The State of Classical Musicians: ICSOM 2016

Volume 116, No. 11November, 2016

Meredith Snow

The 54th International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians was held this past August at the Loews Madison Hotel in Washington, DC. Hosted by AFM Local 161-710, the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra, the conference was one of the best attended, with more than 120 representatives from ICSOM orchestras, the AFM, and other player conferences. After 10 years of ardent service to ICSOM, Bruce Ridge has stepped down from the position of chair. His unswerving dedication to our member orchestras has raised the profile of ICSOM and changed the public dialogue around classical music. Negative messaging about the sustainability of nonprofits and the relevance of live orchestral performance has plagued our industry for countless years. Since the recession of 2008, Bruce has worked tirelessly to change that message through social media and a united effort to raise awareness and funds for orchestras facing a strike or lockout. His Herculean efforts on behalf of ICSOM have changed the lives of countless musicians and left an indelible mark on our union. He will be sorely missed. I am truly honored to have been elected to succeed him and look forward to working with all our ICSOM orchestras, the AFM and musicians worldwide.

The National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra performed a free, public concert at ICSOM this year.

The National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra performed a free, public concert at ICSOM this year.

Continuing a project that Bruce had begun at the last conference to demonstrate community support and the role that music plays in the elevation of the human spirit, delegates who arrived early took part in a volunteer service. Musicians volunteered at the Central Union Mission (, serving food and playing a live concert in the dining hall. Music and food made for a lively and enriching evening for both the dinner guests and our delegates who volunteered. The following evening, conference attendees were treated to a free public concert on the Millennium Stage in the Kennedy Center grand foyer. Performed by our ICSOM colleagues from the National Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra, selections from opera and orchestral repertoire filled the halls. The Kennedy Center hosts a live, free music performance in the Atrium, 365 days a year, which is open to the general public.

While there was no single unifying theme to the conference, every session touched on advocacy for orchestras and better working conditions for musicians. Panels included the following:

  • ICSOM counsel Kevin Case led a discussion of current trends in orchestral negotiations, with delegates presenting synopses of what they are facing currently in contract negotiations and ongoing disputes, including details of recent settlements.
  • A presentation by the AFM Symphonic Services Division dealt with union advocacy, wage charts and electronic media.
  • Alfonso Pollard, the AFM’s legislative and political director, spoke about legislative efforts to allow instruments on airlines, and the recent controversy surrounding instruments containing ivory and ebony crossing international borders.
  • AFM President Ray Hair spoke about negotiating international agreements on intellectual property rights and his longstanding relationship with the Fort Worth Symphony and its union, AFM Local 72-147. (
  • Reaching across the table, we heard from management as well, including Rita Shapiro of the National Symphony, Michael Mael of the Washington National Opera and Deborah Rutter of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. All three spoke passionately about the need for promotion of our orchestras, and community and governmental recognition of the vital importance of music in our society. On these issues, we surely have common ground.
  • Working conditions took center stage in three presentations dealing with hearing issues. Dr. Heather Malyuk, audiologist at Sensaphonics in Chicago, gave a fascinating presentation on hearing loss in musicians, how to protect against it and what can be done once it has happened. She stressed the importance of consulting an audiologist who is trained in musicians’ hearing loss, as the average audiologist deals with corrections in processing speech patterns. Hearing loss that affects pitch recognition and dynamics is corrected with different techniques. Next, Wendy Cheng, president of the Association of Adult Musicians with Hearing Loss, spoke about her journey with hearing loss and her book “Making Music with a Hearing Loss: Strategies and Stories.” Finally, there was a panel discussion with two sound engineers, Mac Whitley and DC Valentine, who spoke about the amplification of concerts and the negative effects on musicians’ ability to hear and play. At the heart of the problem may be that venue managers can sometimes be unwilling to simply tell sound engineers to turn it down!
From left, at ICSOM: Dennis Dreith, Shari Hoffman, Tino Gagliardi, Jennie Hansen

From left, at ICSOM: Dennis Dreith, Shari Hoffman, Tino Gagliardi, Jennie Hansen

Last year, ICSOM sponsored the documentary “Composed,” by John Beder, which deals with performance anxiety. Although it is not yet finished, Beder was able to show 20 minutes of the film, highlighting interviews with musicians, their experiences with stage fright and methods they have used to combat it. ( He also shared some of the preliminary results of the 2015 Musicians Health Survey, in which many ICSOM musicians participated.

We were privileged to have four international guest speakers to talk with us about orchestral wages and working conditions outside the United States: Nigel Charman from the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden; Mark Bruwel, the president of the Australian Symphony Orchestra Musicians Association; Dr. Heather Kurzbauer, professor at the University of Amsterdam; and Benoît Machuel, general secretary of the international musicians’ union (FIM). All spoke to the need for continued advocacy for orchestras worldwide and the importance of unionized labor. We also learned about the differences in funding, culture and governance that exist between these countries and our own.

In closing, the work of ICSOM goes on: promoting our orchestras and music in our communities and schools, and ensuring the preservation of our art form. As Bruce Ridge so eloquently stated in his final address to the conference: “This we do with our lives for a reason. This is who we are. We are musicians, and we stand for beauty, peace, understanding and compassion at a time when the world has never needed us more. Through uniting together and reaching out to our communities, we can and will ensure that the arts continue to thrive, and we will enrich the lives of our audiences while inspiring the next generation of musicians.”

Meredith Snow, a violist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is the newly-elected chair of ICSOM and a member of AFM Local 47 (Los Angeles).