Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Entering the US as a Staff Accompanist?

Crossing the US border to take up work in the collaborative piano field can often be tricky these days. On Athlete of the Keyboard, one anonymous commenter writes about their difficulty obtaining an entrance visa into the United States because of the nature of the staff accompanist position for which they were hired:
You may find it interesting that in my recent application for a work visa, as a Canadian hired as a staff accompanist at an American university, the university was challenged by US Immigration to prove that an accompanist is a "specialty occupation" (which was the category of work visa we applied for). According to their Occupation Handbook, a staff accompanist does not even need a bachelor's degree, and we were required to prove several points in order to defend the visa application, including proof that other universities require degrees of their accompanists and that the training and knowledge needed for the job necessitated a university degree. After putting together a sizable document, the visa was finally approved. And this isn't even a full-time position (yet), because this music department has always relied on "casual labor" for their accompanist needs until now. They're trying to get a staff position established, but it's a tough sell with the upper administration, especially with tight budgets.

The fact that university accompanists are Staff instead of Faculty, and are paid through different budget lines than professors, does make an impact on respect, status, and treatment on an institutional level. How the faculty deal with the staff accompanist is really the most important factor, though, because the students and administration will follow the faculty's lead.

I've finally reached the point where I will not work with faculty that treat me like the hired help to be pushed around, because the students will take that to be the model for how to treat an accompanist. I may not have a doctorate, but I have a master's in accompanying from a prestigious program, fellowships at world-class programs, professional experience with world-class artists and like to think of my position as collaborating with the faculty as well as with the students. When that happens, it is the best of both worlds, because I get to play the music I love all day and contribute to the development of the next generation of performers and teachers, too.
One option for anyone working at an educational institution is to apply for TN-1 status under NAFTA, which waives the need for a visa. For the position in question, I can guess that since it wasn't a teaching position per se but a position at the specialty occupation level (better than the support staff level, I suppose) TN-1 status might have been out of the question.

My experience crossing the border in recent years has been limited to summer festivals and examining, so if you have a story, opinion, hints, or relevant facts about entering the US to do work in the collaborative piano field, please leave a comment.


  1. I am also a Canadian who is now working in the US (under the O-1 artist visa). As far as the visa is concerned, I am very very blessed with a highly-qualified lawyer who explained everything I need to know and guided me through the process. During my first visit to his office, he pretty much de-mythicized a lots of things which I had heard "in-the-air" and considered as common belief about the artist visa! Even till this day, he still follows up with circumstances and questions I have been having after my visa approval.

    Dr. Foley, nice blog! I read your blog everyday.

    Lucas Wong (lucas.t.wong@gmail.com)

  2. Thanks Lucas! BTW you can call me Chris.

  3. I'm Lucas's attorney. We practice exclusively in the performing arts and, sadly, am very familiar with the frustrations of the anonymous accompanist.

    Unfortunately, the process for obtaining US visas for performers is an inherently frustrating and confusing process. However, in this case, it sounds like the real problem was that the university may have been trying to apply for the visa in the wrong category...or, at least, in a more difficult category for accompanists.

    Anytime you petition for an H-1B visa and the job does not very clearly require a BA, US Immigration is going to come back and want proof that other similarly-situated organizations require at least a BA. An H1-B, by its very nature, requires the applicant to have a BA, and, full-time versus part-time is irrelevant to the H-1B.

    There are NO arts-related occupations listed as a designated TN professions. College, university and seminary teachers are covered, but you would have to establish that the person is teaching classes, not solely working as an accompanist for students who are studying at the university/college.

    In practical terms, this is really just another example of why neither the H-1B nor TN is appropriate for artists. Arts managers/administrators, yes, but not actual performers...especially because neither the H1B nor the TN allows a "performer" to actual "perform" outside of the college or university. This is why performer visas such as the O-1 or P-3 may be a better choice.

    While there's really ho excuse for the US to make it this complicated or ridiculous, its more an issue of indifference to the arts, as opposed to outright hostility.

    For anyone interested in more information on obtaining US visas for foreign artists, check out www.ftmartslaw-pc.com and www.artistsfromabroad.org

  4. Thanks for that information, Brian. In case anyone needs to contact Brian about any immigration-oriented info at FTM Arts Law, you can check out this contact page:


  5. As a French accompanist living in the States, I know first hand how frustrating the whole experience is. I think that the problem is beyond being an accompanist, I think it's hard to be an immigrant artist.

    For example, people who get a degree in the States get a year long visa to work after graduation. Most people find a job and that employer will sponsor them for a work visa beyond that one year. However, when I had it, I worked freelance, so at the end of that year, none of my employers could sponsor me (they all wanted too, and were willing to do whatever, but there was no option with immigration).

    At the time, I considered getting an artist visa, but the lawyer I saw then said that my application wouldn't be strong enough to get it (you basically have to prove to people who know nothing about your field that you are "famous" in that field).

    So there I was, with a masters degree, employment, and not able to keep on working. So I went back to school for my doctorate with a student visa, but it was frustrating to see that other foreign friends around me with an undergrad would get a work visa easily because they were working "normal" jobs.

    I recently found out about a great resource for immigrants artists and wrote about it here: http://geraldineinabottle.blogspot.com/2011/01/how-to-make-it-in-states-as-foreign.html

    I wish things would get better for immigrant artists, but I honestly doubt they will.