breath support, and how to sing through the flute. She also shared a secret. She knew that my father had passed away suddenly, leaving my mom with four children to raise. She worked out a scholarship with my mom, which lasted through high school, to gift me every other lesson. We never spoke about it. It was one of the lessons that I learned from her, and I have always paid that particular kindness forward.

The truth is that sometimes Mrs. Wynn and I didn’t play a note until the end of the lessons, which was O.K. with me since many times I had not practiced enough. We talked about philosophy, schoolwork, auditions, competitions, repertoire and who knows what else. She decided to take math courses during the day while her children (and students) were in school…just because she was always learning. Because we were two humans sharing an experience and she was connecting to me as an individual, we created an almost yogic focus by the time we started to play. I learned to use time wisely. By sharing her students’ focus on whatever else was going on in their lives, she was a support and a lifter of spirits. She forgave my choice to spend too much time at soccer even when my orthodontic-filled mouth got smashed by a soccer ball.

I have had many generous flute teachers since Mrs. Wynn. In New York, I learned about entrepreneurship from my teachers, as they left orchestral work to carve out careers as soloists, chamber musicians and festival producers. They were able to find flexibility in their teaching and earn a living. I, too, came out of school with an entrepreneurial spirit and immediately worked with my classmates to create a nonprofit organization. We commissioned composers, created concert series and performed for students (and adults) around the tri-state area, supported by various institutions including NJ Young Artists and Juilliard. But man, was it hard to earn a living. Lucky for me, I found union work and my professional life changed.

One of my best on-the-job teachers was the oboist Josh Siegel, my stand partner at Radio City Music Hall for nearly two decades. One of the most important lessons he taught me was that “they don’t pay us for doing what we do…they pay us for being able to do what we do.” What seems a good per-hour wage to others is a shallow view of our worth after a lifetime of study, practice, perseverance and commitment. And it all starts with teachers.

Our union was formed to protect performers, yet most of us are also teachers, and Local 802 has made good inroads into organizing teachers (and teaching artists). A great example is the contract we have with the part-time faculty at the New School, who are some of the finest jazz teachers in NYC. We have an important contract covering the faculty and accompanists at the Kaufman Music Center, which includes the Lucy Moses School and the Special Music School. We also have a contract covering music teachers at Midori and Friends.

It’s interesting to mention that teachers at the Manhattan School of Music pre-college program and at the Third Street Music School Settlement are covered by a contract with the New York State United Teachers. And teachers in the prep division at the Mannes School of Music are covered by a contract with the UAW.

Working as a member of Local 802’s Executive Board, I am trying to connect musicians with answers every day. Major conversations have sprung from the ideas, energy and experiences of those who are using their artistry to teach the next generation. They deserve the wages, benefits and security of a union contract. And the kids of NYC deserve music education. As I heard Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer say at the recent Broadway Salutes event, a major focus is on returning arts education to the schools.

I want to encourage members who work as teachers and teaching artists to reach out to us with your experiences. Organizing and unionizing is a slow process that must blossom from within, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor as we strive to improve working conditions for all.

Janet Axelrod is a flutist and a member of the Local 802 Executive Board. Thanks to Andy Schwartz and Marisa Friedman for information about the union’s efforts with teaching artists.