Symphony Timpanist David Herbert Explains Why He's Ditching S.F. for Chicago Orchestra

JG percussion
David Herbert follows the drum beat to Chicago
As we told you yesterday, roughly 100 of the SF Symphony musicians went on strike in protest of a prolonged wage battle with their management. The musicians, who canceled today's performance, are demanding a raise, citing the astronomical rent in San Francisco and real concerns that the local talent will leave San Francisco.

In an open letter to symphony management, the musicians crafted a clever analogy for poaching in the orchestra world. "Next season we are losing a world-class timpanist, David Herbert, to Chicago, which would be like the San Francisco Giants losing Buster Posey to the Dodgers."

Apparently, classical music is cutthroat.

To punctuate the ongoing protests, Herbert has decided to publicly explain what led to his departure.

See Also: SF Symphony Goes on Strike

First off, he blames symphony management for creating a "hostile and unappreciative" working environment. Now might be a good time to tell you that his contribution is perhaps one of the coolest parts of the symphony -- he plays the kettle drums that wake everyone up during a dramatic number.

In a letter to the symphony community, which was copied to SF Weekly, Herbert wrote, "I will always admire and respect the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony and our music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, but as an artist and as an employee I want to be in a workplace where I am valued and supported by management, and where I am considered an asset rather than an inconvenience."

Herbert outlined two main gripes with the local Symphony: a cultural disconnect between musicians and management, and a failure to provide musicians with the practice space they need in order to rehearse. He detailed how because of the lack of space, he was forced to rent his own practice area and furnish it with extra instruments.

Now Herbert is leaving the SF Symphony for the Chicago Symphony -- one of only two orchestras where musicians make more money than those in San Francisco's.

Here's his full letter:

For eighteen years I have had the incredible opportunity and privilege to serve as Principal Timpani of the San Francisco Symphony. These years have been the best years of my musical life. As a member of this world class orchestra I have shared with my colleagues the honor of winning multiple Grammy Awards. We have benefited from daring and visionary projects brought to life under the leadership of our Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, and we have had the enduring support of our great audience, a strong donor base, and a generous and enthusiastic Board of Governors.

Unfortunately there has grown, over time, a cultural disconnect between the San Francisco Symphony Management and the musicians of the orchestra who make the music come to life. The increased divide between my colleagues' service to the music and the failure of the San Francisco Symphony Management to recognize such commitment has been disheartening.

In contrast, the Management of the Chicago Symphony has worked and committed resources to growing a culture and philosophy that puts the music and the musician first. They are making that fact very clear by their commitment to me economically and artistically. As a result, my ongoing pursuit of excellence as Principal Timpani of that great orchestra will be allowed to flourish.

The work ethic required from every member of the orchestra is enormous and our practice away from the stage is integral to that excellence. Every musician in the San Francisco Symphony spends at least as much time in our personal practice and preparation as we spend with our colleagues in rehearsal and concerts. As Principal Tympani, the arrangements, organization and support needed to arrange on site access to instruments and space in which to practice is a necessity. The management of the Chicago Symphony has recognized this as a given and have done nothing to impede my abilities to perform at the absolute highest level by offering ease and unrestricted access to instruments and consistently reliable space in which to practice at Orchestra Hall.

Again, in sad contrast this has not been the case with the Management of the San Francisco Symphony. While I have had support and as much encouragement from our stage technicians as they could provide under difficult conditions, I have had no cooperation from our management and instead have encountered only a negative attitude with little or no attempts at problem solving. This has exacerbated an already impossibly challenging and unmanageable workplace. I was eventually forced to rent, at my own expense, practice space at another location and to purchase additional instruments.

I will always admire and respect the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony and our Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, but as an artist and as an employee I want to be in a workplace where I am valued and supported by management, and where I am considered an asset rather than an inconvenience.

And there's his swan song.

My Voice Nation Help

Give him a couple of years in Chicago. Are they immune to the financial issues facing such institutions? I doubt it.


Oddly enough hundreds of local musicians making nothing near what these folks make pay for their own practice space.

These are some pretty sad complaints.


Frankly, I don't know what it has to do with Politics.  It merely business.  And both players and management can't come to grip with that simple fact.  Yes they need to eat.  And they could eat well if they simply re-thought their profession, and began playing to the public who buys the tickets and donates the funds.   

Instead, they must have their free health care, their weeks and weeks of paid vacation, (12 with the orchistra I proudly served) and lots of other "Social Welfare" junk that just runs up the price and makes it impossible to avoid deficits at the end of the year.

They (both management and players) are simply spoiled, and need to come into the 21st century and start valuing their jobs, rather than "owning" them.

Let's get another thing straight, (and I happen to enjoy the Timpanist more than most other players in a Symphony Orchestra).  The real reason this gent is leaving the San Francisco Band, is that he won an audition in Chicago.  It has nothing to do with finances, rehearsal space or the other self serving tripe he spouts.  He got a JOB.  and it's a good one.... not any better than the one he had, but it's a job.

No player ever leaves a position of his own free will, unless he has another one tied down. 


"Now might be a good time to tell you that his contribution is perhaps one of the coolest parts of the symphony -- he plays the kettle drums that wake everyone up during a dramatic number."

Seriously? If that comment reflects the public's perception of a timpanist, then our problems as musicians are much more complicated than a mere labor dispute. A timpanist is every bit as much a musician as the conductor, concertmaster, principal flute, or any of the section players in the orchestra. They devote an incredible amount of skill, artistry, and work to their jobs, in addition to having to tackle the logistics of their own instrument. There's considerably more to the position of a timpanist than waking up audience members. Perhaps if the author of this article would deign to remain awake during an entire performance, she might appreciate the musicianship a little more.


Real problem here is that both Symphony players and Management are living under a performance and management paradime that is 100 years old.  And if they keep this up, they will distroy the classical music experience in the Concert  Hall.  The Players will be out of work, and Management will follow.  They must come to grips with what the Audience want's in this day and age.  And they must learn how to make a living serving their customers, not just serving their own selfish needs.

I've been a member of a 52 week Symphony Board of Trustees for 20 years, and  I have finally resigned.   I do not believe that the players nor the Management have the courage to solve the problems.

 The think they can just "tough" it out, and everything will be ok.  They are in for some lean years ahead if they don't get their heads out of that legendary dark space.

Barbara Mcwilliams
Barbara Mcwilliams

yes it would be nice, if musicians, artist, singers etc, didn't need food, housing, insurance, health care, etc, like republicans.


@wakeup Yes, thank you for that comment. I agree with you all the way.

Now Trending

From the Vault


©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.