Interview with Alum Martha Kinsella, BA 2007

Martha Kinsella headshot


Martha Kinsella recently became counsel to the American Guild of Musical Artists, a union that represents opera singers, ballet dancers, and other performing artists. During her time at the University of Chicago, from 2003-2007, she was very active in the Performance Program as part of the University Chorus and Piano Studies Program.   

"The education I got as a student in the Humanities with the social science core curriculum really got me thinking about the role of arts and culture in society. This has always stayed with me and is definitely a driver in in the work that I do now."


How did you get started playing piano? What is your origin story? 

When I was five years old, I heard Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 18 in E-flat Major on the radio and said to my parents, “I want to play that.” Two and a half years later, I finally had my first piano lesson. I played that sonata when I was at the University of Chicago on a couple of different concerts through the Performance Program. 

What are some of your fondest memories of being a student at the University of Chicago? 

Being a part of the Performance Program was definitely one of the highlights of my time at the University of Chicago. I took piano lessons with a teacher at the Music Institute of Chicago in Winnetka. The Performance Program offered a Lesson Award Scholarship that provided funds for private lessons, so that was always a big help. I performed as a soloist pretty regularly in the concerts and masterclasses that were at the University of Chicago and in the community.   

My life at the University of Chicago was very structured around piano. I would get up early in the morning to get to the practice rooms right when they opened so I could get the good Steinway. I would practice for two hours before my first class, and then I would go back after class and practice some more. I think the education I got as a student in the Humanities with the social science core curriculum really got me thinking about the role of arts and culture in society. This has always stayed with me and is definitely a driver in in the work that I do now.  

I should also mention that during my first two years at the University of Chicago, I also sang in the University Chorus, which was a great experience. I loved learning the choral works. Now I represent choral singers who sing professionally with symphony orchestras. It was really wonderful that there were so many different opportunities to engage with music in the Performance Program. 

When I was in my junior year of college, I studied abroad in France and this was a seminal moment in my education. French students went on strike for several months and brought the country to a standstill with their demands. I had never seen anything like that. They were protesting a law that was pitched as a way to stimulate the economy but would impact young workers by making it easier to break employment contracts for young workers. The position of the college students protesting was that it would be used in a discriminatory manner. One of the arguments that the students made was that it would have a disparate impact on young workers of color in France. It was really a significant experience going to campus and seeing all of the buildings barricaded, seeing various parts of Paris shut down for protests and demonstrations, and listening to the radio every morning to find out who was on strike in solidarity. This was a very impactful experience and formative in my decision to practice labor law. 

Did you study piano in France?  

Yes! I was enrolled in a humanities program at the University of Paris at their Nanterre campus. I was studying literature and philosophy but I was also a very serious piano student with a private teacher who was a longtime friend of the teacher I had in Chicago. My lessons were not affiliated with the University of Chicago or a French university. My teacher had her own studio of primarily professional pianists. 

Did you always have aspirations to find a career that merged your two passions for justice and the arts? 

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I could do both, and then I saw this job. When I went to law school was when I stopped practicing the piano three and four hours a day. It has been an absolutely delightful happenstance that I can work at the intersection of my two great passions in life. 

What does a typical day look like for you in your new role? 

There are really two kinds of typical days. One is when we're doing contract negotiations that typically entail a two- or three-hour block set for negotiating with the management of one of the signatory companies where we represent artists. During these meetings we are putting proposals across the table, discussing them, going into caucus with our members, strategizing, and ultimately deciding whether we can reach agreement, or whether there's still a negotiation that needs to continue.  

Another stream of work is contract administration. That is meeting regularly with the shop stewards or union delegates and the artists in each of the signatory companies, and hearing how things are going. We handle issues that arise when there's a difference between the two parties in the interpretation of the contract language. In most cases, these meetings result in reaching some kind of agreement or negotiating some kind of understanding.  

In addition, we also deal with all different aspects of the employment relationship, not just administering a collective bargaining agreement, but being there for workers when there is unlawful discrimination or unfair labor practices being committed in the workplace and addressing issues of workplace safety, and health and wage issues. These are all things likely covered by the collective bargaining agreement, but are also regulated by federal, state and local law. 

In what other ways has your musical training supported your current career? 

I went through conservatory prep training when I was in middle and high school, where I learned a lot about opera, and I studied German at the University of Chicago. Aside from one case that I had at the National Labor Relations Board, where the business records were in Yiddish, I never used German once.  

