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MU General Secretary Opens This Year's ABO Conference

MU General Secretary Naomi Pohl opened this year’s Association of British Orchestras Conference with a vision for a brighter future for British Orchestras.

Published: 06 February 2023 | 5:22 PM
L-R: Naomi Pohl, Jo Laverty (MU National Organiser Orchestras), Alex Gascoine (Executive Committee Chair) and members at the Right to Strike March 2023. Image credit: The MU ©.

In her speech, MU General Secretary Naomi Pohl spoke about the importance of the sector coming together to envision a bright future for British orchestras. She also talked about how the Union was changing in order to represent members equally, wherever they are based, whatever their background and however they make music.

Naomi also highlighted the role of freelancers and the importance of decent pay and conditions for freelance orchestral players in particular. Furthermore she ran through the union’s priorities for members of the union’s Orchestras Section, and called for unity in the campaign for arts funding.



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Supporting orchestral musicians during the cost of living crisis

MU member Louise Braithwaite also represented members on a panel exploring the cost of living crisis and its impact.

While she thanked orchestras’ management teams for their support for freelancers during the Covid-19 pandemic, she pointed out that the pandemic and lack of funding has led to orchestras getting smaller as management teams have remained the same size.

Louise explained that musicians are not as free to take on freelance work, as some have been forced to take jobs outside of music or sell instruments to pay the bills due to the combination of the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit and the cost of living crisis.

She ended with a clear call to orchestras’ management teams: “Aspire to be the orchestra that everyone wants to work for”.

“Louise spoke intelligently, articulately and passionately about how difficult it is to survive as a freelance musician,” said Chair of the MU’s Executive Committee Alex Gascoine.

Naomi’s speech to ABO Conference

I am honoured to be here and delighted to have the chance to say a few words at the start of this year’s Conference. For those of you who don’t know me, I was elected General Secretary of the MU in March last year for a five year term. I am the first woman General Secretary of the MU in its 130 year history and I was elected on the eve of International Women's Day which made it extra special for me. It feels great to have a mandate from our 33,000 members and enough time to really make a difference.

A real moment of change

I hope today and as we get to know each other better and work together, you will see that I am bringing about positive change within the MU. Change that I hope will be visible to our members and to the wider music industry and arts community.

I feel this is a real moment of change across the music sector. Just because we've always done things a certain way, doesn't mean we have to keep doing them a way. I have the support of the MU members in this. The Chair of our Executive Committee Alex Gascoine is here to meet with you and as an orchestral musician at the BBC, he is well placed to help the MU effectively represent the orchestral sector.

Orchestras are driven by highly skilled, talented and dedicated people

When I thought about what to say to you today, I felt that I really wanted to paint a positive picture of the future of British orchestras.

It is impossible and wouldn’t be appropriate not to acknowledge the extreme difficulties we face as a sector at the present time. The combined impact of the Covid-19 crisis, the cost of living crisis, ongoing Brexit-related issues and standstill public funding is extremely challenging and in some cases we are dealing with an existential threat to what we do. There's no getting around that.

But what I want to say to you today is that we’re in this together and we will stand together to protect British orchestras. Not only protect, but grow. Orchestras are people-driven. They are driven by people who are highly skilled, talented and extremely dedicated. Our musicians who perform in concert halls, reach us online, teach our children and serve our communities; they create magic. We all appreciate that or we wouldn't be here, we wouldn't be doing what we do. Everyone in this room is deeply passionate about orchestras.

Representing union members in orchestras

Let me just focus for a moment on some of the work we are doing at the MU that I think we can collaborate with the ABO on.

We will be promoting music education and ensuring that music is at the heart of the core curriculum in schools once again. We know that every child, regardless of their background or financial circumstances, deserves to learn music. We are looking out for the musicians of the future and we have to influence the Government so that they understand the value of arts subjects.

The MU will put diversity, equality and inclusion at the heart of everything we do. Inclusion is about everyone, from our younger players to our older players, whatever background they’re from, whatever their heritage, wherever they’re based, however they identify. The MU is here for all musicians and we will represent them equally. That was one of my election promises and I am deeply committed to it.

We held a very successful Members’ Conference last year focused solely on equality, diversity and inclusion and it offered a very high standard of accessibility. From the hotel rooms, to the conference hall and break-out sessions, to the dinner in the evening and the dancefloor at the end of the night, everyone was able to fully participate. We had some fantastic feedback from attendees who could really see a change in the way they were welcomed and represented by their Union. It was a statement of intent from us that we are changing and we won’t go back to how things were. A Black panel member commented that it was the first time he’s sat on a panel with majority Black panelists where the topic wasn’t race; once you see how wrong we’ve got things in the past, it’s like the scales fall from your eyes and you can’t go back. We all have a part to play in including and representing everyone, and we can work on this together.

Campaigning for freelancers in orchestras, theatres and on tour

We will launch an industrial campaign this year focused on our freelancers and how they are treated and looked after at work. This will sit across live performance; orchestras, theatres, touring and gigging. These sectors depend on freelance musicians and they are a crucial part of our eco-system, 90% of the MU’s membership, and one which feels particularly at threat in the current climate.

We want to ensure they feel valued and that they are treated as essential, because they are. This includes being paid on time, having your safety considered, getting paid expenses that cover your full expenses and being treated as an integral part of the team. This could be as simple as access to the canteen.

We will need your help with this but it is essential to ensure that we maintain our crucial freelance workforce.

And one of our key lobbying priorities for the next few years will be arts funding. We have already had many discussions with decision makers about this and with the impending General Election it is a conversation we must keep having.

A call to work together

If you take one thing away from hearing me today and meeting with me over the next couple of days, I hope it will be this. We are here to work with you and support you in making a case to the Government. We have better influence than ever in the Labour Party. We work with UK Music, Help Musicians UK, SOLT and UK Theatre, Creative UK; we can join forces and get our message across. Now more than ever, we have to collaborate. We mustn’t be pitted against each other; we must work together.

This doesn’t mean we won’t be robust in negotiations, because we will always be robust when it comes to our members’ pay and conditions, but there is so much we agree on and we will work with you to envision a bright future for British Orchestras.

Finally I would like to welcome Judith and Jenny to their new roles at the ABO. I look forward to working with you and I know you share my passion for change and for collaboration.

I would also like to express the MU’s sincere thanks to Mark Pemberton who has been and still is an incredibly passionate advocate for orchestras: thank you Mark.

I look forward to some great engagement and debate over the next couple of days and hope we will all come away with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and hope for the next two years and beyond.

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