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Southern Orchestra Executive Director Pushing to “Do Away with Blind Auditions”
The 1970s innovation of blind auditions—in which auditioning musicians are heard but not seen—was a monumental step for fair hiring in orchestras. Virtually overnight, the placement of a screen in between the auditioning player and their review panel made gender and racial discrimination in orchestra hiring logistically impossible. Only a few short decades later, long-male-dominated American orchestras were approaching gender parity. Orchestras that had once been all-white were far from it. It was the ultimate win for equality in an ultra-competitive industry.
That was, until a few years ago, when the orchestra world suddenly decided that it preferred equity (equal outcomes) to equality (equal opportunity). While the institution of blind auditions had long since delivered gender equity in orchestras, its racial outcomes began to come under suspicion. By 2020, white and Asian musicians were far overrepresented in U.S. orchestras relative to the general population, while black and Latino musicians were notably underrepresented.
In response to these disparities, some quite reasonably suggested that orchestras reconsider the few remaining non-blind elements in their audition processes, particularly many orchestras’ use of resume reviews to narrow the pool when too many players apply to a position. But others (led by head New York Times music critic Anthony Tomassini), argued that blind auditions themselves were the problem. Crucially, their complaint was not that racial disparities were the result of the blind audition process (these disparities originated farther upstream in the orchestra talent pipeline), but that blind auditions failed to correct them by sufficiently privileging the applications of black and Latino musicians.
At the time, many dismissed Tommasini and others’ comments as eccentric displays by political radicals in the thrall of 2020 equity politics. I wasn’t so sure. I knew from experience that there was far more equity radicalism in orchestra front offices than many supposed. Furthermore, fair hiring seemed to me like an easy concession for orchestra unions to make in their collective bargaining agreement (CBA) negotiations: after all, they already had their jobs.
Owing to the eviscerating press coverage such changes were sure to attract, I did not expect orchestras to do away with blind auditions suddenly or openly. Unlike most equity initiatives, I expected, this one would be done gradually behind closed doors, away from prying media, audience, and board member eyes.
And that’s exactly what’s happening.
Since 2020, blind auditions have been slowly eroding at a number of American orchestras. Orchestras’ second-in-command in this night march has been the Sphinx Organization’s National Alliance for Audition Support, which runs its own auditions for black and Latino musicians, arranges for those musicians to hold time-limited fellowships in participating orchestras, and then automatically enters them into the final round of those orchestras’ three-round blind audition process. This latter policy, a secret one at most orchestras that employ it, ensures that these chosen Sphinx musicians don’t have to compete with the hundreds of applicants who fail to get through the first two rounds. This and similar approaches have the long-term intent of hollowing out the blind audition process until it finally collapses.
But orchestra executives do not admit this in public. Even those rare executives (like those of the Charlotte Symphony) who do admit to this racial engineering are loath to admit publicly that the collapse of blind auditions is what they are after. But as it turns out, they are much readier to admit it to each other.
Exhibit A. A few weeks ago, I received an email from an attendee at the League of American Orchestras annual conference in Pittsburgh this June. This orchestra board member was taking notes at a large group discussion with more than 200 in attendance, when the executive director (ED) of a large orchestra in the American South stood up to speak. The discussion was not off-the-record, and the ED clearly felt at home among friends. Their* comments have been independently verified to me by two other attendees.
The ED began by describing “doing away with blind auditions” as “the ultimate elephant in the room.” They then went on to discuss their orchestra’s relationship with the Sphinx Organization. The orchestra currently had “seven or eight” Sphinx fellows in the orchestra (symphony orchestras typically have about 60 members), but they added that “next year our goal is to have twelve.” That much is public knowledge.
Not public knowledge is what the ED said next, which is that these Sphinx fellows, once they are renominated for their fellowship for a second year, are eligible to audition for a permanent seat in the orchestra, and that they automatically skip the first two rounds of the three-round audition. I’ve suspected for a while that this practice of “round skipping” was one widespread way that larger orchestras were quietly undermining blind auditions from within, but this was the largest orchestra that I’ve actually heard admit it. The ED proudly added that the musicians’ union had already agreed to this practice and codified it in their CBA.
Then the ED returned to the topic of blind auditions more broadly: “How [do] we get around blind auditions? Well, that’s the big issue, isn’t it, in this industry.” They went on to report on players’ feelings in their orchestra: “We’ve had this discussion in our orchestra, and I have to say that right now half want blind auditions and half do not. I don’t think that the profession has come up with an answer yet.”
But the ED ended by reemphasizing that increasing diversity was worth decreasing fairness, at least by a little: “We’re going to have to lower the curve somewhere in the process. . . . We don’t hire anyone else in the organization by telling them they’re supposed to submit a detailed, difficult exam [in order to be hired], and then say: ‘Well, based on your answer we’re going to hire you without ever meeting you.’” In other words, orchestras should hire for a French horn opening—for which 150 applicants apply who are so closely matched that the only fair way to decide between them is an unbiased hearing—the same way they hire a graphic designer for their brochures: based on their teamwork, collegiality in an interview, and unquantifiable “intangibles.” Fairness be damned.
I share these quotations with you not for their salaciousness, but as a warning. The orchestra managed by the ED I just wrote about is in a part of the country with audiences unlikely to take kindly to equity discrimination. And yet, their orchestra is in the process of doing away with blind auditions right under their noses. Many Podium readers are orchestra executives, board members, donors, and audience members. I ask you: Please. Pay attention to what’s happening at your local orchestra. More than likely, they are doing this too.
*I use “they” not to flaunt my gender enlightenment, but because the tipster did not tell me the gender of this ED.