After two black musicians accused the New York Philharmonic in 1969 of racial discrimination, the Philharmonic, and many other American orchestras, began auditioning prospective members behind a screen, so that neither the race nor the sex of the individual could be discerned. All that mattered was musical quality. (As I recall, women were told not to wear high heels so their sex couldn’t be sussed out by the clack-clack they made as they walked across the stage.)
Now, as a critic in the New York Times argues, while this procedure has been wildly successful in increasing the representation of women in orchestras, the proportion of blacks and Hispanics remain low. The solution, offered in an opinion piece by Anthony Tommasini, the Times‘s head classical-music critic, is to ditch the blind auditions and go back to the way things were. This argument has put me in a bit of a dilemma.
Click on the screenshot to read:
Here’s a picture of what a blind audition looks like (this is a mock audition at the Yale School of Music):
Tomsasini’s words are indented; mine are flush left.
Here’s the success of blind auditions in getting women into orchestras:
Blind auditions, as they became known, proved transformative. The percentage of women in orchestras, which hovered under 6 percent in 1970, grew. Today, women make up a third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they are half the New York Philharmonic. Blind auditions changed the face of American orchestras.
But, according to Tommasini, the change was “not enough”, for the racial disparity remained:
American orchestras remain among the nation’s least racially diverse institutions, especially in regard to Black and Latino artists. In a 2014 study, only 1.8 percent of the players in top ensembles were Black; just 2.5 percent were Latino. At the time of the Philharmonic’s 1969 discrimination case, it had one Black player, the first it ever hired: Sanford Allen, a violinist. Today, in a city that is a quarter Black, just one out of 106 full-time players is Black: Anthony McGill, the principal clarinet.
Clearly, the premise of blind auditions, like the practice of some science journals in having authors leave their names off their papers, is to reduce bigotry against names (or appearances), ensuring that only the quality of the music (or papers) counts in the audition. That sounds good, right? But for Tommasini, quality isn’t an issue any more. For one thing, the people who audition at symphony orchestras, he argues, are all so good that there’s little to distinguish them, so why not hire based on ethnicity rather than musical quality? To paraphrase Dr. King, although what has counted in blind auditions is not the color of the skin but the sound of the music, Tommasini recommends that color of the skin should count:
The status quo is not working. If things are to change, ensembles must be able to take proactive steps to address the appalling racial imbalance that remains in their ranks. Blind auditions are no longer tenable.
. . . .If the musicians onstage are going to better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, the audition process has to be altered to take into fuller account artists’ backgrounds and experiences. Removing the screen is a crucial step.
One immediately thinks, “Well, if we go back to the old system which apparently discriminated against women, won’t that happen again?” Yes, it could, but apparently Tommasini would guard against that by having a quota system: you must hire so many women, so many blacks, and so many Hispanics. That eliminates discrimination. The “ensemble must reflect the diversity of the community it serves”.
Blind auditions are based on an appealing premise of pure meritocracy: An orchestra should be built from the very best players, period. But ask anyone in the field, and you’ll learn that over the past century of increasingly professionalized training, there has come to be remarkably little difference between players at the top tier. There is an athletic component to playing an instrument, and as with sprinters, gymnasts and tennis pros, the basic level of technical skill among American instrumentalists has steadily risen. A typical orchestral audition might end up attracting dozens of people who are essentially indistinguishable in their musicianship and technique.
It’s like an elite college facing a sea of applicants with straight A’s and perfect test scores. Such a school can move past those marks, embrace diversity as a social virtue and assemble a freshman class that advances other values along with academic achievement.
Are orchestra applicants really like that? I have no idea, and I’m not sure I trust Tommasini here because he works for the New Woke Times, which has an agenda.
Tommasini doesn’t argue that diversity is an inherent good (which is my contention with affirmative action in schools, which I favor and see as a form of reparations), but that it actually has a salutary effect on the music itself:
For orchestras, the qualities of an ideal player might well include talent as an educator, interest in unusual repertoire or willingness to program innovative chamber events as well as pure musicianship. American orchestras should be able to foster these values, and a diverse complement of musicians, rather than passively waiting for representation to emerge from behind the audition screen.
This implies that black or Hispanic musicians would go about selecting and making music in a different way (isn’t that the job of the conductor, who doesn’t audition behind a screen?). I don’t know of any data bearing on this, but the claim “black musicians are different from white ones” clearly needs documentation. On the other hand, I don’t have to make that argument with the “reparations” view of affirmative action that I favor.
Now, like affirmative action in schools, one has to admit that it’s not meritocratic: that is, the practice will make the average academic qualifications of the entering class fall. Likewise, orchestras will have the average quality of the music fall. I am not claiming here that affirmative action for orchestras will result in hiring worse musicians, for Tommasini himself implies such a claim, since the pool of musicians of color who would audition for symphony orchestras is very small. Here’s what he says:
Some leaders in the field I’ve spoken with over the years have argued that the problem starts earlier than auditions. They say racial diversity is missing in the so-called pipeline that leads from learning an instrument to summer programs to conservatories to graduate education to elite jobs. In this view, even that strong pool of equally talented hypothetical auditioners might have few, if any, Black or Latino players in it.
Yet Afa S. Dworkin, the president of the Sphinx Organization, which is dedicated to encouraging diversity in classical music by fostering young artists, argues that the pipeline is not the problem, and that talented musicians of color are out there and ready.
“As we speak,” she said in a recent online roundtable discussion among leading Black musicians, “about 96 Black and brown students who were competitively selected from hundreds who auditioned for Sphinx’s summer programs are going to go through intensive solo and chamber music training.”
She added that any of those young artists would soon be worthy of entrance to an elite conservatory and, in just a few years, ready for top-tier auditions.
This is a tacit admission that orchestras aren’t yet ready for non-blind auditions. Tommasini makes another argument for favoring ethnic minorities: the burden of flying to auditions and paying for hotel rooms weigh heavily on them, making them less likely to attend. Perhaps non-blind auditions with affirmative action would help with this. As Tommasini concludes, “Slow and steady change is no longer fast enough.” I’m not sure how fast he wants change, though. Should we take down the screens now and begin implementing his system?
Somehow, though, this suggestion grated on me—the idea that bigotry against women was eliminated by the screen but bigotry against blacks and Hispanics was reinforced. A quota system, which is what Tommasini apparently wants, could remedy all of this. And, in truth, I don’t have much of a problem with that when it comes to colleges and universities. People deprived of equal opportunity to succeed in academics should get preferential admission to help repair the damage caused over centuries. Why shouldn’t that hold in orchestras as well as in colleges? Or is musical quality somehow more important for orchestras than academic quality is for colleges? For the life of me, I can’t see a moral difference.
At the same time, I realize that there’s underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics (but not Asians) in scientific publications—essential in attaining success in academics—but I somehow can’t bring myself to agree that the race of authors should be specified on papers, and that journals should have quotas of papers based on race so that “science will reflect the diversity of the community it serves.”
I don’t have a solution here, but I’m not 100% ready to sign on to Tommasini’s suggestion, which somehow seems too woke to me. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t make a good argument for “proportional representation”, or say that it should be done as a form of reparations, which would at least be an honest admission.
You tell me what you think. I know we have many musicians among the readers, but almost everyone will have an opinion here. Take down the audition screens, or leave them up?