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Conductor’s Corner – Tom Jensen


My name is Tom Jensen and as a conductor I have cultivated a relationship with the Denver Musicians’ Association for the past 25 years. I appreciate the opportunity of this forum to share ideas and thoughts to better foster an advocacy for the arts that is not just lip service, but rather a place to get things done. I hope to illustrate positive concepts concerning, among others, management/union relationships; funding possibilities; community visibility; and musical relevance with respect to educational outreach.

For the past 23 years I have participated in a unique program called “Inside the Orchestra” which has been sponsored by the Junior Symphony Guild.  We hire anywhere from 15 to 34 union musicians for our programs and produced over 80 concerts this season.  Audiences sit in, and are surrounded by the orchestra– hence the name. Many of the players have worked with me for most of my tenure here in Denver– developing working situations that have spanned a quater of a century.  The goal of the JSG is to expand and grow– this year alone we added more programs than ever before, increasing our fall season by 31% over last year’s (seeing close to 25,000 children) and we hope to continue to thrive even in this current economy.

That said, I recently had an interesting conversation with national union activist Chris McKeever.  Over a couple of “sparkling beverages” I mentioned that we had just finished a successful concert run, but even with our new collective bargaining agreement, we still had musicians arriving late for rehearsals and performances.

Chris  laughed and said that musicians really aren’t union people.


  1. April 30th, 2009 at 20:05 | #1

    @Chris McKeever
    LOL! Chris, ever the politician! But I quoted you verbatim!
    Tom Jensen

  2. Chris McKeever
    April 30th, 2009 at 16:48 | #2

    You must have misunderstood me. I would have never said that, as my favorite musician, Mr Neil Young, is a classic union man, as he sings in his song, Union Man”. I may have said that it’s a different style or type of union to the construction trades, as air traffic controllers(my former profession) also are. Wish i had seen this or heard you wrote it sooner. As we saw at the elementary school concert, all of those Union musicians had already gotten the word from their union officials. Great job on that, Pete, thanks!

    Also in Solidarity,
    Chris McKeever

  3. Mary C. Jungerman
    March 9th, 2009 at 15:34 | #3

    Hi, Tom Jensen and All,
    Living as I do in Boulder and traveling almost always to gigs in the southernmost part of Denver or even farther away, I am particularly aware of the issue of trying to guess how long it will take to get to a gig. I routinely leave about 2 hours early now, and once or twice even that hasn’t been enough, if the weather is bad or there’s some mystical event that ties up traffic for no discernible reason. I am ever so grateful to the Junior Symphony Guild and the Union for the agreement which now pays travel money, which almost no other gigs in the area do. Combined with the number of performances in the Tiny Tots season, and the negotiated pay scale, these factors do make me feel as if the organization and the conductor are treating me as a professional, and motivates me even more than normally to make sure I live up to that standard. However, for those who have not routinely had to drive a long way to gigs, I must say that the increase in traffic has been exponential in recent years, and sometimes it’s just impossible to cancel all other commitments in order to leave many hours early. When you think of adding three or four hours travel time to a gig that may pay a fraction of a day’s teaching, you can understand why people feel they must take all possible teaching and gigging to make ends meet. And the “professionalism” issue cuts both ways; in order to feel valued, it does help to get a good wage and good treatment on the gig, both of which the Junior Symphony Guild is very good at doing. It really makes a difference in the attitude and the general morale on the gig. Of course, it’s certainly worth mentioning that being late is not professional behaviour in anybody’s book.

    Mary C. Jungerman

  4. Thomas A. Blomster
    March 9th, 2009 at 10:41 | #4

    And Maestro Jensen, you remind me of a comment one of my teachers made years ago: “A plumber doesn’t want to crawl under your sink and do repairs. He wants to be paid well for doing that. Musicians are so eager to get on stage that they will do anything to get on stage.” So we need to cultivate a high value on what we do.

    Thomas Blomster

  5. Thomas A. Blomster
    March 9th, 2009 at 10:36 | #5

    The term “professional” has lost all meaning in the music world. This has been a point of discussion for me for the past couple of years since founding the Colorado Chamber Orchestra. Much of this has to do with the way funding is distributed to amateur and community groups that then use that funding to promote themselves as professional.

    So I agree that the best way to establish that we are professionals is through the kind of wages and working conditions the union offers us. After all, we live in a capitolist culture where you pay for what you get.

    Yes, musicians need to show up early and on time to gigs. That said, I know from experience that traffic, weather, and the need to teach and play as many gigs as possible (because our scales and pay are too low)sometimes make it difficult to be on time. So I sympathize…but, I concede the point to management as well. Being on time IS professional.

    In Solidarity,

    Thomas Blomster

  6. March 8th, 2009 at 22:39 | #6

    I’ve heard that often, including from many union officers who were misreading music industry employment trends. The AFM, along with other trade unions, began losing members in the late ’70s. Much of the cause was anti-labor employers and politicians, right-to-work legislation, and three decades of stagnant wages. A popular but catastrophic response to was to shy away from our image as “workers” or “union members” and try our hand at building our image as “professionals.” A common slogan appeared on AFM letterhead stating “We’re the Professionals.” It’s all well and good, but that and $3.50 will buy you a cup of coffee.

    Also true is the fact that union pipefitters have less trouble paying for that cup of coffee than many musicians, which tells me that there’s more value in promoting ourselves as union members with collective strength (teeth, when necessary).

    That said, there’s never a better time than now to demonstrate that we are the professionals by arriving at the gig early (excuse me while I concede to that point – score 1 for mgmt).

    In Solidarity,
    Pete Vriesenga

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