Elise Frawley is an accomplished viola player and an Executive Board member of Local 802, the New York metro area union for musicians and the largest chapter of the American Federation of Musicians. She is also a passionate teacher and advocate for arts education. Elise has played viola in a variety of venues, from Carnegie Hall to Rockwood Music Hall, and she has appeared on Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, NPR’s Live From Here!, America’s Got Talent, The History Channel’s Stan Lee’s Superhumans, and Amazon Prime’s Mozart in the Jungle.
A Conversation with Elise Frawley
Jamie Maletz: So, to start, you’re a very talented viola player! How long have you been playing?
Elise Frawley: I started with violin when I was eight, just in a group class. And when I was in middle school, a teacher asked if I wanted to join the string quartet and try out viola. And I just liked the sound better and continued on that.
JM: And you’ve played in some really cool venues, from Carnegie Hall to Rockwood Music Hall. Do you want to share what it’s like to play in some of these incredible places?
Elise Frawley: I really enjoy playing at Carnegie because the stage has a warmth to it that you sort of feel…this might sound dramatic, but, like the history of all the performers and the sounds that have resonated in that hall before, and the stage has a glow to it, and the audience feels close, in a way that doesn’t make you nervous in the way that bright stage lights would. I remember when I first played there as a kid, like, looking at the stage floor and seeing all the patterns that the cello endpins had poked in the stage, and thinking, like, “Oh! That could have been Yo-Yo Ma!” So, I would say that’s my favorite venue. And backstage everyone’s very nice, and it’s comfortable. Rockwood is, you know, it’s a place where it’s crowded, and you showcase different bands, and that’s always interesting, trying to figure out how you can move about the crowd without having your instrument damaged. But you always see someone you know, which is, it’s like the Cheers of freelance musicians. And then, I’d say, I’ve played at other places like Radio City [Music Hall] and The Beacon Theatre, you know, places where the experience is less personal and interestingly, in a way, you don’t feel like you’re engaging with the audience as much. It very much feels like a production separately, and then there are people off in the distance in the dark behind the lights. And so, that’s interesting too, to be in that position.
JM: Are there any…“the venue that got away?” Any venues you haven’t played yet that you really want to?
Elise Frawley: I guess I’ve never played at, like, a fancy hall in Europe. That would be cool.
JM: That would be cool. So also, you’re an Executive Board Member of Local 802, the New York metro area union for musicians. What does your work in that position entail?
Elise Frawley: Oh, boy. Well, I’m going to go to a multi-hour long meeting after this for that. So, the executive board functions as fiduciary trustees, and we approve routine things like if someone wants to take a leave of absence from a show, or we ratify contracts or discuss policy for the union, and by design, each person on the board is elected to be representative of the musician community. One thing that I think we could do better is, according to our bylaws, you can’t take non-union work if you’re on the executive board, but because of our self-employed freelance model now, it’s hard to be purely all-union unless you have a chair in an orchestra or on Broadway. So we’re working on trying to figure out how to bring in people who might be union members but don’t necessarily get all their work from that. Anything from organizing gigs to trying to figure out what we can do to advocate for pensions, because that’s a big issue now in our union. It’s interesting! It’s like a way to vent all the political frustrations I’ve had over the past few years, like, nationally.
JM: And how long have you been with 802?
Elise Frawley: Since 2011. I was out of school in 2008, and the union was always kind of this pedigree. Like, if you do union work, that’s great, and anyone can join at any point. I joined to play with a regional orchestra, and I was very excited about it.
JM: So for people who are less familiar with the way that unions work, how would you describe what a union does?
Elise Frawley: Well, historically, we tend to take for granted what unions have done. They invented weekends, which is really cool. They…you know, work days, ending child labor…down at NYU, the Brown Building was once the site of a large factory fire where all these garment workers died because they didn’t have a fire escape and I think they were locked in for the day while they were sewing because, you know, their employers were like, “We want to make you as productive as possible,” and they couldn’t escape, so they had to jump out the window and had these tragic deaths. And so unions helped establish safer working conditions. For jobs where it feels like you can be taken advantage of easily, unions can set boundaries, like how many hours you can be asked to work. In the creative field, I find it still happens that musicians can…you know, you can be part of this high-profile gig, or playing music you really love, but you’re almost treated like a second-class citizen. Even today, when you’d think that some of these conditions are just ingrained. And so I think it’s important for there to continue to be a musician’s union that tries to problem solve and advocate for its members. I think we can improve on that in general.
