Tina the Trombonist lives in Big City, USA.

She just got her Masters in Music from the Big City Conservatory this year. She joined the Big City Local of the American Federation of Musicians (the Musicians’ Union), and she has started to build her career as a freelance musician. Times are hard, the field is competitive, and let’s face it– her student loans aren’t going to pay for themselves.

So you can imagine how thrilled Tina is when she receives the following email from Corinne the Contractor:

I need a trombonist for a wedding ceremony. Brass quintet. Big City United Methodist, 3:00pm this Saturday. Rehearsal with organ at 1:00pm. Pay is somewhere around $90. Can you play?

Tina looks at her calendar, sees that she’s available, and accepts the work. She is a little concerned that the email doesn’t give an exact amount that the gig will pay. But for the sake of avoiding a confrontational first impression and staying on Corinne’s good side, Tina decides it is best not to ask about it. She is excited to be paid to play, and hopefully it will also be a good networking opportunity.

Unfortunately, the experience is terrible. Because there is a lot of music in the wedding, the musicians don’t get a break in between the rehearsal and the ceremony. Even worse, the wedding starts 30 minutes late, so they have to repeat the prelude music again and again. The delay also makes for a late afternoon; Tina doesn’t get out of the church until 5:00pm. Stiff neck, sore back, tired lips, and all. Tina is lucky she doesn’t have any other gigs to get to; if she did, she’d be showing up late and exhausted.

It takes two months for Corinne to send Tina her check, which ended up only being for $85. And another kicker: all the other musicians on the gig are upset that Tina was contracted to play. It turns out that Corinne originally hired a quintet comprised of all very close friends. But when Corinne had a personal falling-out with that group’s trombonist, Corinne replaced her with Tina. Tina had no idea about this beforehand, but unfortunately, she is still on the receiving end of some very cold shoulders throughout the entire gig.

Poor Tina. How could she have possibly known what she was getting herself into?

Well, there are actually a few things Tina could have asked.

  1. Exactly how much is the pay for this work?

First of all, Tina needed to make sure that the amount she was paid complies with her local’s Wage Scales, which are minimum wages for work that musicians do. These numbers don’t exist for musicians to be greedy; they exist to set the standards for fair pay. Wage Scales vary from local to local, but for a two-hour rehearsal and a two-hour wedding, there is no way $85 is going to be compliant anywhere.

So not only did Tina accept unfair pay and undercut her colleagues in the Big City AFM Local, but she also put herself at risk for being fined by the union for violating bylaws.

(Are you an AFM member? Would you like to find your local’s wage scales? Click here to contact your local.)

Moreover, Tina was right to be perplexed by Corinne’s email. When someone offers work, it is that person’s responsibility to give the musician an exact minimum dollar amount upfront. “Somewhere around $90” opened the door for Corinne to further underpay the musicians she contracted. She was being devious and inconsiderate. It is Tina’s right to know precisely how much money she will be given for her work. Not to mention, two months is a disrespectful amount of time to go without being paid.

Blonde woman wearing brown hat looking left, thinking. She has rings on her second and fourth fingers. Trees are behind her.

2. What will the work conditions be?

  • At exactly what time will the engagement be over?
  • My instrument is sensitive to temperature and humidity; what will the environment be like?
  • How much time will there be between the rehearsal and the performance? (Not just a “bathroom break”, as a certain Amazon Prime TV show calls it, but a reasonable period of time for the musician to rest her body so as not to damage her hands, arms, lips, neck, back, etc.)

These are just a few examples of work conditions that every musician has the right to know.

Unfortunately, Tina was put through a treacherous afternoon. Not only was the pay extremely poor, but she also endured four hours of difficult music without a break. Again, it’s a good thing she didn’t have any performances later that evening, or else it would have been a struggle to play her best.

3. Will accepting this work render any negative consequences?

As mentioned above, Tina could have been fined for violating the union’s bylaws. But beyond money, there was something else that could have impacted her as well.

All the other members of the brass quintet were upset that Tina was hired before they even met her. This actually wasn’t Tina’s fault, so hopefully they don’t hold it against her in the future. But not everybody thinks reasonably in these situations, and there is a chance that at least one of those other musicians will forever associate Tina with taking a friend’s gig.

It is very important for all of us to pause and make sure that the work we are are asked to do won’t compromise our ethics. We could be hurting our livelihoods, and we could be hurting the livelihoods of others.

As a somewhat recent example, anyone who applied for these Louisville Orchestra auditions in 2011-2012 would have been wise to think twice. During a contentious labor dispute, management in Louisville was trying to replace orchestra members with musicians who would work for an insultingly low wage. These auditions never actually became a reality. But if they had, musicians of the Louisville Orchestra could have been displaced, and the reputations of every audition candidate would have been forever blemished.

