The fight for equality in America has been long and hard-fought. Sometimes a multi-generational upheaval has been required to undo old notions and myths. But there have been a few times when a new process enabled these changes to happen almost overnight. In the world of classical music, no change was more consequential than the instituting of blind auditions, whereby the musician auditioning for a position is behind a screen, and the only thing a panel can adjudicate is the sound of music.
How do we know this was so successful? Because even self-proclaimed bigots found themselves choosing differently, in spite of themselves. In Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes how in 1980, Abbie Conant won a position as principal trombone with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra. Behind the screen, Conant’s playing wowed the committee and the great maestro Sergiu Celibidache. But once the screen came down, these old-school sexists were horrified to discover Conant was a woman. Although Conant had won the audition fairly, Celibidache subsequently tried to have her demoted. Even when she recovered her position after a court battle, she had to struggle to be paid fairly.
The first screened audition at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra saw four women hired over the objections of sexist members of the orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic tried and stopped using screens when a Japanese man won their audition. But the results caught the attention of other professions and inspired a famous study in the American Economic Review.
Given this incontrovertible evidence, it was confusing to read Anthony Tommasini, one of the most famous music critics in America, calling in the New York Times for an end to blind auditions — and for the sake of promoting one kind of ‘diversity’ over another:
‘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…in sticking so stubbornly to the practice, unions may be hurting themselves, their orchestras and their art form. Hanging on to a system that has impeded diversity is particularly conspicuous at a moment when the country has been galvanized by revulsion to police brutality against Black Americans… 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.’
I am the principal cellist of American ICSOM Orchestra — the Louisville Orchestra, led by our brilliant young music director Teddy Abrams. I have taken countless auditions for other orchestras behind the screen. I have also served on and led audition committees. While the process certainly has its imperfections, I have seen just what a powerful bias-neutralizing force they can be.
In spring 2019, I led an audition for two spots in our cello section. Numerous people I know and love were among the applicants. Could I have been biased in favor of any of them? Of course. Did I have any idea who was who behind the screen? No. We ended up hiring two fantastic cellists, who happen to be female.
Not every orchestra uses screens in the same manner, and in some cases not at all. Stories are shared about powerful figures in top orchestras getting an unusually large number of members of their own family hired, or who only want young, attractive boys, or young attractive girls. The biases at play are endless and deeply human.
There are very few hiring processes where elements of bias based on race, gender, friendship and family really can be accounted for and eliminated — but this is one of them. Tommasini seems to dismiss these multifaceted advantages with a certain casualness.
To give Tommasini his due, there is a racial imbalance in American classical music. My orchestra, I believe, has had only one tenured African American member in its history, who retired several years before I joined. The question is whether or not the blind audition process is the culprit, or other, greater forces in American society and history that lead to racial inequality before the candidates step onto the stage behind that screen.
One thing to consider is the kind of resources required to pursue classical music at the professional level. You typically must come from at least a middle-class background, so that your family has the means to support the necessary early training. Even if those requirements are met, gaining steady employment is still difficult and full of financial risk. It’s hard to think you’ll be able to live comfortably in a field with so few jobs when you’re already scraping to get by.
Add to all this the historical legacy of slavery, and worries about whether or not an encounter with a police officer may be your last, and it is not a mystery why so many people of color with talent might decide to pursue other opportunities. But what about those who are able to navigate those waters, but could still use more resources? This is where organizations like the Sphinx Organization are doing fantastic work — work that is paying off and will pay off for several generations of musicians to come.
Tommasini acknowledges the great work done by institutions like Sphinx. Its president, Afa S. Dworkin, is very optimistic: ‘As we speak…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.’
I can attest that what she says is true. I encountered numerous Sphinx laureates while a student at Juilliard and in other professional environments, many of them playing at the level of the top percentile at that school. Many have joined professional orchestras, conservatory faculties and elite chamber music ensembles, while others get numerous recitalist and soloist opportunities. As older orchestra members retire — a process that takes years to unwind, given that many musicians spend entire careers in an orchestra chair after the grueling process to acquire it — we are going to see this diversity increase even further.
Every organization can do more to help make up early educational opportunities for young musicians who lack resources due to our national legacy of racism. When this pandemic ends, I sincerely hope all organizations, including my own, show a greater dedication to doing their part in this regard.
There is, however, one last troubling dimension to Tommasini’s suggestion. For his article he reached out to several artists of color to hear their views on his proposition — and it does not seem that any of them agreed with him. Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic and the only African American member of that orchestra, shares my concerns about cronyism and favoritism without screens. Furthermore, both he and the Sphinx Organization agree on early education as the key. McGill cites his experience with one such opportunity, the Chicago Teen Ensemble, as being instrumental (no pun intended) in helping him climb Mount Olympus to the stage of Avery Fischer Hall.
Soon after Tommasini’s article was published, the Times published another article on this subject — ‘Black Artists on How to Change Classical Music’ — quoting many people I have known informally and some I have collaborated with. Notable in the article, again, is that none of the artists quoted suggest taking down screens in orchestral auditions.
Tommasini’s outrage at the deaths of people such as George Floyd and Breonna Taylor is completely justified. I live only miles away from where Taylor lived and died. But I have yet to hear anyone from the West End of Louisville asking for special treatment in reaching the stage of Avery Fischer Hall — only that they can walk down their home streets, or even just sleep in their beds, with the same privileges people like Tommasini and I have.
There is a danger that gestures such as Tommasini’s would have more to do with people like us trying to prove to others we are virtuous, rather than providing the help people are really asking for. The Columbia University linguist John McWhorter has made this critique about suggestions from very sincere anti-racists — that they can be, at times, more about people like us seeking grace, rather than doing truly selfless work for others.
Nothing helped increase diversity in classical music more quickly and effectively than blind auditions. Let’s build on that success, instead of tearing it down. We should not let our human foibles have even more arbitrary power — instead let’s continue to submit them to a process that is clearly better than ourselves.