On Supporting the CSO Strike

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Work actions have a way of bringing out the worst, and the best, of humanity. As the Chicago Symphony musicians’ strike drags on, we have seen far too much of the worst—snark and vitriol and a whole lot of profound ignorance about what it means, and takes, to be a musician on the highest level in the world. We’ve also seen good: other musicians, professional and student alike, stopping by to throw in their support; other performers and creatives throwing theirs in; patrons trying to educate the public about why the strike is happening, and why it’s necessary. My relationship to the strike is, by nature, different: as a musician’s daughter, I’m watching it on tenterhooks, worried for the musicians’ livelioods—and worried about what will come on down to us.

Like most other musicians, the Chicago Symphony musicians are members of the American Federation of Musicians. Chicago’s local, for those wondering, is in the Haymarket, resting, one assumes, on the long-ago blood of martyrs. Their contract is one of those to set the standard for Chicago (and American) musicians, whether or not they are symphony members themselves. My mother is a freelancer, which is pretty common in music. There are tiers among freelancers, and she’s all the way at the top—or what’s often called symphony scale. (So-named because these freelancers are symphony-fringe musicians.) Pay scale for CSO musicians has an immediate impact on her ability to pay her bills. Similarly, if the board can yank world-class musicians’ pensions, well, every single one of us creatives out here, from musicians and actors to writers and dancers and artists, is also at risk.

Musicians are, in many ways, a lot like elite athletes: their jobs are physically demanding and unrelenting, they cause injuries and chronic pain, and people often don’t take them seriously. (Unlike elite athletes, your average musician, particularly in an organization like the CSO or Lyric, has at least a master’s in music performance—and music is an expensive major, clocking in with engineering’s tuition at UIUC and with higher costs per credit hour at DePaul and Roosevelt, among others.) Musicians often share athletes’ doctors, though surgeries acceptable for a pitcher are not precise enough for a musician’s extreme requirements. And, while an athlete will probably retire by 35 or 40, a musician at 35 is just getting going—their career will continue for another thirty years or more. That’s a lot more years to accumulate injuries, which include hearing loss (it’s a huge issue in classical and jazz music too), tendinitis, carpal tunnel, and a host of injuries both horrifying and mundane. Hell, by the time that musician is in their sixties (or younger), they probably even need special glasses to read their music.

Creative fields seem to draw a particular brand of scorn: I’d love to do that, people say, it’d be so much fun! It’s offensive on a profound level, and ignorant on the same. The last time someone said it to me, I said, then practice until your hands run blood and you’ll be partway there. A musician doesn’t leave the gig at the concert hall, not ever. They put hours a day, every day, into practice—and, as Howard Reich writes for the Chicago Tribune, they’ve been doing it nearly all their lives. I’ve watched many a musician wipe blood off their fingerboard before dealing with their shredded hands, because they are merely the custodian of that instrument, and they don’t want the blood to set.

Maintenance of their instrument is expensive and precise: humidity must be held in careful check; temperatures must be maintained; direct light must not hit the instrument, for one is only the custodian, and the instrument must live on. For a string player—and it’s strings I know—there are bows to be rehaired (at least $100 a bow, usually more), and rehaired often, if one performs as much as the CSO. There are strings to be replaced—a full set runs to a few hundred dollars, at the lowest. (They won’t last that long, either.) A good case to protect that instrument will run to the thousands. Music itself—sheet music, books of music, études, scores—music is expensive, and essential.

Transportation will always run higher, as not all vehicles can handle the musician’s instrument, music, and stands (though I know from experience that the tiny but mighty Honda Fit will handle multiple basses and celli and about 75 pounds of music). Hands bleed, fingers and lips crack; injuries come and go and grow worse. (Hands must also be protected: singers wear scarves; string musicians wear gloves, and often wear no jewelry at all on their left—fingering—hands.) Days off are curtailed: one cannot go without practice, or one will lose one’s skill. And, of course, those days off never match up with other people’s: your nights, your weekends, your holidays, those belong to the job, and always will. Those hours on stage are the shimmering, black-clad culmination of blood and tears and years of work and physical and emotional labor more intense than anyone might ever think.

The board of the Chicago Symphony evidently has no respect for, and no understanding of, the work that the musicians do. Without those performers, all of whom are at the very pinnacle of the music world—and all of whom get there, and stay there, by bleeding on their finger boards (or the equivalent in percussion and winds)—there is no Symphony. There is no orchestral Chicago Sound. Riccardo Muti knows this: that’s why he stands with his musicians. (So does Nancy Pelosi, known badass.) The board evidently does not.

Taking a stand to support the musicians of the Chicago Symphony (and the musicians of Lyric Opera) is a stand for fairness and equitable arts contracts, but it’s about more than that. It’s about taking a stand for the freelancers and the creatives whose ability to live rides on the back of the CSO getting a fair contract. It’s about acknowledging that the blood and tears and labor behind every note played has value—intangible value, it’s true, because nothing the board might cough up will ever really come close to its true value. A stand for the musicians of the CSO, and their right to equitable pay and a fair pension, is a stand for every worker in the arts and creative industries in this country.

other folks talk about the strike & music & musician

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