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OCSM President Robert Fraser notes the changes he has observed in the twenty OCSM conferences that he has attended, and reflects on the constants that remain part of the conference conversation.

My first OCSM Conference was at the Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa in 1999. I had already been in the Victoria Symphony for nine seasons, and our very capable OCSM Delegate decided to pass on the work to someone else.

I was working for my AFM Local at the time as Secretary-Treasurer and was keen to see how a Player Conference worked, so I volunteered to become OCSM Delegate at one of our orchestra meetings (which eliminated the awkward silence that usually results from a call for nominations!). I was no stranger to conferences, having attended a number of AFM Canadian Conferences and four AFM Conventions. I found the AFM conferences helpful as there was very little on-the-job training for AFM officers at that time. So I wanted to see what OCSM was all about, beyond what I knew already from my orchestra’s delegate reports, and the OCSM newsletters (remember this was 1999; no websites yet and a lot of people still didn’t have e-mail).

The rest, as they say, is history. I learned so much at my first OCSM Conference from just being in the same room as musicians from nineteen different orchestras. My luggage going home from those first few conferences  was almost over the airline weight limit  with all that paper: brochures, collective agreements, reports, notes (nobody had a laptop at the 1999 Conference). There was the huge wealth of topics and workshops: collective bargaining, health and safety, media training, arts funding, pension funds, electronic media agreements; all amid a pile of new acronyms and initialisms.

I have been to each OCSM Conference since then. At the 2003 Conference I was asked to join the Executive Board as its Secretary and to become Una Voce editor, and in 2013 I became President. I am still honoured and humbled to be in a room for roughly four days each summer with a group of highly-dedicated, highly-skilled, articulate artists and advocates.

So much has changed since 1999. We no longer are buried in paper – since 2011 our Conference has been paperless and uses Dropbox for sharing documents. The media landscape has been turned upside-down by the Internet revolution; not only the rise of social media but also the complete transformation of the recording industry as we know it, including the decline of the CBC’s role in providing a media platform for orchestras. Our orchestras are much more engaged in selling smaller subscription packages and single tickets than they were in 1999, and their development departments and endowment funds have greatly increased.

And yet, with all the changes in the last twenty years, a good number of things are still a part of the conversation at an OCSM Conference. Here are some observations from my twenty years of involvement.

We still need to get the information from the Conference room to all our musicians. One of the unfortunate byproducts of the Internet Age is that we’re drowning in information fed to us by various devices. It’s very difficult to get the essence of the human interaction we experience at a Conference out to all of you. We have newsletters, a website, social media platforms, e-mail forums – but using them in the most efficient and effective way possible is still a challenge. There is no substitute for what they call the “slower” methods of delivery: conversation with your Delegate being probably the best way.

We still need to do a better job of passing down history to our newer colleagues. A good example of this occurred to the OCSM Executive the other day. We were discussing a very old document that dates back to the 1980s, and discovered that a great deal of it was written to address a set of circumstances that no longer exists. If we hadn’t thought to ask someone who remembered the original document, we would never have known. There’s a story I like to tell about a child who asks his mother why she cuts the ends off a roast when she cooks it. His mother says that she doesn’t know; ask grandma. When the child asks his grandmother, she says that it is supposed to make the roast taste better somehow. Still not satisfied with that answer, the child asks his great-grandmother (who is thankfully still around). Great-grandmother’s response to the question of why cut the ends off a roast? “So it will fit in the pan!”. This story has three morals: 1) be inquisitive, 2) know your history and properly understand why things happened the way they happened, and 3) just because something has been done a certain way for a long time doesn’t mean it should continue to be done that way.

Our jobs are not getting any easier or less stressful. In the 1990s we were only beginning to address our physical health and safety; this is ongoing. For example, there are still only a handful of audiologists in North America who have the specialized knowledge necessary to work with orchestral musicians. We are still developing and modifying standards and trying to keep up with ever-changing provincial health and safety requirements. And we are only beginning to scratch the surface of mental health issues. Our workplaces are still fertile ground for abuse of all sorts – we have had many stories in the orchestral world fall into the #MeToo category. You will read in our Conference Highlights report in this issue how we tackled some of these issues.

There is one constant to orchestras: we exist to perform great music at a high skill level for people in our communities. There is always going to be talk about how we will have to adapt to changes in our society in order to survive – we will have to be more diverse in both our people and our repertoire, we will have to reach more people through new innovations, we will have to wear different clothes, etc., but I don’t see us ever changing the fact that people love to hear music performed live. I was giving a talk to a bunch of teenagers the other day and I asked them to come up with reasons why we should go to concerts when there were so many easier ways to experience music. Their answers were not surprising at all: “We go to concerts because there’s no substitute for being in a room with a large number of people having the same experience.”  “We go to concerts because every performance is unique.” All their answers showed that they “get it”.

The other constant to orchestras is that people have been predicting our demise ever since the first groups of musicians were assembled – this is not a new phenomenon. You can find articles from the early 1900s that bemoan the fact that orchestras are unsustainable, irrelevant, expensive, and doomed – and we’re all still here (and there are more orchestras now than there were when the doomsayers predicted our demise, and we all make more money in real dollars). We have hard data to show how successful we are both monetarily and in terms of serving our communities – we need to get these success stories out there. Every time you read an article that begins with the words “Orchestras everywhere are hitting hard times” you have to hit back!

It is an honour and privilege to serve as your President. You have a wonderful network of people in OCSM: past and present delegates and officers, your own committee members, the Locals that serve us, and the AFM staff that assist us. We are all here to help you in this complex profession – don’t hesitate to reach out if you need information, a little help, or if you want to take part in the conversation. Wishing you all the best in this orchestral season.