Last Thursday the NY Times’ classical music critic made a very odd but not terribly surprising suggestion: Classical orchestras should stop trying to be so impartial. Instead, he suggests it’s time for orchestras to start giving preference to race to ensure that the musicians collectively look like the cities in which they are based.
In the 1970s women and minorities made up only a tiny fraction of most classical orchestras. Orchestras around the country began instituting blind auditions, i.e. having musicians perform from behind a screen, so that their sex and race were unknown to those making the hiring decisions. There’s a debate about how much the screens really mattered which I’ve written about before, but in theory it was a way to making sure the orchestras would become what they were always supposed to be, a genuine meritocracy. But according to critic Anthony Tommasini, meritocracy isn’t producing the correct results:
American orchestras remain among the nation’s least racially diverse institutions, especially in regard to Black and Latino artists. In a 2014 study, only 1.8 percent of the players in top ensembles were Black; just 2.5 percent were Latino. At the time of the Philharmonic’s 1969 discrimination case, it had one Black player, the first it ever hired: Sanford Allen, a violinist. Today, in a city that is a quarter Black, just one out of 106 full-time players is Black: Anthony McGill, the principal clarinet.
The status quo is not working. If things are to change, ensembles must be able to take proactive steps to address the appalling racial imbalance that remains in their ranks. Blind auditions are no longer tenable…
If the musicians onstage are going to better reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, the audition process has to be altered to take into fuller account artists’ backgrounds and experiences. Removing the screen is a crucial step.
In other words, orchestras should start taking race into account to ensure more black and Latino musicians get a spot. According to Tommasini, the quality of the performers won’t suffer because everyone trying out for these jobs is equally good.
Blind auditions are based on an appealing premise of pure meritocracy: An orchestra should be built from the very best players, period. But ask anyone in the field, and you’ll learn that over the past century of increasingly professionalized training, there has come to be remarkably little difference between players at the top tier. There is an athletic component to playing an instrument, and as with sprinters, gymnasts and tennis pros, the basic level of technical skill among American instrumentalists has steadily risen. A typical orchestral audition might end up attracting dozens of people who are essentially indistinguishable in their musicianship and technique.
Is that true? If so, on what basis are the people doing the blind audition hiring for the last several decades been making their decisions? If everyone who shows up to these blind auditions is equally good, why do some people get hired over others? I would have guessed that people steeped in excellence themselves would in fact be able to tell differences between those who are excellent and those who are truly outstanding. Tommasini makes it sound as if there would be no difference if the hiring managers were throwing darts at a board.
Writing at National Review, Jonathan Tobin argues that this abandonment of meritocracy doesn’t make a lot of sense. For instance, does anyone think it would work in professional sports?
The whole point of integration in American institutions was to ensure that ability, rather than skin color, ethnicity, or faith, determined the right to a job. If that means that 14 of 15 players on the New York Knicks basketball team are black, then so be it. If the city’s Major League Baseball teams — the Yankees and the Mets — are disproportionately Hispanic, no one claims that they are discriminating in their employment decisions. The goal of winning necessitates hiring the best players, regardless of their identity.
Isn’t it considered something of an honor to be a first round draft pick? Would anyone buy the argument that there’s not much difference between the top picks in the first round and players selected in other rounds? I think the assumption is that teams, scouts and coaches can in fact tell the difference?
There’s also another significant problem with Tommasini’s argument. There is one ethnic group that is clearly benefiting from the blind auditions and it is not white people.
Due to changing tastes and cultural trends, as well as the lack of music education in schools, interest in classical music has declined precipitously among most Americans. But among Asian-Americans, it’s on the upswing. Asians are succeeding in the classical-music industry in the same way that they are dominating the merit-based competition for places at elite universities. Thus, discarding blind auditions would help one racial minority at the expense of another, while rendering talent and hard work beside the point.
Why is this the case? It’s not because hiring managers are favoring Asians over other minorities. It’s because Asian families have made music education a focus for their children. This piece from Slate was published in 2012:
“Music is a huge part of life for most Asian families,” says violinist Sarah Chang. “Most Asian children I know start taking violin, piano, or cello lessons from an early age.” If this sets them apart socially from their non-Asian classmates, Asian parents largely do not care. Their determination to raise musical kids can be single-minded and severe. One memorable passage in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has Amy Chua threatening her daughter during piano practice: “If the next time’s not perfect, I’m going to take all your stuffed animals and burn them!”…
“There was a time when practically every major soloist was Jewish,” says violinist Joshua Bell. “Every Jewish kid grew up wanting to play the violin. Now it’s true among Asians.” (Or at least among Asian parents.) This shift became apparent within conservatories and orchestras in the 1970s, when the ranks of Eastern European and Jewish musicians, who had long dominated the field, began to decline, while those of Asians started to swell. Asians make up just over 4 percent of the U.S. population, but 7 percent of U.S. orchestra musicians are Asian, and the figure rises to 20 percent for top orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic. At the elite Julliard School for music, one in five undergraduates—and one in three Ph.D. students—is Asian.
What Tommasini is suggesting would cost these elite Asian musicians simply because too many Asians are elite musicians. That may result in an orchestra that looks more like New York, but not one that looks like the actual cohort of musicians who have devoted endless hours of their lives to practice to become the best at what they do.
As Jonathan Tobin argues, the proper way to change the outcome isn’t by casting aside outstanding Asian musicians but by putting more resources and effort into making classical music something that black and Hispanic children and parents care about pursuing. But there’s an obvious problem with that. Does anyone really believe the anti-racism trainers who are even now equating reason, excellence and the written word with white supremacy will embrace the idea of minorities spending hours learning to read and master the music of dead, white composers? I don’t think so either.