Eyes Wide Shut—The Case Against Blind Auditions
I’ve called for an end to the practice of blind auditions for years. To make a contentious change requires the buy-in of many different kinds of people. One person’s call for “representation” is another’s outrage at “quotas.” I believe we can—and should—elevate this conversation past that endless, tiresome tug-of-war. Rather than going in circles, I ask: what would have to be true for all of us to agree on the potential benefits of revising the process?
Back in July, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times called for an end to the practice of blind auditions. “If ensembles are to reflect the communities they serve,” he wrote, “the audition process should take into account race, gender and other factors.”
Unsurprisingly, this suggestion received heavy backlash. Between the Culture Wars, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the strong opinions of those in the music world, such a statement was bound to ruffle feathers. Pitting what’s seen as meritocracy in its purest form against the diversity standards of the day was doomed from the start. To progressives, Tommasini’s piece was hollow and missed the point. To conservatives, it was sheer blasphemy.
Tommasini’s suggestion came from a well-meaning place: one of newfound discomfort with the status quo. It would be ungenerous to discount the value of that response. At the same time, why diversity matters to classical music was not examined at all.
I’ve called for an end to the practice of blind auditions for years. To me, Tommasini’s piece was both unpersuasive and incomplete.
To make a contentious change requires the buy-in of many different kinds of people. One person’s call for “representation” is another’s outrage at “quotas.” I believe we can—and should—elevate this conversation past that endless, tiresome tug-of-war.
Rather than going in circles, I ask: what would have to be true for all of us to agree on the potential benefits of revising the process?
What follows is taken in part from a piece I wrote in February of 2018, updated for relevance.
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 and #BlackLivesMatter, I ask whether “how well you play” is really all that matters in the musical workplace.
Let’s get this out of the way. For a job in the field of musical performance, nothing matters more than how you sound. In this piece, I hope to make the case for letting other relevant things matter, too.
Tempting as it is, let’s not fall into an all-or-nothing false binary here. Sound doesn’t matter “less” by widening our circle to include other factors. The whole point here is additive.
Even if we believe that how you sound is all that matters, the meritocratic foundation of the concept itself doesn’t hold water. To pick a “winner” who “sounds the best” is not objectively possible. Sure, there can be a general consensus—but never a universal one.
That’s because there is no “universal best” to which all players aspire. In music, excellence at the highest level is measured in abstractions that are deeply, intangibly personal. My colleague Kevin Kumar wrote about this beautifully in his piece, The #1 Violinist in the World.
Consider the following: musicians generally accept that anyone who gets to the finals is qualified for the job, and would fit into the fabric of the orchestra just fine. This truth is especially consoling when the runner-up is you.
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.
The audition procedure of each orchestra also comes into play here. Does the conductor get to choose from among the committee’s top few? What if the conductor’s opinion is different from the committee’s majority vote? Who played “the best,” or “deserved to win,” in that instance? I’ve personally been both the subject of and a participant in these very situations on both sides of the screen.
At a certain point, “winning” an audition is like catching lightning in a bottle. My own mother once cautioned me against resigning from an orchestra for fear that I wouldn’t be able to “get back in.” While it would have been easy to take that as an insult, she was simply being realistic.
Compare that with the following anecdote. In my early twenties, I had a mentor who helped me prepare for auditions. I’ll never forget her telling me that I had to play with such conviction that the committee would have “no choice” but to name me the winner.
This was a motivating, inspiring, romantic, and idealistic instruction. It’s the kind of thing that puts fire in your belly, motivating you to maximize the one thing you can control: yourself. Your preparation level, commitment, passion, and nerves of steel. It’s exactly the kind of thing you need to hear when preparing for an audition.
But while my mentor’s guidance was both motivating and attractive, it wasn’t as realistic as my mother’s. And here’s the thing: neither of them were wrong. My mentor was right that I needed to do everything in my power to improve my chances. And my mother was right that my chances were exactly that: chances.
Given the above, surely there is room to take more of the person into account. Qualities, experiences, skills, and interests 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?
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. Are you likely to “play your best,” anyway, while seething with rage at—or being psychologically tortured by—your stand partner or principal?
When you audition for a string quartet, both musical and personal chemistry matter. What brings out the best in others is ineffable. It’s laughable to contemplate a blind, screened string quartet audition. Why should orchestral auditions be so different?
What other fields vet only one dimension of every job applicant? To assume that someone’s playing tells you everything you need to know about them is simply false. It’s naive at best and dangerous at worst.
Worshipping sound at the expense of character has had consequences beyond missed opportunities. Blind orchestral auditions have led to orchestras filled with wonderful players. But 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, gifted 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: “even Miss America isn’t just about the swimsuit competition.” I’m the Co-Director of Salastina, a non-profit chamber music series, in Los Angeles. My colleague Kevin Kumar and I play and work closely with wonderful people who are superlative musicians—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. 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.
There’s something sad and insufficient about post-graduate educational efforts to diversify orchestras. Well-meaning as such designated residencies are, they 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. In 2016, the League of American Orchestras published this study showing that these residencies just don’t work on the whole.
At the same time, I see their value as baby steps. They have the potential to ever-so-slowly steer the Titanic of musicians’ opinions, thereby improving the chances for more meaningful conversations about orchestral hiring practices down the line.
When it comes to diversity, blind auditions haven’t been a complete bust. They have helped the advancement of women: Asian and white women like me. Beyond that, what truly impedes greater diversity in American orchestras is our insistence on the false assumption that sound is all that matters.
