Anthony Tommasini, New York Times, July 16, 2020
During the tumultuous summer of 1969, two Black musicians accused the New York Philharmonic of discrimination. Earl Madison, a cellist, and J. Arthur Davis, a bassist, said they had been rejected for positions because of their race.
The city’s Commission on Human Rights decided against the musicians, but found that aspects of the orchestra’s hiring system, especially regarding substitute and extra players, functioned as an old boys’ network and were discriminatory. The ruling helped prod American orchestras, finally, to try and deal with the biases that had kept them overwhelmingly white and male. The Philharmonic, and many other ensembles, began to hold auditions behind a screen, so that factors like race and gender wouldn’t influence strictly musical appraisals.
Blind auditions, as they became known, proved transformative. The percentage of women in orchestras, which hovered under 6 percent in 1970, grew. Today, women make up a third of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and they are half the New York Philharmonic. Blind auditions changed the face of American orchestras.
But not enough.
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.
This well-intentioned but restrictive practice has prevented substantive action when it comes to the most essential element of maintaining an orchestra: hiring musicians. Musicians’ unions, which have in many ways valiantly worked to protect their members in an economically tenuous industry, have long been tenacious defenders of blind auditions, asserting that they are the best way to ensure fairness.
But in sticking so stubbornly to the practice, unions may be hurting themselves, their orchestras and their art form. Hanging on to a system that has impeded diversity is particularly conspicuous at a moment when the country has been galvanized by revulsion to police brutality against Black Americans — and when orchestras, largely shuttered by the coronavirus pandemic, are brainstorming both how to be more relevant to their communities and how to redress racial inequities among their personnel when they re-emerge.
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.