I found myself in an ethical dilemma this past fall. I accepted an invitation to play a week with the Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra. Two weeks beforehand, I learned that the MPO had been put on an international boycott by the International Federation of Musicians, the Musicians’ Union of other regions in the world. The reason for the boycott: Nine musicians were  dismissed from the MPO without due process.

While I technically wasn’t breaking any bylaws, as Malaysia is not in the AFM’s jurisdiction, I just couldn’t in good conscience contribute my talents to this organization. It fails to protect their musicians against preemptive, capricious, arbitrary, and discriminatory actions. And so, in an act of solidarity with the International Federation of Musicians and the tremendously distinguished MPO Musicians, I decided to back out of the engagement. (Luckily, this did not cause me to break any terms of the agreement I had originally signed with the MPO.)

In summary…

So what happens next time Corinne the Contractor offers Tina the Trombonist a gig? Tina can continue to be underpaid and also risk undercutting the rest of her musical community. Or, Tina can take a moment and make sure that accepting the work won’t contradict her ethics. Then, she can ask Corinne to confirm that everyone on the gig will be both paid fairly and treated fairly.

Will she burn a bridge with Corinne by doing any of this? Maybe.

But Tina has devoted her life to becoming the trombonist that she is today. There have been many sacrifices, financial and otherwise. She has cultivated her skills diligently and passionately, and she sounds like a million bucks. Tina didn’t become a highly-qualified professional to be pushed around by unreliable, disrespectful people.

And no matter what your line of work is: Neither did you.

I wish us all the power to stand up for a proper wage and an adequate work environment.

About Doug Rosenthal

No one told Douglas Rosenthal to give up playing music. Not even his patient siblings, who endured many early-morning practice sessions; even they encouraged their brother to follow his passion. As the years passed, that passion evolved from simply playing music to advocating for music, musicians, and music-lovers. Douglas is based in Washington, DC. He is the Assistant Principal Trombonist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra/Washington National Opera Orchestra. He currently makes his home on Capitol Hill in DC with a pug named Jake, who serves as a constant reminder to relax, eat well, and sleep plentifully.

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12 thoughts on “Minding Mindfulness”

    • It’s true, but the non-Union gigs have to comply with that region’s Wage Scales. If Tina’s gig had paid $500, I’m sure it would have been no problem with any local’s scale.

      • what do you mean they “have to” comply? A non-union organization can offer whatever they want and Tina can take it or leave it.

        • In order for Tina to be in compliance with the bylaws of her local and the AFM at large, she can accept non-union work so long as the wages meet or exceed the minimums set by her local’s wage scales. I see how the wording of my previous comment could be misinterpreted; I hope that was clearer for you, Larry.

  1. I don’t know Doug. Of course she should have gotten the specifics in advance, but there are bigger systemic problems the union needs to address in order to bring this kind of work back into the fold. If someone turns down work because it doesn’t pay the book scale, there will be ten other players willing to take it.

    • It’s tough, Ron. I’ve certainly witnessed this many times, and it’s a big shame so many musicians are willing to undercut the community. With all due respect, I think one of those bigger systemic problems you mention actually lies in the premise of your statement. A union is an organization of workers who are all in it together, a union is not just a few people who are elected to take care of things on behalf of everybody. So in order for us to make a change, everyone has to step up. And until everyone takes on this kind of ownership, I’m not sure what the solution could be. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts.

  2. I was offered the chance to play Michael Colgrass’s “An Urban Requiem” with my sax quartet in my local community wind ensemble. They couldn’t pay us, but they promised it would be worth the experience. It’s an amazing piece and I would be honored to play it with my sax quartet, but I feel conflicted about playing without compensation. What’s the appropriate way to handle such requests?

    • Congrats to you and your colleagues for the invitation to play that piece, Zach. There are certainly compassionate causes for which musicians can request permission from their local to play for free. For example, here in Washington, members of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra play at a soup kitchen in our neighborhood once every few months, which is approved by the DC Local. I’d have to know more about your situation before answering your question, though. Is admission free to this performance, or will patrons need to purchase tickets? Is there a precedent involving previous soloists being paid? Are any members of the band being paid?

      • That’s terrific! I’m in Paris right now but I’ll try to find out more details when I get back. I hope the quartet and I can work something out with them that is agreeable. I’ve already been breaking in my bari sax reeds 🙂

  3. Should Tina the Trombonist report Corinne the Contractor to her AFM local? Or at least give them an informal heads-up?

    • That’s an excellent question. If Corrine is a union contractor, then this incident should absolutely be reported. It would still be a good idea to let your local know even if she isn’t.


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