Churn and Burn at the Young Musicians Program

A venerable UC Berkeley youth program appears to be violating its union contract.


In an ideal world, the Young Musicians Program would be one of the most noble outreach efforts to spawn from UC Berkeley. Now 44 years old, it was built with the idea of using music to effect social change, namely, by recruiting underprivileged youth from all parts of the Bay Area and teaching them to play classical music at a very high level. Pianists Kev Choice and Erika Oba, saxophonists Howard Wiley and Dayna Stephens, drummer Darrell Green, and trumpeter Geechi Taylor all came up through the program and built successful careers in music — many of them have returned to teach the next generation of instrumentalists. In the local music world, the Young Musicians Program isn’t a mere training ground; it’s a veritable institution. Ostensibly, said cello teacher Cathy Allen, who taught at the program for several years, “things like this can save lives.”

But those who have worked there or been enrolled there any time in the last nine years have a decidedly different view of the program. They say that ever since current director Daisy Newman took the reins in 2003, the Young Musicians Program has suffered from constant staff turnover, capricious leadership, and disorganization. Current and former faculty accuse Newman of violating the program’s union contract, which mandates that instructors get a formal review after six years of employment, at which time they can be granted certain protections from being laid off. But faculty say that Newman dismisses employees in their fifth year, specifically to avoid giving that sixth-year review. In November, staff at the Young Musicians Program filed a grievance against Newman for these breaches, arguing that she’s not only making use of temporary teachers for a permanent instruction need, but that she’s also retaliating against anyone she perceives to be disagreeing with her.

What’s odd is that Newman doesn’t appear to have an obvious justification for her actions. Whereas typically employers may replace more experienced, expensive employees with newer, cheaper labor to save money, Newman doesn’t seem to be saving the program any money. In fact, her replacement employees, most of whom are recent conservatory graduates, usually earn an hourly rate that exceeds that of their predecessors ($55 to $60 as opposed to $50), according to union field rep Michelle Squitieri, who is handling the grievance. Former employees say that Newman’s goal isn’t budget management; rather, she wants to keep people afraid of her.

Squitieri put it this way: “It seems that she doesn’t want professional faculty in there. She wants people she can control.”

That was apparently the experience of trombonist Hall Goff, a 35-year veteran of the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra who started teaching at the Young Musicians Program in 2002. Goff said his dustup with Newman happened over a recital last March, in which three of his students performed a repertoire that Goff had transcribed from vocal music. Goff didn’t attend the recital, but said that his students were shaky — one, in particular, had just gotten braces and switched to a bass trombone, which is larger than the standard orchestra instrument and evidently more challenging to play. Newman dubbed the performance “disastrous.”

The following day she sent Goff a punishing email. “I’m writing to express my unhappiness about the performance of your students,” she wrote, then proceeded to censure Goff for his “simplistic repertoire,” his lack of a concrete plan “to move the trombonists forward,” and the “tragic” unsureness of the bass trombone. “It is my observation that you look down upon our kids for various reasons,” Newman concluded, “and that you do your best teaching elsewhere.”

Goff was befuddled. “All the contact that I’d had with Daisy up to this time had been smiles and ‘Gee, we’re-glad-to-have-you-here kind of stuff,'” he said, explaining that he called her after receiving the email to refute its charges. He said that when he asked if she had spoken to the students about his teaching being anything but professional, she said no, insisting that it was “useless to talk to students about such things.” When Goff suggested that she call a couple parents who had sat in on his lessons, Newman ignored him, Goff said. Perplexed and frustrated, Goff decided to resign in April. Shortly thereafter he was replaced by a young undergraduate from the San Francisco Conservatory. Goff said his replacement was paid $5 more per hour.

