AN INTERROGATION OF THE MYTHOS: Blind Auditions and the Symphony Orchestra

Jisoo Choi • 2021 Issue


 

From The Editors:

For decades, blind auditions have been regarded as a panacea to human bias in the classical music audition process. Since their implementation, they have helped the gender balance of professional orchestras, but the racial makeup of these same orchestras has been slower to change. In AN INTERROGATION OF THE MYTHOS, Choi seeks to understand why blind auditions have not remedied these diversity issues and delves deeper into the underlying history of classical music and race. Choi argues that orchestras and classical musicians cannot simply rely on blind auditions to counter the inequities and discrimination that continue to pervade the field. To make way for new reforms and truly lasting change, the blind audition walls need to fall.

 

On July 16, 2020, Anthony Tommasini, a classical music critic for The New York Times, drew attention to one of the most well-established conventions in modern symphony orchestras in a column titled “To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions” [1]. In it, he argued for a race-conscious hiring process for orchestras, removing the screen separating the candidate and jury in the preliminary and semifinal rounds of most American symphony auditions. Published amidst public outrage and community organizing over police brutality against Black Americans, the article joined a national conversation about the systemic racism of American political and cultural institutions, and as the COVID-19 pandemic changed the landscape of classical music, the institution faced a reckoning with its own history and responsibilities to their modern audience.


Musicians and non-musicians alike did not take the article lightly. It prompted an immediate and wide-ranging outburst of reactions, but most of the responses seemed at least slightly hesitant to levy an all-out criticism of blind auditions themselves. This makes sense: anonymization is used as a “cure” for implicit bias across our professional and cultural lives, not limited to auditions or even the performing arts at large. But especially in the classical music industry, the blind audition has attained an untouchable reputation as a panacea for the ills of a historically and notoriously exclusive field. This reputation hinders critical discourse about the practice, obscuring the fact that the blind audition is couched within—and is often subsumed by—bigger systems that construct and gatekeep the image of classical music in this country. This essay aims to examine and interrogate the mythos of the blind audition, understand its history and institutionalization, and assess the limits of its influence on racial equity in American symphony orchestras.


In fairness to its adherents, blind auditions did cause a seismic shift in thought and practice when first instituted, and they are credited with narrowing the gender gap in classical music jobs. By far the most influential quantitative study of the impact of blind auditions is Claudia Goldin and Cecilia Rouse’s 2000 article in The American Economic Review, titled “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians.” The study, which has been cited by the likes of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Malcolm Gladwell and has influenced hiring policies across industries, found a significant—if somewhat inconsistent, due to a relatively small sample size and non-blind final rounds—correlation between blind auditions and the hiring of a female musician [2]. This international upward trend in the proportion of female musicians in prominent symphony orchestras is well documented and remembered (though the gender gap remains glaring in several of the orchestras surveyed). A 2016 study on diversity published by the League of American Orchestras noted that between 1978 and 2014, the population of female orchestra musicians increased from 38.2% to 47.4% [3]. The same study, however, found that orchestra membership remained predominantly white throughout this timeframe.


A reassessment of the blind audition... must not minimize its work to close the gender gap in music, but it must also dispel the mythos not only around the blind audition, but around institutional "colorblindness" as a whole.

A consistently overlooked aspect of the blind audition’s history is its origin: the practice was implemented to amend racial inequality in orchestra hiring. As Tommasini briefly mentions, two Black musicians—cellist Earl Madison and double bassist J. Arthur Davis—sued the New York Philharmonic in 1969, alleging that the orchestra’s hiring practices were racist. The lawsuit essentially blacklisted them from the classical music industry, but their legal victory prompted the institutionalization of blind auditions in orchestras across the country in the following decades [4]. In light of this history, it is deeply ironic and disappointing that the contemporary reverence for the blind audition all but disregards its failure to rectify racist hiring practices. A reassessment of the blind audition that considers both its failures and successes is in order; it must not minimize its work to close the gender gap in music, but it must also dispel the mythos not only around the blind audition, but around institutional “colorblindness” as a whole.


“Colorblindness,” or policies that do not consider race as a criterion, have become a quiet but malignant standard in our cultural and political institutions, argue several critical race theorists in Seeing Race Again: Countering Colorblindness across the Disciplines. “The contemporary social conditions shaped by histories of white supremacy […] are linked to the construction and disavowal of race within the academic disciplines themselves,” whose use of supposedly race-blind policies “locate questions of social justice in a stark choice between egalitarian universalism on the one hand and a putatively parochial and prejudiced particularism on the other” [5]. Its ethos has been contrived more by repetition and self-reference than research, theory, or law, and in the long history of race relations, it “becomes a series of moves and investments that conceal the fingerprints” of the institutions that quietly perpetuate white supremacy [5].


An analysis of the blind audition process by sociologist Anette Fasang points out that the deprivation of information that characterizes blind auditions may in fact enable discriminatory and underhanded practices without ensuring accountability: “‘Blind’ auditions make it difficult to collect information about discrimination, because they are seemingly neutral. Decisions about invitations are made internally within the instrument groups and are not transparent. […] There is no opportunity to complain and, due to the ambiguity of quality interpretations, discrimination is difficult to prove in the first place” [5]. Any initial advantage a candidate may enjoy from a blind preliminary could easily be lost to non-transparent, unregulated hiring decisions by those who hold power within the orchestra.


