Attaining a position in a modern American symphony orchestra is an extremely competitive endeavor. Today a single opening may attract hundreds of highly qualified candidates. During the first half of the 20th century, professional orchestras in the United States were overwhelmingly white and male. A few years after World War II, around the middle of the twentieth century, questions of bias in hiring practices began to arise. In this article I shall examine where these questions led, and how the classical music world has attempted to mitigate biases that have resulted from social/cultural norms and their influence on sensory input.
Not only were women once thought to be creatively inferior to men, but also during the first half of the 20th century there were virtually NO women performing in large ensembles such as the symphony orchestra. They were considered incapable of handling the pressures that a professional instrumentalist must face. The world of professional orchestral musicians was essentially a man’s world. In her autobiographical tale of breaking through the centuries-old barriers for women in classical music, the late Philadelphia Orchestra harpist Edna Phillips said, “The men” was the term symphony orchestra administrators used well into the twentieth century to describe their players. The term came from a crystallized cultural tradition that made men musicians and women teachers and amateurs (Welsh, foreword by Daniel Webster, 2013).”
To be sure, a huge amount of ground has been covered since Maestro Leopold Stokowski of the Philadelphia Orchestra appointed harpist Edna Phillips as the first principal player in a major American orchestra in 1931.
In 1952, more that 21 years after Edna Phillips was hired, orchestras were still virtually all-male bastions. In attempt to diversify its ranks, the Boston Symphony instituted a policy of “blind auditions.” Applicants played from behind a screen in an effort to remove bias and to allow a merit based selection. It was thought that the number of women in the orchestra would increase. Surprisingly, the initial results continued to skew male. Next, they had applicants remove their shoes, in addition to playing behind a screen. They postulated that the sound of the women’s heels as they entered the audition area unconsciously influenced the adjudicators. Once the shoes were removed, over 50% percent of the female applicants made it past the first round (typically there are several rounds to an orchestral audition). They had guessed correctly, proving that overcoming unconscious bias is always more complex than it may appear to be.
II. Changes to Audition Procedures
Despite Boston’s lead, all orchestras did not adopt screens at once. “Among the major orchestras, one still does not have any blind round to their audition procedure (Cleveland) and one adopted the screen in 1952 for the preliminaryround (Boston Symphony Orchestra), decades before the others (Goldin and Rouse 2000).” It wasn’t until the 1970s and 80s that most orchestras changed their audition policies by openly advertising openings in union papers, attracting perhaps 100-200 applicants where they used to get 10-20. Until that time most members were virtually handpicked by the music director. They were made to audition, but were usually students of a select group of white male teachers, and thereby perpetuated the dominanace of that demographic. This change in itself didn’t guarantee any degree of impartiality as the adjudicators could still see their candidates and choose accordingly, thus the “blind” audition came into wide favor. Undoubtedly, the number of women in American orchestras has greatly increased over the course of the 20th and 21stcenturies, from virtually no women prior to 1930 to around 50 percent in some orchestras today. The question is, how much of the change in numbers is due to the establishment of “blind” auditions? One of the foremost studies on the subject by Claudia Goldin and Cecelia Rouse claims that the impact of the blind audition has been significant.
Using the audition data, we find that the screen increases by 50 percent the probability that a woman will be advanced from certain preliminary rounds and increases by several fold the likelihood that a woman will be selected in the final round. By the use of the roster data, the switch to blind auditions can explain 30 percent of the increase in the proportion female among new hires and possibly 25 percent of the increase in the percentage female in the orchestras from 1970 to 1996. As in research in economics and other fields on double blind refereeing, the impact of a blind procedure is toward impartiality and the costs to the journal (here to the orchestra) are relatively small. We conclude that the adoption of the screen and blind auditions served to help female musicians in their for orchestral positions (Goldin & Rouse 2000).
Others aren’t so sure. Questions as to the statistical rigor of the aforementioned study have since cast doubts on its findings. In 2017 the Australian government published a study entitled “Going Blind to see More Clearly.” Its findings were different. “We found the opposite, that de-identifying candidates reduced the likelihood of women being selected for the shortlist (Soave 2019).” It turned out that many senior managers, aware that sexist assumptions had once kept women out of upper-level positions, already practiced a mild form of affirmative action that going “blind” precluded. So the question is, what has precipitated the changes: the reformed procedures, or the evolving cultural norms? The answer likely lies somewhere in the middle.
