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San Francisco horn tugs the heartstrings of her orchestra’s president

Nicole Cash, Associate Principal Horn of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, has posted this appeal (below) to its recently elected president, Sakurako Fisher. The orchestra went on strike at the weekend.

nicole cash

Dear Sakurako Fisher,

First of all, I would like to thank you for your years of diligent service to the San Franciscoy Symphony and the Bay area arts community, and to congratulate you on your recent appointment as President of the Board. I can’t even imagine the extent of responsibility and duty that entails, and you have my utmost respect.

As a child, I was a bit “different.” I’m sure most of my colleagues can relate. I didn’t listen to the same top-40 pop tunes my friends listened to, and eventually got used to the blank stares I received when I mentioned how cool Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier was. Instead of going out to ride bikes with friends after school, I got in my two hours of piano practice before homework. On Saturday mornings, while the other kids slept in, I woke up early for lessons. In high school, my band, youth orchestra, and brass ensemble schedules ruled my so-called life. Yes, music was my world and I loved it, but at the same time I was sensitive to the fact that it set me apart as unusual – an outsider. It was only when I was making music with others that I knew I was not alone. Other people could hear what I heard, feel what I felt, and I knew that there existed at least one place on earth where I truly belonged.

I can’t even begin to describe how amazing it feels to win and be offered a position in a major orchestra. It is the culmination of thousands of hours of practice, a certain amount of alienation, pain, disappointment, financial stress, and that persistent and urgent desire to be one of the very lucky few who actually get to make music for a living. When I joined the San Francisco Symphony four years ago, I thought that I had finally found the state of ultimate “belonging.” For the past few seasons not only have I had the pleasure of making music with some of the finest musicians in the world, but also the joy of making this music for the best, most appreciative, and generous audiences in the world. Our San Francisco audiences really do “get it.” But ever since we musicians were forced by management to go on strike, I have felt like a fish out of water. I am not myself when I am not making music with others, and I would like to return to the task as soon as possible. We all would.

I am urging you and your colleagues on the Labor and Finance Committees of the Board of Governors to do whatever you can to encourage Brent Assink to offer the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony a reasonable contract. Demand from management complete fiscal transparency. Challenge them to justify bonuses and raises for uppermost management while crying poor when it comes to basic cost-of-living raises and pension for the people who are the very core of this institution. Invite them to contemplate the reasons for the working conditions musicians have fought for over the decades, and the protection those rules provide us and our ability to do our jobs at the highest possible level. Convince them that it is in everyone’s best interest to come to an agreement that reflects the robust artistic and financial health of this great organization. Most importantly, implore them to remember why this organization exists at all – for the music, the people who make it, and the people who come to hear it.

With greatest appreciation,

Nicole Cash

Associate Principal Horn
San Francisco Symphony

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  1. Instead of assuming management is the villain perhaps you could say that the extraordinary success of the SF Symphony had something to do with good management. As we all know good management is difficult to find or replace, far more difficult than good musicians at the level of SF which admittedly pays well, offers good benefits and long holidays. I am sure there is a long queue of qualified musicians to fill any vacancy. Why shouldn’t management reward themselves for a job well done ? Come on players, stop moaning and get back to work before you lose the support of the community that supports you.

    • Why do you say good management is more difficult to find than good musicians? Are the people with managerial skills so rare?

      Why do you believe management should reward themselves with 6-figure bonuses while telling the musicians that they don’t even rate a cost-of-living raise?

      And just because there are good musicians who are willing to work for slightly lower wages than what was offered doesn’t mean that they’d be able to match the quality and experience level of the members of the SF Symphony.

      There are a lot of good football players out there, too. Maybe we should fire the top-rated players and replace them with some talented college kids. I’m sure they’d be willing to work for less.

    • Dear Hasbeen,
      Certainly, management has an important part to play in the financial success of an orchestra if they are doing their jobs well but the artistic success of an orchestra rarely has to do with the management. It has to do with recruiting and maintaining the highest level of talent possible for the music director and the players of the orchestra. While there are many musicians in the field, talent at the level of the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony is not at all easy to come by. These players bring much more than the highest technical ability, they bring that intangible ability to move the hearts of their audience with a level of artistry which is uncommon in the music world. They are not replaceable with just some other musician. It is this special culmination of high technical proficiency and artistry that leaves an audience breathless at the end of a performance. That kind of playing transforms the room. You can’t find that just anywhere.
      These players have given up a lot along the way to be this good ( and continue to on a daily basis ). They have risen to the very top of their profession and they deserve everything that they are asking for and more.