Saxophonist and former Express employee Kasey Knudsen said that pattern of hostility sounds familiar. She also said she had a confrontation with Newman after working at the Young Musicians Program for five years. Knudsen was hired in 2005, and says that her relationship with Newman remained even-keel — if not exactly amicable — up until 2010, when the winds suddenly changed. “There was one situation where I didn’t let a student play in a recital, and she flipped out and reassigned all my students to another teacher,” the saxophonist said. “There was no conversation. I never had a talk with her about why she had me doing this.” Knudsen concluded that she had been silently fired.

According to the bargaining contract that the Young Musicians Program has with UC Berkeley, instructors are initially hired on a year-to-year basis. Before they reach that crucial sixth-year mark, Newman has almost complete discretion to renew their appointments at the end of the year or not, so she can technically terminate a fifth-year employee without going through any kind of formal procedure. But she has to do it in June, when the academic year is up — she can’t just reassign someone’s students in August without telling them, which was what she did to Knudsen and a number of other teachers, those teachers said. Moreover, she has to respect both the letter and the spirit of the law, Squitieri said. She can’t systematically refrain from reviewing employees because she wants to turn them over. And even before the sixth-year review, she can’t refuse to renew an appointment in order to hire someone else at a cheaper rate.

Newman declined to comment for this article, and instead referred all inquiries to UC Berkeley Employee and Labor Relations Director Debra Harrington, who did not return multiple phone calls. In the meantime, more and more former staff of the musicians program have come forward, describing what sounds like a calculated form of intimidation. In most cases, they said Newman would be amiable for four years and then find some excuse for a conflict in the employee’s fifth year, usually over some minor perturbation. Bassist Alden Cohen said he incurred her wrath by requesting three days off during the summer so that he could play a festival, which, for him, was a critical source of income. Allen and fellow cello teacher Beth Vandervennet said they were both completely perplexed when Newman suddenly took away all their students. Vandervennet said she even arranged for a meeting with Newman and assistant director Karen Baccarro, in which she provided a detailed explanation of her teaching methodology. It was futile, she said.

“At the end of spring 2006 for some reason they asked me for my résumé,” Vandervennet recalled. “Then I received a letter saying my contract would not be continued after the spring semester was closed.” At that point, Vandervennet had been working there for five years.

If the Young Musicians Program had followed the guidelines in its union contract, then its music coaches would have the same rights as other non-senate UC faculty — namely, lecturers and non-tenured professors. Every instructor who passed the excellence review would garner a “continuing appointment” (i.e., not terminal) — meaning what’s essentially a real faculty position, albeit on an hourly wage. Post-review instructors would have guaranteed seniority protections, such as a year’s notice for layoffs, and a month’s notice if the administration wanted to reduce their hours. If Newman wanted to fire a post-review instructor for poor performance, she would have to meet with the person well in advance. Most importantly, she wouldn’t have the latitude to simply fire an experienced instructor and replace him with someone new.

To date, though, it appears that the Young Musicians Program has not granted a single excellence review. Squitieri said she’s asked the administration for the names of the teachers who have received such reviews, but never got an answer. Furthermore, she has spoken to many teachers who, like Goff, have worked at the program for more than six years without ever receiving a review or even knowing that they were entitled to one. Instead, they get terminal one-year appointments. Squitieri also said that when she requested lists of everyone on the payroll at the Young Musicians Program, they were radically incomplete. “The teachers themselves don’t get listed as teachers,” she said. “They don’t get a roster.” Nor does the program provide names of any of its instructors on its website, she pointed out.

She and Goff both suspect that the idea behind keeping an incomplete roster was to ensure that teachers wouldn’t communicate with one another, wouldn’t form a political bloc, and wouldn’t exercise their collective bargaining rights. The impetus, they say, is for Newman to maintain a climate of total domination and fear.

And, in Knudsen’s recollection, it has worked pretty well. “How she ran the program was everyone was scared of her,” Knudsen said. “If I saw her in the hallway I would just go away.” For a program that’s supposed to be about inclusion — it is, in fact, overseen by the Division of Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity at UC Berkeley — that’s pretty disheartening.