The racism of the classical music world neither begins nor ends at a twenty-minute audition. The institutional and systemic problematics begin along racialized and socioeconomic lines in early education, continuing into conservatory training and professional life. The “colorblindness” Crenshaw et al. write about manifests as an implicit canon of whiteness in the conservatory curriculum. Professor Julia Eklund Koza, who teaches music education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, writes that in her experience auditioning students for admission to the school’s classical voice program, “acceptable” often means “conventionally white.” “One of the unchanged aspects of the auditions and the undergraduate program they precede is the emphasis on music from the European/American high art bel canto tradition,” she writes. “The domain of acceptable […] is defined, in part, by alterity,” excluding all genres but “high art” music [6]. Dr. Philip Ewell, a Black cellist and associate professor of music theory at CUNY, alludes to this exclusivity in his article “Music Theory and the White Racial Frame,” noting that “European, western, traditional, and canonic are the four most common euphemisms for ‘white’ in music theory’s white racial frame” [7]. This unquestioned—and unquestioning—convention of masking music’s whiteness with aesthetic euphemisms is the kind of false “blindness” that has propped up blind auditions for decades.


The racism of the classical music world neither begins nor ends at a twenty-minute audition.

The values and curricula espoused by conservatories in turn funnel, through the music educators they produce, into early music education. Professor Koza’s concern extends to the long-term implications of such guidelines for conservatory admission, because that restricted understanding of what is considered acceptable and artistic will reinforce a cycle of bias and alienation: “these students, in their desire to be good teachers, are likely to perpetuate a musical monolingualism that will foster a vast cultural divide between themselves and many of their students” [6]. Within this paradigm, early music education becomes a way to keep the “other” out long before they arrive at the audition room.


Several rebuttals to Tommasini’s article argue that rather than being race-conscious or adopting affirmative action policies, an audition jury should have “artistic merit” as its only criteria in selecting musicians. One such critic was Max Raimi, a violist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Writing on the popular classical music blog Slipped Disc, he argues that Tommasini’s notion of multiple equally and adequately qualified musicians competing for an arbitrarily decided position was a fantasy, having served on juries for auditions where no candidate was deemed good enough to be hired [8]. But an argument that puts its trust in “artistic merit” is at best naively optimistic and at worst reductive and insulting, because access to and ideation of merit are themselves gatekept and racially constructed in music education. Educator Cynthia Wagoner writes that, far from being politically neutral, music education in recent decades has “played a significant role in enforcing cultural identities, validating specific Western musics, and maintaining exclusionary and unequal power relationships” [9].


The histories of classical music and race in the United States, along with the bureaucratic and nontransparent power structures of the industry, make evident that the question of blind auditions is part of a much larger network of inequity in music education and accessibility.

The histories of classical music and race in the United States, along with the bureaucratic and nontransparent power structures of the industry, make evident that the question of blind auditions is part of a much larger network of inequity in music education and accessibility. Removing the screen in audition rooms can only be effective and justified in concert with larger institutional change in access and education. This difficult charge is being led by musicians of color through projects such as the Sphinx Organization, which supports classical music education for Black and Latinx students, and Protestra, a group of musician-activists using classical music to advocate for social justice [10, 11]. Institutional change is to put these organizations at the center of American classical music instead of tokenizing or co-opting them, displacing the white racial frame until our popular and academic consciousness rejects the lazy rhetoric of “colorblindness.” As Crenshaw et al. conclude, “the task of countering colorblindness is thus not merely to see race again, but to reenvision how disciplinary tools, conventions, and knowledge-producing practices that erase the social dynamics that produce race can be critically engaged and selectively repurposed toward emancipatory ends” [5].



Still, there is a particular symbolic resonance—as well as a built-in tool to keep orchestras and cultural institutions accountable—in the screen’s removal. To continue to rely on blind auditions as the best way to be fair is to uphold the structures that made them necessary in the first place. It is to admit and accept that implicit bias will always win when the screen falls and two people face each other. It is to make excuses for prejudice and racism, rather than undertake the work required to dismantle it. Music critic Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, outlines some of this work: “wholesale changes in how orchestras canvass talent, conservatories recruit students, institutions hire executives, and marketers approach audiences” [12]. The end of blind auditions can serve as a symbol and promise of anti-racist reform by American symphony orchestras.


 

References


1. Tommasini, A. (2020, July). To make orchestras more diverse, end blind auditions. The New York Times.


2. Goldin, C., & Rouse, C. (2000). Orchestrating impartiality: The impact of ‘blind’ auditions on female musicians. The American Economic Review, 90(4), 715-741.


3. Flagg, A. (2020). Anti-Black discrimination in American orchestras. Symphony, 71(3), 30-37.


4. Stewart, J. Y. (2007, August). Art Davis, 73; known for mastery of the bass, was also a psychologist. LA Times.


5. Crenshaw, K. W., Harris, L. C., HoSang, D. M., Lipsitz, G. (2019). Introduction. In Crenshaw, K. W., Harris, L. C., HoSang, D. M., Lipsitz, G. (Eds.), Seeing race again: Countering colorblindness across the disciplines (pp. 1-19). University of California Press.


6. Koza, J. E. (2008). Listening for whiteness: Hearing racial politics in undergraduate school music. Philosophy of Music Education Review, 16(2), 145-155.


7. Ewell, P. A. (2020) Music theory and the white racial frame. Music Theory Online, 26(2).


8. Raimi, M. (2020, July 21). Why auditions fail (and the NY Times is so wrong). Slipped Disc. slippedisc.com/2020/07/why-auditions-fail-and-the-times-is-so-wrong.


9. Wagoner, C. L. (2015). Social justice issues and music education in the post 9/11 United States. Research & Issues in Music Education, 12(1).


10. Sphinx Organization. (n.d.). Our history. www.sphinxmusic.org/our-history.


11. Protestra. (n.d.) Protestra. protestra.org.


12. Ross, A. (2020, September). Black scholars confront white supremacy in classical music. The New Yorker.


 

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