The Plague-Ground – Are blind auditions deaf and dumb?

Black Lives Matter has spawned many ideas to attack racism. One of the oddest is to do away with blind auditions, which professional orchestras have used for 50 years in order to eliminate sexism.

Back in the early 1970s, the top five orchestras in the US had fewer than 5% women. It took another decade for that to creep up to 10%. So orchestras created ‘blind auditions’ where the musician trying out for a position would perform behind a screen. Judges would have to decide who to hire purely on the performer’s skill.

Today, women make up a third to a half of most big North American Orchestras, including Boston (35%) and the New York Philharmonic (50%). The Toronto Symphony Orchestra also has gender parity among its 92 full-time musicians. The TSO even pioneered putting carpeting on the stage to mask the sound of women’s high heels.

You would think that a secondary effect of blind auditions would be to reduce racial bias as well. Apparently not so, or at least not yet. While 15% of the TSO’s musicians are Asian, none is Black, and only one of the 106 full-time musicians in the New York Philharmonic is Black,  in a city that’s one quarter Black.

Last week this issue flared across the arts world when Anthony Tommasini, the doyen of classical music critics, wrote a piece in The New York Times headed: “To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions.”

End blind auditions? Surely he means double-down on them.

It seems not. Tommasini’s point is that affirmative action in hiring orchestra musicians has turned into negative inaction. For him, “removing the screen is a crucial step.”

His argument is this:

“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.”

“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.”

True, but will artistic directors act like college admissions directors?

I believe they already do: a crucial value and vital part of their job is creating the particular  ‘sound’ that defines their orchestra. One reason we go to see Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto is not just that it’s familiar, but that it’s new. Toronto’s rendition is different from Montreal’s. In fact, one great quality of classical music is that the same piece can be different, and that difference makes all the difference to our enjoyment. A violinist who’s white may have that sound, and someone who’s racialized and just as good technically, may not. And vice versa.

In the end, who to hire (or even whether the auditions produce anyone worth hiring), is the call of the artistic director.

I’m assuming that these people aren’t overt racists, and if they’re even unconscious ones, that sensibility is being scrubbed off by the sheer moral force of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Among other things, diversity is about the colour of your skin. But it’s not just about that. Especially here in the most diverse city on earth.

True, the Toronto Symphony Orchestra was asked to be a founding partner of Arts Engines. This is a new program pioneered by Aaron Dworkin, the Black violinist who’s been pushing orchestras to become more diverse. His 2013 speech at Carnegie Hall says it all when it comes to how slowly change has been coming.

But in the meantime, last November the TSO created a very different version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. In between each of the four movements, musicians recited the accompanying sonnets to each season in their native or second language. These were Mandarin, Korean, Serbian, Hungarian, Japanese, French and English.

Earlier this year, and before the riots that rekindled Black Lives Matter, the TSO appointed Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser as its newly-created Principal Education Conductor and Community Ambassador who becomes Canada’s first gay, Black Canadian conductor in a named position.

Even before he started on July 1, he’d hosted a panel discussion on the contributions of LGBTQ2+ musicians, and a Pride Party with drag queen and violinist Thorgy Thor.

So yes, when it comes to hiring more Black musicians, let’s invite more of them to audition  — and leave those audition screens up. Let’s also open up the pipeline for young Black men and women to even think about a career as a classical musician.

But orchestral positions don’t come along every day.

So let’s also push our arts groups to be more diverse in other ways too  — every day.

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6 thoughts on “The Plague-Ground – Are blind auditions deaf and dumb?”

  1. Interesting question, Bob. Given that race is essentially a construct, it seems to me that the last thing we should do is to identify people primarily by their race.
    The real issue is that some communities (and not just Black communities) are disadvantaged in terms of the education and training, broadly defined, available to them. The answer may be to ensure that the schools and community organizations in those neighborhoods get materially more resources than the communities at the top of the socio-economic pecking order. If you want great Black violinists, start when they are young.

    1. Starting great Black violinists when they’re young is THE issue, of course. The fact that it’s been almost impossible for young Black kids
      to even start doing this makes the need for it all the more acute. I don’t know if you’re heard of El Sistema — — that takes kids from the Venezualan slums and turns them into world-class classical musicians. So there is a precedent.
      Cheers. Bob

  2. Can we please use the term “uprising” instead of “riots”. The BLMM has been mostly nonviolent and peaceful…here in Canada and elsewhere.
    The term uprising – an act of resistance or rebellion; a revolt. Whereas a riot is defined as a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd (and yes there were some individuals that caused such a disturbance). Uprising is a a call for change and a resistance to was was/is.

  3. Dolores Catherino

    Great article. This sparks a few thoughts about differentiating an egalitarian selection process from its less than ideal result. Blind auditions have been very successful in eliminating the influence of a performer’s *visual appearance* during the selection process.

    Blind auditions are imperfect, but they are far more egalitarian than what they replaced. Embedded in the practice of blind auditions is the idea of *equal opportunity for all*. If the outcome is not as diverse as society at large, then perhaps the pre-audition causes (education, accessibility) should be pursued and addressed, rather than deconstructing an impartial selection process that reveals this shortcoming.

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