However, now that I work a great deal with opera singers, I use German all the time. For example, I had an issue where there was a question about the German diction in a performance. I was able to listen to the artist’s German diction and reach a resolution.  

A couple of months ago, I received a call about how one of the artists in one of our bargaining units was getting promoted to the role of Bartolo in The Barber of Seville. That meant that they were no longer covered by our collective bargaining agreement. I would have never known that if I hadn't had all of this musical training and taken courses in the arts and humanities when I was in college.

Poster with photo of Beethoven and text "OBEYTHOVEN"

Are you continuing to play or engage with music other than your professional role with AGMA? 

I stopped taking piano lessons when I went law school, but after graduation, when I was working at the National Labor Relations Board in Washington, DC, my chief counsel put me in touch with a piano teacher there, and I started taking lessons again, once a month. I stopped taking lessons when my daughter was born two and a half years ago and no longer have the time to practice.

My lifetime ambition is to learn and play all of the Beethoven sonatas. I made a fair amount of progress toward playing all of the sonatas during the pandemic. In 2011, the New York classical music station had a 12-hour live broadcast concert of all 32 piano sonatas, played back-to-back live on the radio by different performers. I think the youngest one was a 12-year-old kid who went to Juilliard Prep. There were some really big names too. I went to that concert and ended up sitting next to a woman who was 92 years old. And she said, “This is the concert of a lifetime.” I said, “You would know.” 

I have a poster on the wall in my office that came from that event (see image).

What is your dream meal in your dream setting? 

I haven't traveled too much since the pandemic. The last major trip my husband and I took before then was to the Pyrenees in France. I'm a bit of a Francophile. I remember sitting in a lovely garden in the mountains and having duck, which is a specialty of that region. That was pretty great. The setting and the food were amazing, so I would really love to do that again. 

What book are you reading now? Or have you read recently that you would recommend to either some of our students or some of our other alumni? 

One of the reasons I chose to attend the University of Chicago is I’m a lifelong fan of Philip Roth, who was an alum. I would recommend anything by Philip Roth. I wrote my Bachelors’ thesis about him. That being said, as of recently, I no longer read fiction. I mostly read about labor history or the history of the administrative state. I find it fascinating.  

If I had to choose a couple of books for people who have not read a lot about labor history but are interested in being introduced to this topic, two books come to mind. Hammer and Hoe by Robin D.G. Kelley, which is about labor organizing in Alabama during the New Deal. I’d also recommend Civil Rights Unionism by Robert Rogers Korstad, which is about organizing in the tobacco industry in North Carolina in the 1930s and 1940s. I read this book several years ago and it was really spectacular. That moment in history was really fascinating with the great potential for change in that region. Also, both of these books are about interracial organizing, which was quite unusual at the time, so they are really quite extraordinary stories. 

The Second Red Scare by Landon R.Y. Storrs is about the early history of the National Labor Relations Board and other New Deal Era agencies. It looks at the architects of the New Deal, including a legislative staffer who wrote the Social Security Act and the National Labor Relations Act. It also looks at who administered these programs at the various federal agencies and what happened to them. This book was very relevant to work I was doing in my last job, at a think tank, where I focused on non-partisan administration of government services and protecting the government workers who do that work.

Another book that I would highly recommend is The Next Shift, University of Chicago’s own Gabriel Winant’s masterful labor history of Pittsburgh (where some of the artists I represent are located). My mother lent me her copy late in my pregnancy, and I rushed to finish it before my due date because I knew I wouldn’t have time to finish it after the baby came, and it was too good to put aside! I remember reading it at the doctor's office the day the first Starbucks union won its election. The nurse who was running a test on me saw what I was reading, and we celebrated the Starbucks union victory together! 

What do you do to attempt to create a healthy work life balance? 

My job is incredibly gratifying. I am able to fight for the rights of workers and to fight for the rights of workers in an industry where I have such a lifelong love for their work product.  

I make an effort to do fun things with my daughter on the weekends and in the evenings. I am greatly looking forward to attending concerts with her when she gets a little older. 

I also listen to classical music throughout the day, and I think that it is very sustaining to enjoy that kind of beauty as part of my work day.  

Martha Kinsella’s "Listen While You Work" Spotify playlist.

This is my Spotify playlist for when the classical music radio station reaches a tipping point in mid-December and starts playing too much Christmas music. That’s the time of year when I listen to all of the Mahler symphonies.