The Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra Labor Dispute Explained
Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra musicians filed an Unfair Labor Practice charge last month after the symphony changed the rehearsal schedule for its Symphonic Series.
Elizabeth Start is a cellist with the KSO and vice president of the American Federation of Musicians Local 228:
“The evening rehearsals for our classic or symphonic series concerts have now gone to afternoon rehearsals - two days of doubles starting at three in the afternoon which makes it impossible for anybody with a day job, anybody with a teaching studio, so pretty much most of our musicians are in a situation where they really can’t make this schedule work.”
The KSO generally has four rehearsals for a symphonic concert. So the new schedule would look something like this:
Say the concert is Saturday night. Musicians would do an afternoon and a night rehearsal on Thursday, two rehearsals again on Friday, and then the concert on Saturday.
It’s worth mentioning that there are only five or six symphonic concerts out of the 35 to 40 concerts in a typical KSO season. However, symphonic concerts are also the largest in the season. They take the most time and effort to play. It’s kind of the "meat and potatoes" for an orchestra.
"There are orchestras that do rehearse during the day, but these are the major orchestras that have a 52-week season. They're salaried. They make their living playing in that orchestra."
Start says the symphony didn’t discuss the schedule change with the musicians before adding it to their agreement. The KSO players had been working under an old contract since 2014, but were close to finalizing a new agreement with the symphony in March. Start says this was a last-minute addition.
“Things like scheduling are working conditions, they are subjects for bargaining. And that has not been done in this case,” she says.
Symphony President and CEO Peter Gistelinck says the KSO hasn’t done anything illegal. He says management has the right to set rehearsal times - it’s stated both the new and old agreements.
“As long as that is not in conflict with the contract and that says up to two services per day - we cannot do more than two services per day - and up to eight services per week,” he says.
A “service” in this case means either a rehearsal or a concert. Under the new agreement, KSO musicians would be expected to do double services on 14 weekdays next season. This season there are only four double services on weekdays.
"I don't want to lose my local people. I really love them. But on the other hand, I'm running an orchestra which I have to - and I've always done it - run it as a business for their best good."
Gistelinck says the schedule change would mostly affect musicians who live in Kalamazoo or close by. He says the other players would be driving or flying in anyway. Still, that’s about 40 percent of the orchestra.
So, if the schedule is inconvenient for many musicians, why do it?
“We are trying to really to elevate the quality of the orchestra," Gistelinck says. "And elevating the quality of the orchestra goes hand in hand with access to very high end soloists.”
Gistelinck says many renowned soloists are only available for one or two days. The adjusted schedule makes it so that a soloist could do say two rehearsals on a Friday or just one dress rehearsal the Saturday of the concert. Gistelinck says it might only save one day of travel, but to a soloist that makes a huge difference. It might also encourage soloists on the road to make a stop in Kalamazoo.
Gistelinck says when you have only four rehearsals over four days, it’s harder to focus on the material:
“So every time that you go back to the next rehearsal, you lose a significant amount of what was discussed in the previous rehearsal. And that is normal, that is human. That is normal. There is too much time between. And that’s also reason why it’s very good to concentrate those in two days because everything is fresh and automatically your artistic performance is going to improve significantly.”
Gistelinck says many orchestras schedule their rehearsals this way. Carla Lehmeijer-Tatum disagrees. She’s president of the Regional Orchestra Players’ Association or ROPA - a networking organization of regional orchestra musicians around the country.
Lehmeijer-Tatum says rehearsals during the day might be the norm for some orchestras, but not for a regional orchestra like Kalamazoo’s.
“There are orchestras that do rehearse during the day, but these are the major orchestras that have a 52-week season. They’re salaried. They make their living playing in that orchestra,” she says.
Lehmeijer-Tatum says many regional orchestra musicians cobble together their living through day jobs or by playing in several different orchestras at a time. Take KSO Cellist Elizabeth Start for example. She also plays with a symphony in Elgin, Illinois and with the Chigao Philharmonic - that's in addition to working with individual musicians like Andrea Bocelli and Seth MacFarlane.
Lehmeijer-Tatum also says that having rehearsal too close together does not improve the quality of the music. She says musicians need time to practice the material on their own before rehearsing with the orchestra again. Start adds that, due to exhaustion, many times double rehearsals are cut short anyway.
Start says most KSO musicians earn less than $6,000 a year from the Kalamazoo Symphony. Some only make about half that. Still, Start says it’s a big chunk of their income. That’s why - despite the labor dispute - many musicians still renewed their Personal Service Agreements with the symphony a few days ago.
Orchestra CEO Peter Gistelinck says the new schedule will also save the KSO money. Because the KSO could rent practice space for fewer days, Gistelinck estimates they could save $45,000 in rent. He says that’s not much. But that money would go back to the musicians in the form of raises - between six and 15 percent over four years - as well as $55,000 in signing bonuses.
“And the case that I wanted to make is, is it better to give it to the hall or to my musicians?” he says.
But Start says those wage increases were already negotiated before the rehearsal times were changed. She says a small raise would not make up for missing higher paying work in order to play for the KSO.
I asked CEO Peter Gistelinck if he was concerned that his local musicians might leave. Gistelinck says of course:
“I don’t want to lose my local people. I really love them. But on the other hand, I’m running an orchestra which I have to - and I’ve always done it - run it as a business for their best good. Because if this is not run properly, at the end of the day they will be the victims of an organization that is not being run properly. And I don’t want to go there. And also what you need to know it’s very very hard, very hard to please 84 musicians at the same time.”
But whether you think the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra schedule change is fair or not. The main question is: is it legal? For that answer, we’ll just have to wait. An attorney with the National Labor Relations Board is currently investigating the unfair labor charge against the symphony.