Here too, at the intersection of race and orchestral auditions, the data seems to tell a very complex story. In his December 2018 article in Colorlines, Sameer Rao refers to “the dreaded screen” of blind auditions.
Aside from the cost of auditions and the need for mentorship, people interviewed for this story most often named the screen that separates judges and candidates during auditions as an issue. Orchestra auditions typically involve multiple round behind a screen. But for the final auditions, decision makers often remove it. Critics say that this choice can trigger a panel member’s unconscious bias, especially damaging to women and people of color (Rao 2018).
The problem, on many levels, seems to be the removal of the screen for the final round. Some musicians of color assert that in this climate it is also possible that the removal of the screen could trigger an adjudicator’s unconscious desire to integrate orchestras and that they simply don’t want to get the job because of who they are, rather they want to win the audition because they were the best candidate.
It would seem that the lack of African Americans in the classical music world (they comprise less than 2% of orchestral populations) is structural and rooted in institutional racism. Poverty that robs children of exposure to cultural events, removal of music programs from inner city schools, and a centuries old European-dominated hierarchical system within symphonic music all work together to keep Blacks out. University of Chicago Professor of Humanities, Travis Jackson, summed it up. “Blind auditions in which the prospective orchestra members play behind a screen, make some small difference in diversity. But they don’t address the factors that keep people from even getting to the level where they can participate in a blind audition (Jackson 2017).”
Philadelphia Orchestra principle tubaist, Carol Jantsch. A woman in a formerly all male world. Would she hold that position if she did not fit the body image mold?
III. Body Image
Although there is anecdotal evidence of music directors unfairly discriminating against “overweight” musicians, notably Seiji Ozawa’s refusal to give the principle oboe chair in the Boston Symphony to Alfred Genovese despite his universally acknowledged artistry, there is little to no data on blind auditions and their effect on large bodied, and other individuals sometimes considered less “attractive” by mainstream cultural standards. As Steve Hoffman of Steve Hoffman Music Forums said, “If you see a fat ugly young classical music star, you KNOW they’ve got talent (Music Forums 2009).” One need only do a cursory web search for images of popular classical soloists, Hilary Hahn and Svetlana Smolina come immediately to mind, to see the thin, glamorous young musicians who predominate on today’s “serious” music scene. There is speculation that there are fewer overweight classical musicians due to personality traits commonly shared by musicians. One study found “EDs (eating disorders) are prevalent in musicians and possible risk factors are their increased perfectionism, depression, anxiety and stress due to the demands of their job (Easmon & Kapsetaki 2017).”
Scientific data on blind auditions my be insufficient but one need only look at any major modern symphony orchestra to see that the personnel is much more diverse than in 1952 when blind auditions were first tried in Boston. Significantly, women and Asians have made great inroads. Much work remains to be done in Black and Hispanic communities to address pre-audition phenomena and it is high time that we study the effects of body image on hiring practices in the world of orchestral music.
Chung, J. Race and Classical Music, University of Chicago Magazine, 15 March 2016, https://mag.uchicago.edu/law-policy-society/race-and-classical-music#
Goldin, C., & Rouse, C. “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians,” The Gender Action Portal, (2000), https://gap.hks.harvard.edu/orchestrating-impartiality-impact-“blind”-auditions-female-musicians
Hays, C. “Another Look at Blind Auditions and Sexism in Orchestra Hiring,” Independent Women’s Forum, 21 October 2019, https://iwf.org/blog/2810882/-Another-Look-at-Blind-Auditions-and- Sexism-in-Orchestra-Hiring
Hoffman, S., Music Forums, 2009, https://forums.stevehoffman.tv/threads/if-you-see-a-fat-ugly-young-classical-music-star-you-know-theyve-got-talent.194841/
Kapsetaki, M.E., Easmon, C. Eating disorders in musicians: a survey investigating self-reported eating disorders of musicians. Eat Weight Disord 24, 541–549 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40519-017-0414-9
Tsioulcas, A. “In 2014, the Classical World Still Can’t Stop Fat-Shaming Women,” Audio blog post. Deceptive Cadence,National Public Radio, 20 May 2014.
Welsh, M. “One Woman in a hundred: Edna Phillips and the Philadelphia Orchestra,” University of Illinois Press, 2013 https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1980/04/12/