JM: Also, you’ve been on TV a bunch of times. According to your website, you’ve been on Saturday Night Live, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, NPR’s Live From Here!, America’s Got Talent, The History Channel’s Stan Lee’s Superhumans, and Amazon Prime’s Mozart in the Jungle. So when you were on the talk shows, how were you being featured?
Elise Frawley: So usually, you’re featured with an artist who’s performing. For Colbert, for one of the performances I was playing with Jon Batiste. Yeah, it’s mostly with the artist, and they have very strict rehearsal schedules, and that is another place where you see the magic of unions, because they have this, like, it’s called the Stagehands Union [International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees], and they encompass camera people, lighting, people working in TV, in theater, in Broadway pits and such, and they are just…man, first of all, they have really strong contracts. You can tell they love what they do. They do it expertly. And it’s really cool to be able to work among colleagues like that. I really enjoy it. I actually think the cameramen and stage crew…it’s incredible what they do. They don’t get enough credit. There should be a crew filming them doing what they do.
JM: You had, like, an “oh no” face when I mentioned TV. What was that?
Elise Frawley: Oh [laughs] because I don’t feel very…yeah, I don’t know. I wear a lot more makeup on TV than I’m wearing now.
JM: For those of us who have never been on TV, what was the process? Like, you get to the studio, and…?
Elise Frawley: It’s, like, hurry up and wait, mostly. You get there, and SNL for example seems like the most awesome building you’d wanna work in. And it could just be because I’m a guest and I don’t see the day-to-day, but like, you show up and there are really nice pages who take you to green room, and all the staff is really warm and helpful. Sometimes there are multi-day rehearsals before in the building, so they might take you to your spot onstage and you watch them set up the cameras and you sit and the sound guys come set you up, and, you know, just work out logistics. My impression is that you don’t want the experience to be…you don’t want to have those excited onstage jitters that might help you in a live performance. You want it to just be, like, run through so many times that you’re almost bored, because then you’re not gonna mess up. So there are a lot of run-throughs and making sure things are logistically managed.
JM: And for the shows that were plotted and scripted, like Mozart in the Jungle, how were you being featured?
Elise Frawley: So, it was interesting, they hired real musicians. The speaking parts were actors, but the orchestra was just musicians who were hired through various freelance channels. And there were some episodes where we played live, like one on Rikers Island, and others, there was a track playing and we were playing along, because you have to be able to sync if you’re editing. I assume you have to have the same ongoing music to be able to splice scene frames together. But yeah, that was very interesting, because the actors were all taking lessons on the instruments they were portraying. And they were getting really into it, you know, they’re also artists. I thought it was interesting seeing them trying to utilize instruments in a way that felt natural to them, and I was like, “Oh, maybe they should take lessons for real, they seem like, really into it.”
JM: That’s really cool. Speaking of lessons, you’re also a teacher! You teach with the Midori & Friends organization. And they partner with existing schools to bring in music classes?
Elise Frawley: They have teaching artists go to different schools around the city in various capacities. Some of my colleagues teach group classes to kids who are playing one instrument, and Midori & Friends has these development sessions where we talk about how to run a classroom and what sorts of repertoire you can teach. It’s very flexible and adaptable to the students you’re working with, which is cool, instead of being like a dogmatic, overly disciplined way of teaching. I coach viola students in an orchestra down in Bay Ridge (which has a lot of great restaurants, which is cool), and the conductor of that program also conducts in a variety of other youth orchestras, and he and I had the same viola teacher back in the day, so it’s nice to work with another person who’s like-minded.
JM: And you also have a private studio with students of all ages, and you’ve been an adjunct professor at NYU. Do you have a favorite type of teaching?
Elise Frawley: I like teaching people who want to go into music, but I also like teaching students who don’t. Like, non-majors, I would say. It’s kind of admirable, because they’re just doing it because they love it, and it helps them focus in different ways.
JM: Students who love it, but they’re not going to try to make a career of it, you mean?
Elise Frawley: Yeah. Exactly. ‘Cause it’s just, it can be enriching to do something that you really love that takes skill. And I also teach at the 92nd Street Y, which is one of my favorite institutions. It started off as a community center, and now it features concerts, lectures…they really invest in the people who speak there. And they have all sorts of concert series, and the school there draws very passionate students of all ages. So it’s a really supportive institution to be a part of. It has something for everyone.
JM: That sounds awesome. So, one thing that I sometimes like to ask about are favorite or memorable gigs or experiences. Do any spring to mind?
