Musicians on How to Bring Racial Equity to Auditions

Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times’s chief classical music critic, recently wrote an essay arguing that blind auditions — long seen as an equalizer in American orchestras — were no longer tenable. The screen had been transformative for gender representation, he said, but not for racial diversity.

The classical music industry’s reaction to the essay was spirited — and mixed, a sign of how unsettled the debate remains. A sampling of artists and administrators spoke with The New York Times, sharing their thoughts on blind auditions and offering ideas to make orchestral hiring more equitable. Here are edited excerpts from the conversations.

In all the 50 or so years I’ve been doing this, I’m not certain that I ever hired a Black musician. The screen did help with gender balance. But the screen is starting to hamper what we want to do with society.

The main change I’m looking at, as a theory, is that the final round no longer should be just the musician coming onstage and playing. Do away with this final round, and have the two or three applicants play for four weeks in the orchestra. After four weeks, you can tell if they can do the job. And what other strengths might they have? Can they go out and create programs? Maybe they serve functions in the terms of fund-raising. I would be looking at what it means to be an orchestra member in the 21st century.

If a person of color advances to this final round, I would think that one would hopefully in this day and age say that these are players of equal capabilities and maybe it should fall to someone who more represents what society is looking for.

We cannot shy away from the problems of systemic racism that come across the whole audition process. Taking out the curtain of blind auditions is overly simplistic. Because what about what happens before? Even starting with the résumé: When people see a name like mine and they have a high aversion to risk, then already I am not competing on the same level as everyone else.

So getting rid of the audition screen is useless unless we take care of other steps. I believe in the power of quotas — and seeing a group of applicants that might reflect the demographics of a community. In lieu of résumés, just start with audio. But then you would have to take into account whether the audio has good quality, which is still an issue of access. With every part there are flaws, but acknowledging you will never have a perfect system is a step into getting a better one.

If everyone had a fighting chance, we wouldn’t need the quotas. But we’re not there yet. Humans by nature have the ability to adapt. We just have to have the willpower.

It’s a blunt instrument we’re using now, but on the whole, it works pretty well. The people who play at the highest level get jobs, and the people who get jobs play at the highest level.

I’m trying to figure out just what percentage of people of color are in schools in the United States that offer instrumental education in orchestral instruments, what percentage of instrumentalists are of color in major conservatories. It seems to me that if we are addressing these issues at the level of orchestra auditions, we’re clipping the leaves when the roots are rotten.

Suppose for argument’s sake, 8 percent of the students in major music schools are people of color. Instead of one Black and one Latino player, we had six more in the Chicago Symphony. I am not convinced what difference that is going to make in our society and how we are perceived in the community.

Is the role of an orchestra to play music at the highest level possible? Or is it to be an engine for societal change? Anthony Tommasini basically wrote, “We can have societal change and not affect the quality.” I would argue that we might compromise our quality and also not effect any reasonable social change.

We are four Black orchestral artists with over 50 years of professional experience among us. In light of Anthony Tommasini’s essay, we want to address a favorite myth about American orchestras: that auditions have been blind “since the 1970s.” This simply isn’t true. While this idea valorizes the long, competitive path orchestral musicians travel, it is a myth of meritocracy. It dangerously cloaks the truth about why there are so few Black artists in orchestras. The reason there aren’t more Black artists in orchestras isn’t blind auditions. The reason is racism.

Here’s the truth: Most American orchestras take the screen down in the final round. Another truth: While the hiring process for most musicians includes preliminary screened rounds, we feel confident saying 95 percent of tenured orchestral musicians weren’t hired through a fully blind audition. They were hired following a trial week; by appointment; through an invite-only audition; or after an unscreened final round. Right now, in the same orchestra — even the same section — you find variation in how players auditioned, were advanced in auditions and were ultimately hired.

For many years, Black artists have been the leading voices drawing attention to bias and racism in auditions and tenure processes. Many Black artists believe strongly in, and have fought for, a fully screened audition process precisely because we know racism in orchestras is real.

