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Heather Kurzbauer’s New Book, “Employment and Vulnerabilities in the World of Orchestral Musicians: Symphonic Metamorphoses”

The book presents the first major legal study highlighting labor relations and institutional dynamics within orchestras


Law professor, music journalist, and orchestral violinist Dr. Heather Kurzbauer studied art history, sociology, and music at Yale University, received her law degree from the University of Amsterdam, and earned diplomas from Columbia Law School.

Her new book is based on her PhD thesis titled: “Symphonic Metamorphoses: Variations on vulnerability — orchestral musicians’ employment in times of crisis" in June 2022.

Published by Kluwer Law International, Kurzbauer’s book “Employment and Vulnerabilities in the World of Orchestral Musicians: Symphonic Metamorphoses,” plays to a wide audience, while focusing on conservatory students, orchestral players, and freelancers.

The book covers orchestra financing; the impact of the perception of orchestras as “elitist” and of limited social value; discriminatory practices in auditions and hiring; legal and practical relevance of contemporary questions of employee categorization; and how fair practice codes and collective bargaining agreements can be designed, implemented, and enforced.

Case studies include those from the EU Court of Justice, the Dutch Supreme Court, the Supreme Court of the United States, and the U.S. National Labor Relations Board, offering practical insight into legal issues such as how musician employees can be differentiated from freelancers.

Based on personal interviews with more than 250 orchestral musicians and other stakeholders, the book details the state of musicians’ welfare in two countries — the U.S. and the Netherlands.


Kurzbauer has performed in leading orchestras in the Netherlands and abroad (including 26 years as a first violinist in the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra) and published hundreds of music/arts editorials and interviews for Strad Magazine London, BBC Music Magazine, violinist.com, and The Violin Channel. She has also developed courses at Emerson College, Webster University, and Nyenrode Business University. 

“The book is dedicated to the orchestral musicians who raised their voices and shared their stories, it is hoped that desperation will give way to empowerment,” Kurzbauer told us. 


We had a chance to sit down with the author to learn more: 

What would you like readers to take away from the book? 

“The courage and optimism to improve their employment situations whether they are members of stable orchestras with excellent contracts or if they are freelancers trying to make it in a competitive arena. Many of the challenges (vulnerabilities) that face the most precarious orchestral players, the freelancers, are shared by their fully employed colleagues. As we have learned from the many lockouts, strikes in the U.S. pre-COVID-19 pandemic, financial problems plagued the entire sector. Across the Atlantic, subsidy cuts in the Netherlands sent shockwaves throughout the cultural world in 2012. And, the lockdowns during the pandemic silenced orchestras great and small. 

“To be practical, the book attempts to provide a toolbox for orchestral musicians. Chapters (in the book I call the chapters movements to reflect the musical theme) dealing with gender pay disparity and other forms of discrimination including issues centered on age and race open up the space to raise musicians’ ability to move from awareness to action. The Follow the Money movement offers information as to how finance plays into orchestral employment and of course, the movements that share case law give examples as to how musicians have tried to deal with all kinds of problems from age bias to audition shenanigans. The more an orchestral musician or music student en route to an orchestral career knows, the more they can become empowered within their own career path.”


Why did you want to explore this specific topic?

“This book began as an attempt to mitigate desperation. After 26 years of orchestral bliss, (I was proud to be a member of the first violin section of the Netherlands Radio Chamber Orchestra that was as much of a family as it was an internationally acclaimed ensemble), colossal culture cuts in the Netherlands 2012-2013 destroyed not only ‘my’ orchestra but many other cultural organizations. Living through that process raised uncertainties and many questions. Beyond culture cuts and bureaucratic banalities, a Pandora’s box of employment-related vulnerabilities common to orchestras both in my native US and my European home in the Netherlands led me to research the basics of how orchestras operate, how musicians function within traditional hierarchies, and how to ‘follow the money’ and political challenges especially in times of trouble.”


Why is it important to you to support orchestral and freelance musicians?

“Many decades ago, Leonard Bernstein told the young musicians at Tanglewood’s student orchestra, ‘there is no life, without music.’ Sounds melodramatic, but there is a lot of truth in that quote. The power, the communication, the energy, the commitment that orchestral musicians show towards their art is an example to all, no matter what their profession is. And, freelancers, the bottom of the employment pyramid, always competing to get gigs, need the most support of all, they need to learn what collective bargaining, what unions, what consciousness-raising can do for them!”

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