  2. If musicians believe it’s within their right to criticize the quality of management, that begs the question, should management also have the right to weigh in on the quality of musicians? Should management sit on audition committees? What if management were to conduct interviews with player candidates based on their level of understanding of organizational management? These days, it’s quite common that musicians sit on section committees for senior management. So why exactly is there no two way street here?

    • Doug. Your comment is completely irrelevant. She didn’t once criticize the management’s qualifications or the job they’re doing. In fact she applauded them on doing a tough job. She’s asking for them to reconsider their position.

      If you have something to say about the substance of the negotiating positions let us know

    • @Doug: First of all, she didn’t criticize management. She acknowledged what a great job they’ve done.

      Second of all, orchestra musicians have every right to criticize the quality of their management. If an orchestra goes belly-up, it’s usually not the fault of the musicians, but that of management. And if an orchestra goes belly-up, those working in management can find similar jobs in many different venues close to home. This is not true for the musicians; it’s not like there are other full-time symphony orchestras in the same city.

      In fact, most orchestra musicians come to work for an orchestra from out-of-town; they come from all over the world (paying their own way) to audition for an orchestra position, and most orchestra report that there are 200-400 applications for every opening. They uproot their families, and invest their lives in the city of their orchestra.

      However, I’ve never heard of musicians sitting on committees to choose senior management. Could you tell us which orchestras do this?

  3. Why are these direct appeals to orchestra management even being put out for public consumption like this? Doesn’t seem very professional to me. It seems that public airing of dirty laundry only serves to alienate the other side and sour the very relationships and mutual understanding that the writer is seeking to foster. It’s hard to bridge gaps in this manner. That said, Ms. Cash’s writing style has just the type of cloying and anecdotal immediacy that professional fundraisers covet. She could no doubt thrive in the development field if SFSO does not come up with a ‘reasonable’ contract.

    • Every single union dispute I have ever known about has included public appeals by both sides, urging the other side to be more reasonable. Car companies, teachers unions, manufacturing, you name it. I can’t think of ANY participant on either side who EVER refrained from making a public case for their side, to the media of all kinds.

      If it’s not unprofessional for teachers and manufacturers and civil servants why is is unprofessional for a musician? Because they’re supposed to be made of magic fairy dust ? Give me a break

  4. John Porter says:

    Between this communique and the one from the tympanist who fled to the Chicago Symphony, I think the musicians are doing themselves a disservice. While they probably think they are appealing to the better wisdom of the public, most likely the opposite is occurring, which is a portrayal of the players as privileged and precious.

    A lot of people work hard. A lot of people are out of work. A lot of people would take Nicole Cash’s job in the blink of an eye, and there are more than enough people qualified to do it.

    So, big deal, Brent Assink got a longevity bonus and a raise, because his pay was lower in proportion to his peers. And MTT got a raise too. Would they rather lose MTT and Assink?

    Folks who get eight or ten weeks off, and then make money in their vacations, might want to be careful about expressing how special they are. Something’s gotta give in the sad state of orchestra culture.

    • Bill Hollin says:

      But Nicole was the MOST qualified. Others who auditioned were SECOND best. Anybody want the SECOND best surgeon not hired by their hospital of choice doing their bypass? If you want the BEST, you have to pay for the BEST. The problem is, most non-musicians can’t tell the difference between a good High School player and a world-class symphony musician.

  5. Has anyone specified yet just what work rule changes have the musicians so upset?

  6. MWnyc: Exactly. People are taking ideological stances without even knowing the positions of either side. You can legitimately criticize this article for not being very specific about that.

    My basic understanding is that they are being asked to agree to less-than-inflation raises (1%) and to raise the age of retirement, All while management get bonuses fo $600,000 or more.

    While you can say “they should feel lucky to have a job” etc. it does seem unfair to ask sacrifices only of the players and not of the management as well.

    No other profession requires decades of practice and poverty for so few opportunities with so little compensation. Even actors have a much better likelihood of getting work and of getting very well paid for that work. If actors “make it” they make a LOT of money and get plenty of recognition.

    I feel like the criticism of the orchestra is just sour grapes. “How dare they do what they love for a living and also demand a salary?” That’s just crazy talk. Anyone who does anything enjoyable or artistic or meaningful or flexible will be familiar with the attitude that the job should be its only reward. As if you didn’t also earn your place and work hard to get where you are. As if they don’t have families, mortgages, medical bills and eat reall food and water like the rest of us (not magical fairy dust).

    • “No other profession requires decades of practice and poverty for so few opportunities with so little compensation.” That is simply untrue. Get over yourselves, musicians. Seriously.

    • Beccane, you’re passionate and eloquent, though you seem to be refuting an anti-musician argument that I haven’t made.
      (If you weren’t taking aim at me specifically, fair enough.)

