The New York Times (USA): to ensure racial and gender diversity in orchestras, it is necessary to cancel the blind auditions

If orchestras want to be a reflection of the communities that they serve, then the selection process must take into account the race of applicants, their gender and other factors.

The turbulent summer of 1969, two black musicians accused the new York Philharmonic orchestra in discrimination. Cellist Earl Madison (Earl Madison) and bassist Arthur Davis (Arthur J. Davis) stated that they were not given seats in the orchestra because of their race.

The Commission on human rights of the city of new York did not support the musicians, but came to the conclusion that some aspects of the reception of musicians in the orchestra — first of all it concerned emergency staff — functioned according to the principle of acquaintance and was discriminatory. It is the decision of the Commission helped to change the situation in American orchestras and to fight the stigmas, which they had played almost exclusively white men. The new York Philharmonic orchestra and other orchestras have implemented blind auditions to factors such as race and gender could not affect the jury’s decision.

Blind auditions greatly changed the situation. The proportion of women in orchestras, which in 1970 was less than 6%, increased. Today women make up about a third of the musicians of the Boston Symphony orchestra and half the members of the new York Philharmonic orchestra. Blind auditions changed the face of American orchestras.

But not strong enough.

American orchestras are among those American institutions, which are characterized by the lowest degree of racial diversity — especially if we talk about blacks and Hispanics. According to the results of a study conducted in 2014, only 1.8% of the musicians of the leading orchestras were black, and only 2.5% are Hispanic. In 1969, when considering a case of discrimination in the new York Philharmonic orchestra, there was only one black musician — violinist Sanford Allen (Sanford Allen). Today in the city, a quarter of the population is black, only one musician the basic structure of the orchestra (which is 106 people) is black, and this is the main clarinetist Anthony McGill (Anthony McGill).

The existing status quo is not working. If we want the situation changed, the bands need to take active measures in order to fight the disastrous racial imbalance in their ranks. The blind auditions have become unacceptable.

This practice, which had good intentions, in reality, preclude the adoption of important measures when it comes to the most important aspect of the orchestra’s existence — the admission of the musicians. The trade unions of musicians, who in many respects has faithfully worked to protect the rights of its members in this economically fragile industry, has long lobbied in support of the blind auditions, insisting that such listening can guarantee the impartiality and justice.

However, stubbornly insisting on keeping this practice, the unions may harm themselves, the bands and appearance of art in General. Commitment to the system that discourages diversity, it becomes especially noticeable now, when the whole country was gripped by protests against police brutality against black Americans, and when bands have temporarily suspended their presentations due to pandemic coronavirus, struggling to find the answer to the questions how to attract more listeners and how to solve the problem of racial imbalance in their formulations.

If the musicians coming on stage, I want to be a reflection of the communities that they serve, then the process of listening needs to change so that it fully took into account the origin and experience of the musicians. The most important step in this case will be the abandonment of the screen, preventing to see who plays in front of you at the audition.

The practice of blind auditions based on the very attractive idea of pure meritocracy: the orchestra shall consist solely of the best musicians, period. But, if you talk to the representatives of this art, you will know that over the past century, the level of training is so greatly increased that today the difference between the top musicians practically invisible. In the playing musical instruments has a sports component, and, as in the case with the sprinters, gymnasts and professional tennis players, the basic level of mastery of American musicians-instrumentalists steadily growing. Usually listening to dozens of musicians, which are almost impossible to distinguish from each other based on their skill and technique.

Imagine an elite College where hundreds of students with equally high scores for the tests. The management of this College can lay aside scores of applicants and, based on the principle of diversity, to gain a beginners course, which will be reflected not only their achievements, but also other values. Speaking of bands, the number of qualities of a perfect musician can be attributed to his talent as a teacher, his interest in unusual repertoire and willingness to participate in unusual activities, as well as their musical skills. American orchestras should actively promote these values and to gather the musicians of different races and genders, rather than passively wait for the screen to auditions, provide them with this variety.

Some of the leading figures in the field of classical music believe that the problem arises not at the auditions, but much earlier. According to them, racial diversity lacking in the so-called “pipeline” that begins with lessons on any particular instrument, passes through a summer educational program and the Conservatory, and then opens access to jobs in the elite orchestras. According to this view, because of the lack of racial diversity in the initial stages of learning to listen to the leading orchestras comes so few black and Latino musicians.

However, AFA Dworkin (Afa S. Dworkin), President of the Sphinx organization, which promotes diversity in classical music, supporting young musicians, said that it is not in the “pipeline” and what talented musicians with different skin color are ready to join in the game.

“As we speak,’ she said during a recent online discussion with the participation of leading black musicians — about 96 black students, selected from several hundred applicants to attend the summer programs Sphinx, getting ready to go intensive musical training”.

According to her, these young musicians will soon be ready for an elite Conservatory, and a few years later to audition with the leading orchestras of the country.

The Sphinx organization has made many efforts in order to change the nature of auditions. Two years ago, together with the prestigious orchestra New World Symphony, and also with the group “League of American orchestras” (League of American Orchestras), the Sphinx organization launched a program for the training of musicians to audition — musicians were getting mentors for consultation, the opportunity to speak before a large audience, and even scholarships in order to get to the venue of the audition. (Significant monetary costs associated with the passage of auditions, often have a negative impact on the careers of colored musicians: if you don’t have the money to buy a plane ticket and pay for your room, how you play does not matter.)

But orchestras must also make an effort to change the situation. You first need to get rid of the blind auditions.

The prospect of change can be scary. Can women lose achievements if orchestras would refuse the blind auditions? Could return to the former practice, under which preference was given to the disciples of the great musicians? The orchestras have to provide full transparency of its goals and procedures if they want to adopt a new approach to the audition — approach except that musical talent and experience will be considered as race and gender of the applicant.

I asked this question to the McGill who is the leading clarinetist of the new York Philharmonic orchestra in 2014. His attitude to the blind auditions were mixed.

“I don’t know what here should be the correct answer,” he said, adding that the screen has proved an effective means in order to eliminate personal feelings that somehow sneak into the selection process of musicians when the jury see of the musician.

But he also added that “representation is of more value than many think.” He said the important role in his development as a clarinetist, played the fact that he was a member of the orchestra of the Chicago Teen Ensemble — a small orchestra, consisting of young black musicians who gave concerts throughout Chicago. According to McGill, it inspired in him a sense that classical music is “very normal”. The same feeling his presence in the new York Philharmonic orchestra should inspire any young black audience.

“Whether slow and gradual change fast enough?— he asked. — The world around us has changed.”

During the concerts of the McGill rises from his seat — not only to emphasize its brilliant performance, but also to become a kind of role model for those who are just starting their journey in music. But now, as never before, the only black musician on a huge stage at the Lincoln center really depressing. Slow and gradual change has ceased to be fast enough.