Eyes Wide Shut

For decades, blind orchestral auditions have been lauded as one of the world’s fairest hiring practices.

Yet the merit-based method reveals one of classical music culture’s most problematic assumptions. It comes with a host of undesirable consequences — one of which recently blew up in our faces.

The assumption in question:

How you sound is all that matters.

As a result of this belief, candidates aren't interviewed. References are not required. When you walk into an audition, you aren't allowed to speak or wear perfume. A rogue cough can betray your gender. Best not to wear clacking heels for the same reason.

As you enter the audition room in silence, a proctor announces you by number. You then play behind a screen. As a result, the judging panel doesn't know the first thing about you. Not your age, your race, your gender. Not your pedigree, or where you went to school. Nothing.

Certainly, this process has had a tremendously equalizing effect. For starters: blind auditions have made it possible for women to make tremendous inroads into orchestras.

I believe I’ve been saved by the screen myself. At 23, I played for a concertmaster in the weeks leading up to an audition for his orchestra. He didn’t seem to take me very seriously. I left the coaching feeling a bit pessimistic about my chances. After winning the audition, he told me I was a “great artist.” I‘m pretty sure he wouldn’t have felt that way had he known it was me back there all along.

But in the wake of #Metoo, I ask whether how you play is really all that matters in the musical workplace.

***

Maybe there should be an interpersonal component to getting a job in music. Maybe how well you play isn't where what matters begins and ends. After all, orchestral and chamber music are team sports.

Blind orchestral auditions lead to orchestras filled with wonderful players. With no other vetting of any kind, many of them are as interpersonally difficult as they are musically skilled. Much of the time, they cannot stand each other, and dysfunction abounds.

When orchestras have the great good fortune of hiring a player who also happens to be charismatic, generous, and full of good ideas, they go absolutely bananas milking that person for all they are worth. 

Imagine being able to harness that energy from not a small handful of serendipitous hires, but from an entire symphony’s worth of carefully-considered candidates! Imagine if the orchestral audition process included not only blind listening, an interview, and references, but also:

- a trial lesson for an underprivileged child
- public speaking
- a chamber music concert and a new music concert
- a thorough review of what the candidate brings to the table, including his or her capacity to serve as an effective advocate for the art form

I’m not saying these things are “more important” than sounding good. I’m saying: sound good, and... 

As a dear friend put it the other day: “even Miss America isn’t just about the swimsuit competition.”

 To be fair, viewership is  a lot  about the swimsuit competition. But his point stands. 

To be fair, viewership is a lot about the swimsuit competition. But his point stands. 

Kevin and I play and work closely with wonderful people and musicians like Brian, Meredith, Ben, Reena, and Derrick because they are all musically superlative — and... terrific advocates for music. We value both. We believe in their mutually amplifying capacity. And we have faith in the long-term cultural impact of that belief. 

***

Imagine if diversity were a meaningful factor in the orchestra’s hiring process.

There’s something sort of sad and insufficient about post-graduate educational efforts to diversify orchestras. Well-meaning as such designated residencies are, they seem to do too little too late. It's hard to imagine how a person of color truly improves his or her odds of winning a screened audition simply by having sat in a designated "minority residency" chair for a year or two. 

Because the reality is this: to compete at the highest levels of blind auditions, you have to have had access to rigorous, top notch training for a decade or two. Bear in mind that no one gets a scholarship as a beginner, and lessons — especially from the best teachers — are expensive. To gain the experience required to be competitive, you have to have had repeated opportunities to compete and perform. Somehow, you must have gotten your hands on ludicrously expensive instruments. And let's not forget that auditioning is a game of odds as much as it as a game of skill: to improve your chance of winning, you must be able to afford to travel to numerous auditions leading up to your final, lucky one. 

People of color are at a tremendous disadvantage on all counts. (How to improve their chances of success earlier -- through educational opportunities at a young age, when they most count -- is a conversation for another time.)

Yes, blind auditions have helped the advancement of women: white and asian women like me, whose families could afford the things I’ve described above. The screen is only so equalizing after all. 

What truly impedes diversity in American orchestras is our short-sighted insistence on the fairness of blind auditions, and the false assumption that sound is all that matters.

If the culture of classical music seeks to enhance its relevancy and diversify its ranks, a more comprehensive approach to auditions would be a wonderful place to start.

***

Don’t get me wrong: winning a blind audition fair and square feels AWESOME. It’s a notch on your belt that feels about as objective as success can get. And believe me: we cling to these victories like our lives depend on them. They actually do. 

But at the same time, we all accept that almost anyone who gets to the finals is musically qualified for the job. (This truth is especially consoling when the runner-up is you.) And sometimes, on a different day, things could have gone a different way. We all have off days. Before auditions, I always used to tell myself: “I wish everyone the best. I just hope my best is better today.”

Plus, the composition of the listening committee can determine who comes out on top on any given day. Swap a committee member or two and you might have a different “best” player based on the collective, subjective taste of those listening that day.

Given the above, surely there is room to take other, more holistic considerations into account. Ones that would further the cause of art music above and beyond how much more beautifully the winner played than the runners-up. Who knows what else they might have been able to bring to the table?

Who knows how dramatically musical culture would shift if we valued a kind of well-rounded musicianship that included qualities above and beyond chops? What kind of dynamics, literal and figurative, would change for the better? 

I’m feeling like it’s high time we found out.