Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Should Freelance Collaborative Pianists Have Their Rates Capped in Schools of Music?

I recently received an anonymous email regarding freelance pianists at a university who will be forced to charge a specific discounted rate for the coming academic year.

Disclosure: I do not know the identity of the email's author, nor do I know which university in the US, Canada, or elsewhere this letter is referring to.

Here is the letter in full:

Dear Dr. Foley, 
Longtime fan of The Collaborative Piano Blog - what a wealth of resources, stories, and memes, not to mention a great forum for ideas and discussion between collaborative pianists! I am wondering if you would be willing to post a discussion topic on the CPB Facebook page for me, as I am very interested in finding out more about this matter from other pianists but can't risk any trouble at work by posting it myself. 
I am employed as a staff accompanist for a mid-sized music department at a public university; my official duties are to accompany a choral ensemble and teach two group piano classes. I also play for vocal and instrumental students on the side as a freelancer, which is arranged privately between the students and myself. The chair of the piano department has recently decided that in the near future, he will either set the hourly rate for all freelance accompanists or put a cap on the total accompanying tab that a student can run up with a freelance accompanist. The reason given for university regulation (i.e. reduction) of rates for freelance accompanying by university employees is that as music faculty and staff we are responsible for contributing to the education of music students, and this includes providing accompanying at a reduced fee. 
The local freelance pianists feel that it's inappropriate for the university to require us to charge their rate for our freelance work, since we're not employed by the university for this work. It's one thing to be paid one (low) rate for the accompanying work that we ARE contracted to do, but does the university have the right to extend this rate to the work we do outside of our contract? We do care about the students and their well-being (both educational and financial), but we also spend hours learning difficult accompaniments and coming to weekly lessons, studio classes, and rehearsals. We hold graduate degrees in Piano Performance and Collaborative Piano Performance and play well; the students we play for are happy with our playing and have told us that they think our rates are fair. Most of us feel that at most, the department can suggest a rate and if we want to continue charging our regular - and reasonable - private rate instead, the students are free to use a cheaper student accompanist instead. It would be easier to give this response to the piano chair if we knew if/how this has been handled by other collabs. Is there a precedent of other universities trying to set accompanying rates for freelance pianists? Have they been successful or unsuccessful? Are we being unreasonable in resisting this? 
Any feedback you (or others) could provide would be so helpful. Even if you don't post this but share your own opinion, that would be great...we are all trying to learn how other pianists/universities have handled this so we can refer to similar situations when we discuss this with the powers that be. 
Thanks, Dr. Foley!
Thank you, anonymous emailer, for the time you took to write this letter.

Your responses on this issue will be very welcome, and I understand the need for anonymity from many of you who work in university positions.

Here is my response:

1. Since this is not an employment issue but a self-employment and business issue, I think it is important to connect with your area's business and arts community at large. In my initial response to the anonymous emailer, I recommended joining the local Chamber of Commerce and Arts Council, both of which have substantial legal and lobbying resources to help understand the legalities of the situation and what can be done to return to fair rather than imposed accompanying rates.

More importantly...

2. A piano department head has no business personally setting the rates of self-employed individuals who provide services to a university. This is an administrative and operations issue, not an academic one. Depending on how the university is set up, proper authority might lie under the purview of the Business, Real Estate, or Human Resources departments, all of which would report to a figure such as the Vice President of Operations.

If the decision to throttle accompanist rates comes from Operations, then there's probably nothing that can be done. If the decision comes from a few rogue faculty members taking university policy decisions into their own hands, then there is a serious problem which is beyond the scope of this blog post to address, especially when dealing with faculty and administrators who vigorously guard their turf.

Also applicable: Open Comment Thread: Should Freelance Collaborative Pianists Be Regulated in Universities?


  1. Anonymous1:44 PM

    Decide how many hours per week you will work, and do not provide any additional service above your hours unless your university is willing to pay you overtime.

    1. Agreed. The simplest way to protest this kind of policy is to take one's work elsewhere.

  2. Dear Anonymous,

    If you have your own private studio space, this is totally unacceptable. But it sounds like you are using university facilities for private coachings and rehearsals. In that case, it's a bit trickier, and it is common for universities to want to standardize rates: this allows them to give new students (or students they are trying to recruit) some idea of what they will pay in accompanist fees.

    However, the way that is normally handled is to publish a "suggested rate" that accompanists are free to follow or not. I worked in a similar situation in a university where I played for studio classes, studio recitals, voice lessons and rehearsals. Because I was new in town and fresh out of grad school, I charged the suggested rate. But there were plenty of more established pianists who charged more. Their strong reputations and good relationships with the students allowed them to do this with no trouble.

    I think you are on the right track with your proposed response to the piano chair, especially since you seem to have broad support among your colleagues. If the piano chair does not come around, you might be better off working at the university only as much as you need to maintain your network of relationships--and moving most of your business to a private studio.

    Good luck!

  3. Anonymous5:27 PM

    Wow, this story made my blood pressure go up! I am appalled that the school in question would think they have the right to cap the rates of freelance musicians. Especially since I'm sure the pianists are not earning fair market value for their services. The use of university facilities does perhaps make the issue a bit tricky, but I don't think the university has any legal standing to set a rate for pianists who are working beyond their official contract with the university. That's ridiculous, in my opinion! I would never go farther than a "suggested" rate, and since I am often asked about this by pianists in my area, I offer my suggestions - which are suggestions only, based on the experience and education level completed by the pianists in question.

    Oh, how I wish we could organize a general strike of all collaborative pianists until faculty (and students) would accept reasonable rates and working conditions!!! There's always someone willing to do the work for less money, unfortunately, and that seems to get stuck in people's minds as acceptable.

    1. Anon, this issue is not strikeable, since it is not an employment or collective bargaining issue, but a self-employment and business one. If you're a pianist affected by this issue, the best way to voice your displeasure would be to find work elsewhere.

      On a more serious note, it also begs the question of why there are so many collaborative piano programs when graduates of these programs aren't allowed to even charge a livable wage in departments like the one in the article.

  4. Anonymous7:32 PM

    Agreed. I like to joke that I absolutely refuse to be in more than one place at a time...if you're already busy doing something at one workplace, and stay busy enough to do x, y, and z paying projects at other workplaces, and just aren't around the first workplace the rest of the time (becuase you are busy trying to do the additional x, y, and z paying projects to get the compensation you need to live on), people usually get the message that there is only one of you. At any rate, this is at least a good recruiting tactic for your first workplace.

    1. Thanks Anon. That's a useful way to create demand.

  5. Anonymous9:51 PM

    I had a voice professor ask me to accompany a recital, for which he agreed to pay me. At our first rehearsal, he told me that my fee would be coming from the departmental budget. When I inquired, I was then told by the dept. head that the $ couldn't be taken from the budget because it would decrease the amount of scholarships that could be given to the students. The dept. head then told me he would pay me out of his pocket (which isn't right, either). I asked if I could be fired for not playing the recital since the professor didn't do what he said (no, of course). I guess someone else will be playing if there's going to be a recital.