Minnesota Orchestra musicians endure financial hardship as lockout grinds on

Kate Nettleman
Kate Nettleman, the acting principal bass player for the Minnesota Orchestra.
Chris Roberts / MPR News

As Kate Nettleman warms up on her bass and her bow meets the strings, the notes flow smoothly and effortlessly, like a cascading baritone stream.

But these days, life is anything but effortless for Nettleman, the acting principal bass player for the Minnesota Orchestra. She's among the musicians the orchestra's management locked out 15 months ago, at the start of their contentious contract dispute.

Later today, the Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra will announce its orchestral vision for the next few years, including a new mission statement. But with no agreement in sight between the musicians and the orchestra, it is increasingly difficult for the musicians to endure financial pressures which have mounted during the lengthy work stoppage.

Nettleman, who calls the lockout "the single most challenging thing I've gone through in my life," arrived in Minnesota in 2009, after a brief stint at the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

She and her husband Charles Block, a musician in a Wisconsin orchestra, have struggled under the financial burden the lockout has imposed. They're down to their savings. Without health benefits, they're now buying private health insurance at a much more expensive rate.

Nettleman said they've been forced to draw a lot more frugality out of an already frugal lifestyle. They'd like to settle down, but because of the lockout, she can't qualify for a mortgage.

"It sounds like I'm tooting my own horn but I'm a very accomplished person in my field, and I'm 36-years-old, and I can't buy a house right now," she said.

Flutist Wendy Williams, right, with a student
Minnesota Orchestra flutist Wendy Williams, right, with student Alyssa Griggs.
Chris Roberts / MPR News

Orchestra musicians from across the nation have sent donations to Minnesota. But the fund the American Federation of Musicians set up for striking and locked out musicians has long since run out.

Still, unlike other locked out or striking workers, the musicians can, in a manner of speaking, moonlight. When musicians in other orchestras go on leave or on vacation, are out sick or injured, or when orchestras need extra players for a particular piece, it creates job opportunities.

Nettleman, for example, has been able to stitch together what she describes as a fraction of her Minnesota Orchestra salary by playing with other top flight orchestras. Nettleman has freelanced pretty regularly at the Chicago Symphony, the National and St. Louis Symphonies, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. It's kept her spirits up, and has helped keep her afloat financially.

"But, it's not why I moved to Minnesota," she said. "I moved to Minnesota to play in the mighty Minnesota Orchestra. And I left a good job to do that, actually."

Nettleman said she and her husband don't have children, or a lot of debt, which has softened the impact of the lockout.

It's different for Steve Campbell, the Minnesota Orchestra's principal tuba player. Campbell and his wife Michelle, a freelance musician, have a mortgage and two children, one five and the other 10 months -- was born just after the lockout started.

"I say he's been locked out since birth," he said.

Having no salary for well over a year has been tough on Campbell's family.

The Campbells have kept their Minnesota Orchestra health coverage through the federal COBRA program, but at a much greater expense. They've also been forced to dip into savings meant for their kids' college education. His parents and parents-in-law have chipped in to pay for some of their grandkids' extra-curricular activities, like swimming lessons.

But the emotional toll on the couple has been greater.

To handle his stress, Campbell has reverted back to the mindset he had earlier in his career, when he seemed to be in a state of perpetual auditioning.

"The mental stamina you need to be knocked down and get back up, be knocked down, get back up, that practice has helped me very much," he said.

Campbell has maintained his teaching position as an adjunct professor of tuba at the University of Minnesota. Because orchestras only have one tuba player, there have been several freelance gigs available at renowned orchestras across the country, which Campbell has taken advantage of. But he said the experience has been bittersweet.

"Going and playing with other orchestras, and seeing the support from the top down and the bottom up, seeing how it should be, how it should work, that's always kind of hit a nerve with me," he said.

Meanwhile, the lockout has nearly forced a veteran musician into a corner.

Wendy Williams, a flutist with the Minnesota Orchestra for 21 years, is considering whether she has a future as a musician.

"I'm a single mom," she said. "I'm solely responsible for my home. And I'm earning less than half of what I need to make ends meet each month."

Williams, who has two children, 11 and 13, has amped up her teaching. But it will never be enough to get her out of the financial hole she's in.

"I've spent all of my savings," she said. "I've sold my back-up flute."

Williams also has subbed at some of the nation's most prestigious orchestras, but she said, as most of the orchestra's musicians are the primary earners in their home, it becomes a painful sacrifice.

"There are a lot of kids without moms and dads as a part of this, and that's part of the suffering," she said.

When Williams was in St. Louis for a freelance gig, her son needed an emergency appendectomy. She was able to return for the surgery, then went back to work in St. Louis thinking he was in recovery. He then took a turn for the worse, needing a second surgery for complications.

"That was the all-time low of the lockout, to be away from my child in the hospital," she said.

As a result, Williams said, "I've limited myself to going away for one week a month because that's all that I feel like they can bear, and that I can handle," she said.

Williams receives unemployment benefits when she's not freelancing, but she's beginning to consider other career paths and has enrolled in a psychology course. The lockout has forced her and other musicians to broaden their job skills.

"What I've learned to do in the last year is to work on a public relations team, set up a Facebook page, run a website, do concert promotion, write op/ed pieces, speak to reporters," she said. "It's been an incredibly interesting experience. It's not what I want to be doing but we've all grown."

Williams said the musicians got a big psychological boost when they formed The Musicians of the Minnesota Orchestra and started booking paying concerts. But they're worried about the growing lockout fatigue among their audiences and the larger community and how they may have contributed to that.

"I think it's one of the things that keeps us all up at night," she said. "Could we have done anything different? And yet when we look back, sure we made mistakes, and perhaps different approaches could have been tried, but we don't see any different outcome to where are now."

Williams said at this point, the musicians have no choice but to move forward as an ensemble -- with or without the support of the Minnesota Orchestra's board and management.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.