      But my question remains.

      The SFS musicians seem to be very upset about some particular changes in work rules that management wants to make. But, as far as I’ve seen, no one from either side is saying in public what those onerous changes would be.

      This makes me suspect that both sides believe the issue, if explained publicly, would make them look bad.

  7. She claims to be “one of the very lucky few who actually get to make music for a living”. But that is part of the problem: we have a star system in the orchestral world that doesn’t jibe with reality. A few are wildly overpaid relative to other musicians, and the rest have to struggle or quit. Meanwhile, there are lots of “dead wood” players in major orchestras who nevertheless remain for decades, and lots of Conservatory graduates who can outplay them but will never even get the chance to audition bc of lifetime tenure. SFSO musicians and other striking musicians don’t want you to know this, and even want to deny it, but they are not being honest. Now, it’s reasonable to argue for institutional continuity — musicians clearly shouldn’t be reaudtioned every six months at risk of losing their job — but on the other hand musicians have to be realistic abut the labor market for their talents. There are lots of good musicians out there who will work for less and do just as good a job, if not better. Just a fact.

  8. I think asking for transparency is a good thing. The anger from some of the remarks are quite clearly displaced. The remark on how management is more valuable makes me want to cartoon swear *%^^@$* oops it slipped out. The easiest lie to believe is that of superiority. You can quote me. So many wars and disagreements come from people who were told they were the best and that their race was the best or their job or their field. The dirty little secret of the human race is that often when people think they are with others who are “like minded” they huddle together and agree that they are superior. Our society and country have become a bunch of “us and them” without caring or giving the time to the details at hand. This kind woman asked for transparency. Having this message on this site shows she believes in transparency. I applaud her.

    • “The dirty little secret of the human race is that often when people think they are with others who are “like minded” they huddle together and agree that they are superior.” You are describing the SFSO musicians here.

      • Eric Edwards says:

        graeter, you must not be a musician, professional or amateur….probably just a wanna-be
        Otherwise, you’d have a better understanding of the musicians life, and how the really good ones like Ms. Cash got the positions they hold.

        In this day & economy, I doubt there’s much “dead wood” as you think, especially with the size of the talent pool graduating every year from the colleges & conservatories.
        Anyone not holding up their end of the section will be replaced in a heartbeat.

        It seems that Management in a lot of orchestras are forgetting the reason they exist, to support the orchestras they are “Managing”!! Not the other way around!!

        Me thinks of the SF board wants to refurb the lobby, THEY should go out & raise the funds and not rely on the Orchestra to fund their wishes!

  9. The biggest difference between an orchestral musician and an orchestra manager is one that Mr. Lebrecht himself so cleverly skewered last September in a post entitled “The Bumbling Merry-Go-Round of U.S. Orchestra Managers.”

    If an orchestra musician wets the bed and fails miserably at his or her job, he or she is probably never going to get hired again at that level. And yet, on the management side of the fence, Boards of Directors continue to recycle retreads with losing records like Allison Vulgamore, Tony Woodcock, Michael Henson, Maryellen Gleason, on and on and on.

    Being an ED for an American orchestra is like being a coach in professional sports. It doesn’t matter how badly you suck or how many games your team loses. Some other team is always going to hire you because you have experience coaching at the highest level.

    By no means am I suggesting Brent Assink falls in this group. I think it merits noting that criticism of Assink levied by SFS musicians isn’t so much directed at his fundamental competence as the distribution of revenue among stakeholders within an organization that financially has weathered well the economic crisis of the last few years.

    But the sad reality in American orchestras is that even lousy managers have enviable job security, in no small part because the wealthy patrons who appoint them are loathe to ever admit they’ve made a bad decision. Seriously, when’s the last time you saw the Board of a major orchestra fire an executive director for issues related to competence? They’ll sooner fire them for serving the crab rangoons instead of the golden purses at the Chinese New Year fundraiser.

  10. Reggie Benstein says:

    I’m not sure what her second paragraph does for the cause. Even as someone who can relate, this kind of “I’m different than the others” was irritating to read…

  11. “But the sad reality in American orchestras is that even lousy managers have enviable job security, in no small part because the wealthy patrons who appoint them are loathe to ever admit they’ve made a bad decision. Seriously, when’s the last time you saw the Board of a major orchestra fire an executive director for issues related to competence?”

    Pittsburgh Symphony Board fired Larry Tamburri for this reason in November 2011.

  12. As to the claim that American orchestras never fire EDs for incompetence, this is simply not true. They just don’t call it “firing”. They call it resignation or retirement.

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