By Aurora Biggers
On Oct. 9, 18 months after the Oregon Symphony went silent, French horn player Alicia Waite was back in Portland’s Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall making music with her co-workers.
Waite, 41, will never forget March 12, 2020, the day a scheduled rehearsal turned into a full orchestra meeting over whether it was safe to continue to play due to the coronavirus pandemic. It wasn’t, they decided.
“I went and cleaned out my locker thinking we were just going to have a long spring break,” Waite recalls.
Waite and six dozen other Oregon Symphony musicians are represented by American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 99. The union’s negotiating committee, which Waite serves on, met for weeks after the shutdown to discuss how much of their jobs they could still do safely. To help members survive, Local 99 was able to get the Symphony to return employees to a quarter of their salary while doing some recording work, in exchange for reducing the number of performances in the 2021-2022 season.
Waite has been with the Oregon Symphony 14 years, but she developed an affinity for the union when she discovered its publication International Musician as an undergraduate music major at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin.
“Every first of every month I would look up in the union newspaper to see who had an opening in the orchestra for horn,” Waite says.
When she saw open positions, she’d learn the music and fly out for auditions. After stints with the Virginia Symphony and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago, she auditioned for the Oregon Symphony in 2007, and won the job. Having left Oregon for Colorado when she was five, it felt a bit like a homecoming.
Waite has been playing the horn professionally for 18 years now. She first found her instrument as a sixth grader at Laurel Elementary school in Fort Collins, Colorado. Waite didn’t come from a musical family, but her babysitter played the French horn.
“They bring all the instruments to your elementary school so that you can choose something if you want for junior high.… It was available to try for free. You didn’t have to buy or rent one.”
“I thought, ‘Well, I’ll try that.’ And I didn’t like it. It was really hard. It didn’t go very well for a couple of weeks. My mom encouraged me to stick with it, or pay her back for the cleaning kit that she had to buy. So, I stuck it out, and as I began to get the hang of it, it became more fun.”
At the Oregon Symphony, her position as the fourth horn places her by the lower voices of instruments within her section.
“We have a lot of heroic moments with the brass family, but the horn is also a chameleon and plays a lot with woodwinds,” Waite says, “or as a soloist with the strings.”
On the union bargaining committee, Waite helps negotiate the contract’s safety clauses. You might not think being an orchestra musician would come with occupational safety risks. But as a young professional, reading the union contract at her first job, Waite says she realized how important the details are. The union contract at the Oregon Symphony mandates custom ear protection. It lays out chair requirements to avoid uncomfortable sitting that could damage musicians’ spines. It even has a temperature clause, because wooden instruments are sensitive to heat and cold and humidity and dryness.
“It’s not the same as people who are doing more obviously physical trades, but we have to take care of ourselves and watch out for those things,” Waite says.
When the orchestra reopened, Waite was elated.
“A lot of people I had only seen on the computer screen for a year and a half,” Waite says. “It felt like back to school, getting to see everyone and find out how everyone’s doing.”
Waite can be heard in all the concert series in the 2021-2022 symphony season, but she’s most looking forward to Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 in May 2022.
“Mahler has really exciting horn writing,” Waite explains. “We’ll all be busy with great stuff to play that week.”