Will my orchestra be allowed into America?

Will my orchestra be allowed into America?


norman lebrecht

May 14, 2017

Ever since January’s regime change, musicians are finding it harder than ever to plan a US tour. Not only are visas and work permits taking longer to obtain, more and more complications are piling up.

Symphony orchestra with major sponsors usually have enough staff to get them through the process. But what about chamber orchestras and sting quartets? We asked Susanna von Canon of the Instant Composers’ Pool to describe her current efforts to get her group back to the USA.



by Susanna von Canon

Suppose you are an accomplished musician from a small European country, and your dream is to bring your band to the large audience of the United States of America.

You have your instruments, your CD’s, you have stacks of reviews (translated into English) you have concerts organised, thanks to years of direct pitching and ‘spraying and praying’ online. You even have the money for the plane tickets.


In the jazz / improv / ‘world music’  scene (as distinct from classical) concert offers and tours are booked at relatively short notice, not two or three years ahead, so even if you can deal with a run-up time of four to six months without the expedited possibility (another $ 1,000) and have the US sponsor and the wherewithal and personnel to deal with the intricacies of the process, you might just get the ten days or two weeks of that one specific tour. An O1 visa for 3 years is rare these days because you have to provide the USCIS with contracts three years down the line.

Fees in the US jazz/improv world in the clubs and smaller venues are very, very, very low. And those places don’t have the staff to deal with the USCIS, so international artists must use specialized immigration lawyers (and they cost around $2,000 for a quartet.) Let’s also be aware that the people at the USCIS are spread thin and overworked, so the process is taking longer and longer.

Even if you do get your visa – after an appointment at the Consulate and an interview with a consular officer and another fee of $190 per person (the amount keeps going up) you may be turned back at the border, at the whim of whoever is looking you over at the point of entry.

In theory, the process is meant to protect US musicians from an influx of international competition, so the screening (by the musicians union) would weed out rank amateurs and performers who were no better in their field than a US performer…something hard to be objective about.

But I wonder whether there aren’t other reasons. The visa fees are high, the time needed to get a visa is long, the bureaucracy is complicated, and the border and customs people at airports are now in a heightened state of alert (old joke – is that a neutron bomb or a new trombone ?) – perhaps keeping artists out is keeping America ‘safe’ ?

The upshot is that many wonderful artists from abroad are cut off from US audiences for live performances – or rather US audiences are denied live performances from international performers and thus ideas and inspiration – from beyond the border.

Suppose you are an accomplished jazz musician from the USA, and your dream is to bring your music to the large audience in Europe.  

Just hop on a plane and off you go! Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome.


That said, I am getting ready to send the ICP Orchestra from Amsterdam back to the USA in May 2018 – our 7th tour.  We just have too much fun and too many fans to call it a day.  I feel like  a pole vaulter, the beam keeps getting set higher and higher, and we’re getting on in years here at the Instant Composers Pool.


  • Steve P says:

    I’m sorry, I just don’t see anything in this description indicating the US is doing anything inappropriate. There are numerous reasons to be suspicious of incoming European acts, not least of which improper vetting of refugees in EU.
    And on the reverse, it is perfectly reasonable for EU countries to expect US groups to include properly vetted members; consequently, travel is made much easier.

    • Petros Linardos says:

      You may have a point. After all, the judicial system struck down the US president’s executive orders on immigration they considered unconstitutional. Checks and balances are still in place.

  • Walt says:

    In other words, “WHERE ARE YOUR PAPERS?!” will be a common question that we should all find acceptable.

    “Your brother is a Muslim?… To the left!”
    “Your sister plays accordion?”…. Next flight out!”

    “We destroyed your bass and trunk?”…..Our standard vetting procedure, get to room 453!” (there is no room 453……)

  • MacroV says:

    I’m as big a critic of Trump as anyone, but I am not aware of any change in US immigration policy/practice since the start of his administration that would make it more difficult for foreign performers to come to the United States, and this piece doesn’t specify any, either. Though I don’t doubt some ICE agents might feel emboldened to be more difficult than in the past when you actually show up at a port of entry.

    Right or wrong, applications for visas for performing artists have long been a difficult process. And the $190 visa application fee is a lot, no argument.

    • Bill Murphy says:

      You’re assuming the passport stampers are not busy doing other fun stuff:


      In twenty years of living in the US and travelling back and forth to Europe, I have seen truly staggering examples of misbehaviour by US immigration officials. And musical instruments – regardless of your paperwork – seem to be a red rag to their bovine eyes. Many of them seem to be the same sort of person who assaulted you on the way to school carrying your cello.

  • Observer says:

    I am SO sick of the US being targeted as the ONLY country in the world which makes it difficult for foreign musicians to work there. I am the flip side of that scenario – a US musician trying to work in the EU and I can tell you no way is it easy for us either. You never hear about us, though.

    Newsflash, Susanna – US citizens cannot waltz into any EU country they wish and start working as musicians. That is a truly ignorant, un-informed statement. Hell, we can’t even get INTO the UK if we happen to have our instruments with us. We need special documentation to prove that as non EU’s we are not going to try to make money playing anywhere. If we don’t have it, we are sent home. It happens all the time.

    So many musicians have the attitude as Susanna von Canon, the author quoted in this post. Everyone seems to think the US is some kind of promised land. If you can get in to work there you’ll be a success. When they run up against the ordinary challenges that any foreign citizen faces they feel the US is discriminating against them.

    Rule one: the US is NOT your promised land, guys. Classical musicians have a much better shot at making a living in the EU because there are so many more jobs. And foreign musicians, just like you, have to jump thru a lot of hoops to work there. To put the US into some deific catagory of “if I can make it there I can make it anywhere” as Susanna is doing is naive.