Elise Frawley: There was one production I was a part of that was an all-female version of the musical 1776, and it was right after the presidential election. It was very cathartic to be a part of, and they had some of the original cast either playing their past roles or taking on new roles.
JM: Oh, that’s so cool.
Elise Frawley: And one of my absolute favorite things to do is to work directly with people developing new work and to be a part of that process from the beginning.
JM: I love that. Speaking of beginnings, what was it like for you starting out in this industry?
Elise Frawley: That’s a good question. I grew up in the area, so I kind of knew through teachers who were in orchestras like the New York Philharmonic, the New York City Ballet, on Broadway…I started to learn the ropes early in terms of how you audition and network, or what to expect in various scenes. I think a very formative experience for me was watching, when I was a teenager, the Broadway strike in 2003. And that sort of set my idea of, like, how musicians should be treated and what the responsibility is of an industry to give back to its employees. So I guess that was–maybe my high school years were when I started forming my views of music in New York.
JM: What has your career path been like so far?
Elise Frawley: It’s been really interesting. It’s like, you can be a fly on the wall for some really cool experiences. I think like with everyone in the arts, there are a lot of ups and downs, and so I have lately tried to commit to kind of a stoic idea of what it is to be a musician. So, just make sure to work hard, be professional, be true to your creative ideas, and the chips will fall into place. And I’ve been very fortunate so far. I really enjoy being able to do a job where you don’t feel like you’re working.
JM: And why did you join Maestra?
Elise Frawley: When we were elected to the executive board, a few colleagues and I formed a caucus called Women of 802. And we found that there were also shortfalls in our scene, whether it was on Broadway or in orchestra, where women weren’t being represented or advocated for in the workplace. And we also just needed a space to build a community. And Georgia [Stitt] was connected to us through Mary-Mitchell Campbell, who is a leader and also a member of Maestra. So Georgia and I met and talked about our goals and how we could work collaboratively, and I’ve really enjoyed being a part of it since.
JM: Why do you think Maestra is important?
Elise Frawley: Oh. I think for music, it’s all about the hang. Like, every person you meet, you can consider it a job interview for the next thing. And Maestra builds a really important community for people to connect creatively, feel safe in the space where they can try out different ideas, and I think it also builds a sense of trust among each other that is hard to find as a female just being out in the professional world. So, I mean, I think it’s something that every industry should have, like, a space where other female professionals can collaborate safely.
JM: And why should people care about the services we offer?
Elise Frawley: I think the services Maestra offers are very unique, and knowing what Maestra offers, you think, “How has this not been a thing everywhere?” You know, a directory of musicians who are awesome? All of these gifted people you can find in one place? How have we existed without something like that for so long? As well as a community where you can connect with one another without feeling pressure in other ways that you might if you were scrutinized like in other places.
JM: And why should people care about the goals that we’re working towards?
Elise Frawley: It’s important to care about and commit to gender parity and diversity, because if you’re not concentrating on those things, you’re missing out on significant percentages of the population that can do something really well. So if you’re hiring people with the same backgrounds and experience over and over, you’re only tapping into a smaller portion of an overall gifted group of people, in which case, you miss out on other jobs that can be created, and other markets that can be tapped if I’m thinking in a truly capitalist way. And you’re also excluding large segments of the population that look to art to be able to relate to it, and for solace or some sort of comfort. And unfortunately, I think there is this misunderstanding where some people might say, “Well, I just care about the final product. It doesn’t matter who creates it.” But that thinking can often lead to having a one-sided portrayal of life, because sometimes when we think, “I’m just going to concentrate on the final product,” the person who’s been able to create that final product has been someone who’s traditionally been able to move into those professional spaces comfortably. So, you know, it’s not truly taking in the entire wealth of talent that’s available.
JM: That’s a really good answer. So, last but not least, is there anything else that you’d like to share about yourself, your work, or thoughts about Maestra?
Elise Frawley: I’m very fortunate to be a part of Maestra. And this is gonna sound kind of cheesy, but I’m especially fortunate that in my lifetime, something like this exists. Because I think of all of the women, people of color, transgender people, you know, whoever didn’t have the same advantages as other demographics, I think of all the struggles they had to fight through. And that they paved the way for something like this, for there to be a safe space where we’re like, “Of course there can be a group that’s representative for women and non-binary and gender non-conforming and people of various backgrounds.” That’s something I think about often and, you know, I hope that this mission that Maestra has builds on more success and, in the future, it can open up possibilities to something we couldn’t even imagine is possible today. I’m happy to participate in the long road to equality historically.
Special thanks to Elise for sharing her story.