Message for the Board of Directors
by Hannah Thomas-Hollands - GRS Cellist
The Grand Rapids Symphony Board of Directors invited representatives of the Musicians to speak to them at a special board meeting on August 20. Hannah Thomas-Hollands gave one of three musician presentations. Along with her talk, Hannah distributed out a document with 100 concert ideas [not printed here] that had been compiled by a group of Grand Rapids Symphony musicians who had all been hired in just the past 4 years.
Thank you for your time today as we continue to discuss the future of the Grand Rapids Symphony. For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Hannah Thomas-Hollands, and I am a member of the cello section. I was hired in late 2013, but this past season has been my first year here. I love this city, I love living and playing here, and I look forward to continuing.
What I wish to convey to you today, on behalf of everyone in the orchestra but most prominently the new generation of players, is what we all need to further this ensemble. None of us are under the illusion that we have unlimited funding, but all of us know that we – and by we, I mean everyone in this room, everyone in the orchestra, and everyone in Grand Rapids – need and deserve a top-notch orchestra in this thriving city and that we have what it takes to maintain it. Though the needs of an organization like ours are complex, I think we can boil it down to three key components: we need unity, we need trust, and we need creativity.
In terms of unity, I want to point out that with our current system of tiered contracts, there are false divisions among us. Full time musicians make a base wage of $38,000 a year, but 23 of us still make around $16,000 a year. This is no reflection of the level of musicianship put forth; every member of this symphony is highly skilled, highly trained, and highly talented. Let me tell you about a few of our new-generation players: Dan Karas, our timpanist, is slated to become the next Principal Timpanist of the Grant Park Orchestra summer festival in Chicago, a prestigious ensemble of which per-service violinist Melissa Hamlen is already a member. Assistant Principal bassoonist Vince Karamanov is a frequent guest with the Cleveland Orchestra and the St. Louis Symphony, whereas I, a per-service cellist, am a frequent guest of the Dallas Symphony. We all bring talent and energy to the group, yet some of us are valued here at a fraction of another player.
This does not bode well for retaining our new hires and promoting a strong and reliable group dynamic. Elliot Beck, per-service percussionist, has already left us to become the Assistant Principal timpanist of the Israel Philharmonic, which has a similar salary to that of our full-time players.
Unity, however, should not just be within the musicians. I also wish to feel unified with all of you. We are all here, musicians and management, to bring great music and cultural enrichment to as many people as we can reach, and we need to be doing it together. We understand that you have a myriad of challenging responsibilities, perhaps largest of which is fundraising, and we want to help you do that. We have volunteered our time for things such as this in the past and are always willing to partner with you; we all want financial stability just as you do. In general, I want to know more about and work more with all of you, and hopefully you want the same with us.
With this unity will come a feeling of trust -trust and knowledge that we are all working towards the same goals, with transparent communication regarding our progress and our product. It is unsustainable for musicians to face a proposed 20% loss, after an ACTUAL 15% loss six years ago, when the overall financial health is now quite strong and Grand Rapids is growing. To us, with the success of LiveArts, Symphony in D, the season finale of Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, and so many other events in which we truly gave it our all, we couldn’t have envisioned a better season from our perspective. I want to trust that my employer is working for me, for us, for all of us, and therefore I will continue to put my best foot forward into my work. The young people in this orchestra that are performing with other groups are not doing it simply because we can, but because we cannot trust that in its current state, this orchestra can provide for us in a stable manner. When we face such regressive cuts, ones that threaten to put us back 40 years of progress, then we must seek work elsewhere and we don’t take just our music with us. For example, Elliot, who is leaving us for Israel, volunteered his time for the Mosaic Scholars program, the Marketing committee, and MySymphony 360, and he raised more than anyone else, myself included, at the volunteer post-LiveArts phone-a-thon earlier this summer. He threw himself into every aspect of our organization that he could, simply being excited to be here, and we lost him in one season because he couldn’t trust in us or his approximately $16,000 annual salary to support him.
Finally, we need creativity. We need leaders who aren’t afraid to try new things or push the envelope. We live in a rapidly growing city in a rapidly changing world, and we must be willing to reach out into it.
[the 100 Ideas list is distributed to each board member]
What you’re receiving is a list of 100 concert ideas, all generated by musicians hired within the past five years. There is a massive amount of untapped creativity in this ensemble. This list is organized into four different categories: classical programs, audience expansion and marketing, educational programs, and pops programs, all with the idea that these programs will bring in both new audiences and significant revenue. If you see a location at the end of the point, it’s because the orchestra in that place has already done that idea or something similar, and we’ve also italicized local businesses or festivals with whom we could partner to make these concerts happen. In order to grow back to the 42 week season that we used to have, we would have to try just six of those ideas. Six percent. I think we could do even better than that because I know that there are more than six good ideas in there. Upon reading it, I’m certain that you’ll agree.
Ladies and gentlemen, we are at a crossroads here, and we must decide how to take our next steps. If we want forward motion, we must employ forward thinking. We must invest in this orchestra, in the city of Grand Rapids, and let’s choose to move towards these foundations of unity, trust, and creativity. I have faith in all of us and in this organization, so let’s move forward starting here, today, and ensure a bright future of the Grand Rapids Symphony.