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Star Spangled Controversies

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Star Spangled Controversies

By Beth Zare, Local 6 Secretary-Treasurer

September and October are the months that most of our Bay Area regional orchestras start their seasons. Many of those orchestras play the Star Spangled Banner (SSB) at the beginning of their first concerts. While both the Oakland Symphony and Sacramento Philharmonic chose to omit the playing of the Banner before their opening concerts, other orchestras carried on the tradition, thus leaving musicians in the precarious position of choosing how to participate.

Historically, American orchestras started playing the Star Spangled Banner during concerts  after WWII. This routine picked up steam again after the 9/11 attacks. The recent controversy in the NFL has left many musicians wondering how they should participate. It’s not like we can wait backstage until the Banner is over or link arms with our stand partners as a sign of solidarity. Some of us can’t even physically kneel and play at the same time. So, when our pleas with orchestra managements to skip the playing of the SSB to avoid controversy are ignored, what’s a protesting musician to do?

The first thing a musician can do is know their rights.  The following directive  was recently sent to all ROPA representatives.

Thus far, to our knowledge, no NFL players have been disciplined for their protests during the playing of the SSB (despite strident urging from some quarters).  Because of that, it is tempting to believe that such a form of protest — e.g., sitting during the anthem, not playing, kneeling, etc. — is protected activity that cannot subject the protester to discipline in the workplace.  Please be aware that is not the case.  Such political protest speech is generally not protected in the workplace.  It is important to remember that the First Amendment prohibits only the government — not private employers — from restricting the exercise of free speech. If you or your colleagues are considering such a protest, we urge you to be in touch with your local union and local counsel.Rochelle Skolnick, Director of the AFM’s Symphonic Services, and Kevin Case, ICSOM’s General Counsel


I have been approached by multiple musicians who felt the need to protest in some way. One told me he didn’t like the direction our country was headed and wanted to take a stand against inequality. Another felt the playing of the SSB had just become too politicized and had no place in the the concert hall. I felt an obligation to approach orchestra managers and first ask if they would consider not performing the banner but at the very least resist disciplining musicians who chose to protest. To a tea I was told that as long as musicians played their instruments during the Banner, Management would not punish them for whether they chose to stand, sit or kneel. As an aside, most musicians stood except for the cellists.

Orchestra Managements certainly feel a responsibility to their audience members, and probably feel as conflicted as we do in trying to understand and accommodate the many points of view represented by their subscribers, Boards, and single ticket buyers.  For example, it has been pointed out that the Marin Symphony plays in Veterans’ Memorial Auditorium, where the significance of playing the Star Spangled Banner is surely amplified. Nevertheless, one can question why it is necessary to play the banner at all  before classical music concerts, as did Scott Cantrell in his 2015 article predating the controversy. Let’s face it, orchestra concerts aren’t particularly patriotic or they would be presenting more music by American composers.

As most Bay Area Orchestras have played their opening concerts and it seems like we can put this issue to bed for another year, the real question remains: should we be playing the Banner at all? Whether playing the SSB reminds you of patriotism or oppression or just crazy tweets, it clearly has very little to do with the concert that’s about to be played.