Recently, Irshad Manji wrote beautifully on the merits of diversifying the workplace in “White Fragility Is Not the Answer. Honest Diversity Is” for the Heterodox Academy (July 7, 2020). Her piece helped me reframe anew the friction between creating a vibrant, synergistic workforce and current orchestral hiring priorities.
According to Manji, “honest diversity… recognizes that each of us, whatever our labels, is a multifaceted plural.” Manji contrasts this with dishonest diversity, which “slices and dices individuals into categories, as if directing people to their assigned places.”
Does the following statement sound familiar? “We can have diversity or we can have quality. We can’t have both.”
It’s a mainstay of the culture wars. And blind auditions make a fertile battleground.
But what if a variety of more nuanced artistic skills were equated with quality when considering the sum total of a musician? Powerfully, Manji suggests: “Honest diversity starts with the desire for varied perspectives and rectifies representation to fulfill that desire. To begin the other way around — representation in the hopes of diverse thinking — is to incite needless friction.”
She speaks of having the integrity to value more than diversity data points. I would add that valuing more than how a candidate sounds—on any given day, compared to those present, and to the ears of those who just so happen to be listening—is also a question of artistic integrity.
Here’s where I felt The New York Times piece left itself vulnerable to criticism from all sides. It framed metrics as an expedient end goal. It piggy-backed off of the death of George Floyd to make a statement about the uncomfortable lack of black representation within American orchestras.
But it didn’t get into what really matters about diversity in a compelling way. The why of it all was shallow and implied. As a result, the piece came across as opportunistic on the one hand and inflammatory on the other. It didn’t invite the buy-in of people who all want “the best”—and “fairly”—but have different ideas about what that looks like.
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.)
Who would want to disband a club into which they’ve rightfully earned entry? It’s too easy—and all too human—for the ego to bristle at the prospect. It’s threatening, like the sudden devaluation of prestige, or the dismantling of personal identity. And that’s to say nothing of decades of back-breaking work, unrelenting focus, and significant financial investment.
I say the following with all due respect. Musicians use the idea that “how you sound is all that matters” as both a source of pride and a crutch. It excuses bad behavior. It justifies narrow-mindedness. And it’s its own kind of complacency.
What if expanding our values system to include other skills and qualities weren’t a devaluation of the importance of sound, but an invitation to go deeper? Manji put this idea beautifully: “wholeness, by definition, is not a zero-sum game.”
I suspect many orchestral musicians would welcome this kind of shift. How many of us have felt hamstrung, restless, under-utilized, and stifled as a result of the narrow requirements of our jobs? Greg Sandow observed in “Not So Satisfied” that orchestral musicians have slightly lower job satisfaction than federal prison guards. (Those with the highest? String quartet players.) At the same time, orchestral musicians boast the greatest “internal motivation.” My husband likens this phenomenon to “keeping a Ferrari in the garage.”
At the same time, how many administrators have earnestly tried to reverse-engineer additional opportunities for orchestral musicians? Inviting them to become more involved with things above and beyond rehearsals and concerts? Sometimes, these efforts have lovely results; other times, they fall flat.
Most of my 20s was about muscling my way into the orchestral world. Most of my 30s was about gradually transitioning out of it—in part because I felt so musically and intellectually constrained. It’s precisely why a friend and I started Salastina 10 years ago.
But not everyone can, or should, go there. Resources and chutzpah are finite. Perhaps it’s up to the larger institutions themselves to prioritize making musical practice less limited, and limiting, for musicians. Inviting more from us—and more of us—from the start would be a great point of departure.
Again, I come back to the concept of “honest diversity.” It is not self-motivated, either deployed in the service of earning woke points or clung to desperately as a key to survival. It’s not even simply a moral imperative. Rather, honest diversity is intrinsic to creating vibrant, meaningful, synergistic workplaces, cultural institutions, and art.
As Shea Scruggs and Weston Sprott wrote in “Advancing Inclusion: Creative Ways Musicians Can Take the Lead,” the job description for an orchestral position is usually limited to just two words. “Section Violin.” “Principal Clarinet.” “Associate Principal Double Bass” clocks in at four.
What if more thought and care were put into crafting musicians’ job descriptions? What if these job descriptions reflected the unique needs of each orchestra—and the communities they serve? What if skin color and gender diversity followed naturally from prioritizing different perspectives and life experiences as a part of the process, rather than an antagonizing insistence on ever-narrowing metrics?
What’s more, orchestral musicians tend to stay in their posts for decades. What if the creation of each job description were treated more like a mini-strategic planning session? One that takes into account where the orchestra is likely to be in five, ten, twenty, or even thirty years?
It is my opinion that blind listening should always be an important part of the hiring process. But who knows how dramatically musical culture would shift if we valued a more well-rounded kind musicianship?
So what to do? The days of a one-size-fits-all, un-nuanced, and even toxic prescription for “fairness” and “the best” are over. It’s up to individual organizations and communities to determine how best to navigate hiring the most qualified candidates for their particular needs.
What kind of dynamics, literal and figurative, would change for the better? What kind of vibrancy would enter the field? What kind of relevance to today’s world would more naturally emerge from the art form?
What else might we not have to force quite so hard, if we could just loosen our grip on an assumption that’s as tenacious as it is problematic?
I’m feeling like it’s high time we found out.
I’d like to thank the following people for their many insights into this conversation, both recently and over the years: Derrick Spiva Jr., Reena Esmail, Simon Woods, Alexander Laing, Vijay Gupta, my husband Philip White, and my work-husband, Kevin Kumar.