Exclusive: How Fort Worth Symphony put me on the breadlinemain
The orchestra has proposed cuts to its players’ wages. The musicians have gone on strike. Behind the rhetoric are the worsening lives of real people, family people, who struggle to make ends meet in a rich city that has lost the will to listen. Here is a firsthand account from one of the musicians. Her anonymity has been protected.
Mine is the Great American Immigrant Story. Music and marriage allowed me to leave my home country, and brought me to the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex. An audition for a position in the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) was announced, and I won the job! This salaried position actually made me the primary breadwinner, which gave me a deep sense of pride.
I joined the FWSO, perhaps in its salad days. The Music Director, John Giordano and President, Ann Koonsman, had big dreams to give Fort Worth a “real” orchestra; so they were raising enough money to increase the number of salaried musicians. They were taking the orchestra on international tours to China and Spain. They were actively (and successfully) building the symphony’s “family” of audience members and supporters.
My spouse and I had two children. Unfortunately, we divorced a few years later, and I became a single parent, financially responsible for my children.
The issue of health insurance was always a family problem. The FWSO only covered its employees, and my spouse was self-employed. With family coverage costing as much as 40% of one’s salary, I was forced to look for dependent coverage elsewhere. For many years, my children were covered through CHIP (for low income families), or weren’t covered at all. All this despite a salaried position with the FWSO!
Classical musicians are highly-skilled, well-educated people. The fact that their salaries don’t mirror those of other “professionals” doesn’t usually stop them from pursuing their chosen career. As a parent, I knew that my children needed the best education I could afford. I happily sacrificed everything I had to send my children to one of the best private schools in Fort Worth, thanks to financial aid from the school.
I was intent on raising my children well, but always had limited funds, so I had to get creative. My oldest child received the Golden Hammer award from Habitat for Humanity for completing 350 volunteer hours. The skills he learned came in handy. He – and I – did many home repair projects on our own to save money.
The oldest child graduated from high school and entered college. I had to carve those costs out of my FWSO salary of that time, while still raising another child at home. I was appreciative that my salary was in the ballpark of $60,000 then. (By that time, Bass Hall had been built. A new music director had been hired. The FWSO Board had committed to making us a 52-week orchestra with 72 musicians.) Then my second child entered college.
I have always had the best interests at heart for my children, but my efforts came with a cost, albeit one I was happy to pay. I carried balances on my credit cards as I tried to manage college payments, car, and house payments. I never ate out, and I didn’t buy anything I didn’t really need.
Then 2008 happened. The market crashed. The FWSO started losing paid performance opportunities. The FWSO contract negotiations in 2010 could only bring musician cuts. And we took them – 13.5% (a reduction of 7 paid weeks). Here I was, with one child still in college and another pursuing post-graduate work.
Since the cuts in 2010, I have managed. My children are underemployed or paying off school loans, so I do what I can to financially support them as they pursue their own careers.
My parents, now in their 80’s and still in in my birth country, are poor and starting to have real health problems. My children and I visit every year, and I send them money as well.
The proposed cuts of 2016 for the FWSO may seem inconsequential by itself. Someone really can live on $50,000/year in North Texas in 2017, right? Perhaps they can. These days my salary covers all of my financial obligations, but I LIVE on what I make outside the symphony. So, perhaps that question is just too simplistic. When the Fort Worth household median income in 2014 was $59,530, my FWSO salary was almost $5,000 below that. A 2017 salary of $50,000 only widens the gap.
How do these proposed additional cuts affect me? How do I, a hard-working individual who financially helps my children and parents, manage to get ahead on $50,000/year? I live and work day-to-day. I am proud of what I have accomplished, but my story is not an unusual one. I am not alone with the financial realities I have faced. And I would make the same decisions if I had it to do it over again. In the end though, I guess people just have different views on how much $5,000 really is to a person.
(c) Slipped Disc