    And as far as jazz goes, since it originated in the US, why would would a jazz group from Amsterdam feel such a compelling need to be heard by US audiences? We invented it. What is it that is so important that you want to show us about our own art form that you have to take to social media to complain when when you’re treated exactly the same as US musicians trying to enter the EU are?

    Rule two: you are not being persecuted by Donald Trump or anyone else in the US. You are being asked to do the same stuff we as US citizens must do to even ENTER the EU.

    And if you don’t believe me, check out the new EU proposal coming down the pipeline which will require US citizens to apply for visas for every single EU country they enter. Imagine working as a musicians in Europe with that rule.

    Rule Three: have a little pride and confidence in your own country, your own continent. Why do you need to play in the US? You have much more interested, engaged audiences in the EU. You can make a living. If you want to come to the US, take a vacation in Las Vegas or something.

    For the love of God, stop with the “big bad United States is impeding my musical career”. crap.That’s for Susanna and every other idiotic musician who makes this claim. I hear it a lot. It’s ignorant, it’s vindictive and it’s not fair. Walk a mile in my shoes as a US citizen trying to work in the EU and you’d see what I mean.

    • Scotty says:

      re: Rule One.

      i.) I’m sure that the members of ICP (some of whom are American) don’t see America as the promised land. As a group they’ve toured six times previously and as individuals they’ve played hundreds of US performances.

      ii.) Other than in the UK, musicians in ICP’s genre can indeed just waltz into EU countries for tours and individual performances. I know this because I’ve done it.

      iii.) Following your logic, why would American classical musicians feel a compelling need to be heard by European audiences, where Western classical music was invented?

      re: Rule Two. The impending EU regulations requiring visas for visiting Americans is a direct reaction to changes in the processes for EU visitors to the USA. The crafters of the EU regulations are clear on this point.

      re: Rule Three.

      i.) It is unlikely that “making a living” is the primary motivator for ICP’s tour. Although I don’t have inside information on this tour, when European ensembles of this size visit the States they usually rely on subsidies from their governments. Rather than take money from the USA, they inject money into the American economy.

      ii.) It is in the nature of creative artists to want to present their work internationally.

      iii.) Von Canon (who is ICP’s agent, not an “idiotic musician”) didn’t write that the USA is “impeding my musical career.” As with much of your post, you just made that up.

    • jaypee says:

      “And as far as jazz goes, since it originated in the US, why would would a jazz group from Amsterdam feel such a compelling need to be heard by US audiences? We invented it. ”

      You just gave me an excellent idea: next time an American musician performs at the Musikverein, the Konzerthaus or the Staatsoper, I’ll make sure to bring my “Yankee, go home! We invented that music” poster.

      Should we start informing Hillary Hahn, Murray Perahia, Yo Yo Ma, Emmanuel Ax, Michael Tilson-Thomas, the Emerson Quartet, Joyce diDonato and Renee Fleming that from now on, they should avoid Europe because “we invented it”?

      Man… the nonsense one reads on this blog…

      • Observer says:

        When US musicians are denied or have difficulty entering the EU to work, we don’t start whining about how Angela Merkel or whoever is preventing the international exchange of artists.

        Apparently Susanna’s group’s need to perform in the US is artistically above and beyond that of any US musician denied entry to work in the EU because she is pontificating on social media about it whereas most of us just get over it. Must be one helluva jazz group.

        Always interesting to read about the European sense of musical entitlement in the rest of the world.

        • Scotty says:

          Other than the U.K., which EU countries prevented you from touring?

          • Observer says:

            It’s not prevention of touring, it’s the work regulations with respect to the job I hold. They differ for EU and non-EU. Access to health care, for example.

            New non-EU’s cannot even be considered now in many EU orchs.

          • Scotty says:

            But, Observer, that isn’t what the article was about. She was talking about the increasing difficulty of acquiring temporary work visas for the States. These are permits to perform and then go home. And such visas are rarely required to perform in the EU, with the exception of the U.K.

            You’re talking about visas to reside and work in EU countries. A whole different thing. The requirements to obtain visas to live and work in the EU vary widely from country to country. That said, I don’t know if any are as tough as the requirements to live and work in the States. I had little trouble relocating from the US to Germany.

            You’re worked into a lather about a topic the author wasn’t addressing.

    • Michael Z says:

      I am an American jazz musician that has been touring and performing in Europe for the past 30 years. With the exception of England, where I am required to get a work permit (a simple and streamlined process that the presenter takes care of), there are no other EU countries that require that I get any kind of visa to visit and perform. While this might change in the future, it has actually been this way since the Marshal Plan. (Check it out, because clearly you are misinformed)

      Conversely, my brilliant colleagues from the EU that want to come to the USA to perform have to jump through all of the hoops that Susanna mentioned, including the costs, and even then are sometimes turned away at the border. While this situation didn’t begin with Trump, it certainly has become more cumbersome.

      This is a real loss for American audiences and artists because an increasing number of wonderful and innovative musicians from abroad are just refusing to even make an attempt to perform here, or, as Susanna pointed out, have such a difficult time, financially and otherwise.

      As for this ridiculous argument about “our music”, “their music”, this kind of thinking makes me think that you are not a musician at all! Musicians have been traveling to perform for the past 6000 years. The exchange of ideas across national borders is a good thing for all involved.

  • Frankster says:

    The confusion and radical tightening of immigration into the United States (it is a reality not to be denied) is on the front page when the Olympic Committee, this week, is selecting the city for the 2024 and 2028 Olympics. The choice is Los Angeles or Paris and I think Trump & Co. have made the decision easier.

  • Israela Margalit says:

    Go Susanna! The denial of free exchange of international musicians in the name of security is alarming and distressing. I wish you a brilliant tour in the US.