The goal, as we see it, isn’t simply to make American orchestras more diverse. Rather, to use today’s language, it is to make them antiracist. An antiracist orchestra might have a hiring process that recognizes the need for corrective action. An antiracist orchestra might employ a version of football’s Rooney Rule, whereby an audition could not move forward without a specified number of qualified Black artists among the finalists. An antiracist orchestra might define the work so that more qualities — like artistic vision, interest in ongoing learning and development, and ability to authentically engage various audiences — are valued in the hiring process. In short, an antiracist orchestra would subscribe to paradigms that make hiring Black orchestral artists a normal and necessary part of pursuing its artistic goals.

There are four areas we could do differently:

1. Whom we invite and recruit makes a difference. Orchestras do invite people to audition all the time, and often Black and brown players are left out of those invitations. The personnel manager is the one who manages auditions, so that person’s job description can include fostering a diverse pool.

2. The substitute players often gets invited. It’s a fast track to opportunities with the orchestra, and it often leaves Black and brown people out.

3. We can do better to make the process as simple and objective as possible. If an orchestra is going to allow anyone to skip the first round, make it based on measurable criteria. Some orchestras’ collective bargaining agreements allow for no-hire auditions, but then allow for backdoor hirings. Leave the screen up all the way through the finals, period.

4. If we’re trying to redesign the process, ask the people who are being marginalized what we should do. Not one Black person I have spoken to on this topic thinks we should do away with blind auditions.

The following are some thoughts on a reimagined approach that may offer orchestras a passport toward community citizenship:

1. We cannot fix what we do not measure. If the musician candidate pool is to be diversified, it is important to know how many Black and Latinx musicians audition today, and why.

2. We are what we repeatedly play: Less than 1 percent of repertoire performed by orchestras is that by composers of color. Commit 15 percent of your subscription series repertoire to Black and Latinx composers, for the next decade.

3. Orchestras have conducted their work in the same manner for decades. If we are now expecting a different result, we ought to be prepared to change the process. Allocate 15 percent of your budget toward addressing systemic racism for the next 10 years. Hold the entire organization accountable for integrating diversity, equity and inclusion into every facet of your work.

4. Get intentional: Work with the National Alliance for Audition Support and music schools to ensure a minimum of 25 percent representation at every audition, or the search must continue.

5. Truly blind auditions are but one step in assessing the readiness of an orchestral musician. Let’s have a transparent definition of what is needed of a musician to join and be tenured in a reimagined collective of artists. Invest in expanding the process to assess teaching, community ambassadorship and their ability to act as a public-facing artist. Invest in the right experts who will understand race, culture and talent, and can competently guide your selection process.

President, American Composers Orchestra

Whatever the system is, I think orchestras need to make a more concrete commitment to racial diversity. It goes beyond fellowships and internships. We should think of broadening the qualifications of a successful applicant beyond the technical ability to play and the ever-elusive “Do they fit the culture of our orchestra?”

Look at the New World Symphony. The musicians that come out are more holistic. They’re taught advocacy and how to be entrepreneurial. New music and chamber music play a huge role in their training. When you broaden the skills and the qualities, diversity finds more fertile ground.

Maybe the goal of auditions should be not to pick the “best” person, but to weed out the people who don’t have the potential. And maybe then, with the people who are left, we should have a weighted lottery that includes diversity as a high factor. That’s the beginning of one possible, totally different paradigm.

With the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, the audition process is my favorite: The committee determines out of all the candidates, who they feel are eligible to play. Then they present those candidates to me in a final round, no screen, and I watch them play.

I don’t bring any prejudices to that. An institution has to want to build itself to look like something. That’s what’s going to inform the decisions that you make and the processes you go through. Perhaps you could have a system where you were going to deliberately hire on an alternating basis. So for this audition, I’m looking for the best female candidate I can find; on the next, I’m looking for the best candidate of color I can find; on the next, for the best player, period. That’s probably something you could institute now if you wanted to give it a shot.

Just because you would be limiting an audition to a specific category doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be testing artistic merit. When I get to an audition finals and the last three play, and none of them are acceptable to me, I’m content to say we have to start over again.

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