In his New York Times column, “To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions”, chief classical music critic, Anthony Tommasini argues that “If ensembles are to reflect the communities they serve, the audition process should take into account race, gender, and other factors.” I paused at the headline because I imagined a blind audition (which I didn’t know existed outside of NBC’s The Voice) would remove bias, creating a hiring process based exclusively on merit. It seemed a bit racist as it implies that non-white musicians wouldn’t otherwise be hired for their musicianship. However, Tommasini’s column asked us to consider racial inequality and the Private School-To-Philharmonic Pipeline.
His position is reminiscent of when Joe Biden said, “poor kids are just as bright as white kids.” (Instead: Unrefined violin players are just as talented as white violin players). Is there truth to this? I suppose it isn’t about ‘ability’ so much as it is about ‘potential.’ There is indeed a racial wealth gap (generated and emboldened by capitalism), and if access to equipment and training plays a role in one’s classical music-making abilities, then the solution to the problem lies deeper than simply ending blind auditions. Tommasini’s suggestion does little to dismantle the underlying capitalist system that led to the inequality in the first place. It actually props up that system.
But why challenge those underlying forces when you can just use tokenism disguised as equality and keep things fundamentally the same? “Hi, I’m the token black flutist. I’m talented enough, but my primary function here is so that the philharmonic can call themselves anti-racists.” It appears like progress to the untrained eye, a step toward radical inclusivity, a strategic campaign to “diversify the orchestral industry.” But for me, it smells like virtue signaling.
One might suggest that what I’d call ‘tokenism’ is a harmless step toward achieving equality. “Get over it, this is a step in the right direction, why do you care so much?” one might say. It’s a step in a direction, but the right one? I’m not so sure.
To be honest, I know very little about the classical music industry. I don’t frequent the orchestra too often as it has always felt too—shall I say—exclusive for a peasant like me. The few symphonies that I know of exist exclusively in metropolitan areas and seem to be destinations for urban elites who need some entertainment after a long day of business lunches. After reading Tommasini’s article, I learned that I was right. Admittedly, it is a very exclusive club, and peasants are, in fact, unwelcome! With exceptions, of course—our pathetic smiles can be used as fundraising tools at annual galas or in an educational programming brochure. Like many other arts and cultural institutions that are dominated by high society whites, getting a seat at the table without exorbitant wealth is uncommon. Heck, getting a seat in the audience without exorbitant wealth is uncommon.
Tommasini argues that blind auditions will not diversify the industry, but instead keep orchestras full of white musicians. He says that “if you ask anyone in the field… there has come to be remarkably little difference between players at the top tier” and that “racial diversity is missing in the so-called pipeline that leads from learning an instrument to summer programs to conservatories to graduate education to elite jobs.” I suppose that’s true within the current models of how so-called ‘high art’ is created and consumed today.
Ultimately, it comes down to reserving a spot in The Club. Historically, those spots are reserved for well-connected one-percent-ers who went to “top tier” schools, can fly to fancy trainings, and know people who know people who know people. And in the case of orchestras, they’re mostly white. But whiteness isn’t the primary qualification for getting into The Club, wealth is. Tommasini’s suggestion can be reduced to “let’s diversify The Club so that we don’t look like a club.” But the real question is: why maintain a club?
Ok, so what’s the solution? Should symphonies continue the practice of blind auditions?
I suppose if you enjoy the sound of a harp strummed flawlessly by a private school graduate, then sure. But honestly, it’s not about the symphonies at all. The problem is a capitalist system that keeps these institutions inaccessible to the majority. I say fuck any so-called arts organizations who call themselves “top tier” and that a job with them is an “elite” one. In his brilliant critique of the elitist nature of art in the 19th century, Leo Tolstoy wrote: “To say that a work of art is good, but incomprehensible to the majority of men, is the same as saying of some kind of food that it is very good but that most people can’t eat it.” He begs us to ask the questions: What is Art? Who is it for? Who is the arbiter of “good” art? And why should we accept those so-called authorities who tell us what is and isn’t?
Tolstoy said that “Art is not a handicraft; it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.” And that “Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul, and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.” In other words, art exists because it does already– a painter will paint, a singer will sing, a writer will write. Creativity emerges naturally within every society. But measuring and valuing a person’s creativity over another’s is an obvious manifestation of our current system. The challenge is, how do artists make a living in a corporatized world? (Save that discussion for another essay).
I don’t know if ending blind auditions (like affirmative action), would actually dismantle inequality in the classical music world. Would these institutions then become accessible spaces for all to share and experience art together? Probably not. Instead, I suspect they will just turn into Hamilton on Broadway (“Yay diversity! Now buy my merch!”.)
Until then, I’ll be listening to music I can afford—whether the musicians look like me or not.