As regular readers know, I’m a classically trained musician. My primary instrument is my voice. I’m among the few, the proud, the wearers of tight underwear: a first tenor. I’ve been fortunate to work with fine directors and choirs, fine symphony orchestras and other ensembles, so I know quite a bit about that endeavor, auditions, relations with other musicians and musical organizations, and of course, the business—shudder—of music. The business end, while absolutely necessary, is something most musicians would rather not encounter. With that in mind, let’s visit Professor Jacobson at Legal Insurrection:
I learned something new today.
For decades leading symphony orchestras have used “blind auditions” to hire musicians. That is, the musicians are not seen at all, only their music is heard. That way, implicit or explicit racial, ethnic, or gender bias cannot enter into the hiring decision, only the quality of the music. It is as close to a pure meritocracy as I can imagine.
So far, so good, right? Judging people based on the content and character of their musical performance rather than the color of their skin? Right?
But, that pure meritocracy has resulted in fewer Blacks and women on orchestras relative to the population as a whole. That result is not a product of bias, because the race or ethnicity or gender of the musicians were not known.
This is the general practice of symphony orchestras, which are, for the most part, not like people imagine. Players, while among the finest in the world, are not handsomely compensated. Even in the largest and most famous orchestras, players commonly supplement their symphony pay with teaching and performing. Many do it to keep up their skills and because they feel an obligation to help build the next generations of great musicians, but for most, symphony pay just isn’t enough to survive on, particularly if they have a family. Smaller, regional symphonies constantly struggle financially, and outside income is even more important for those players.
So it’s still good, right? Because equal opportunity is what is most important. We don’t call the NBA racist because Blacks are over-represented, because we understand that it is not the result of racial bias.
Of course, because professional music, and professional athletics are meritocracies. One of my college professors noted that students in college music programs are, by definition, gifted and talented. It is in college classically trained musicians hone their skills, and potentially, find careers as performers. In this pursuit, skin color, race, gender, other factors simply don’t matter. What matters is the ability to deliver technically perfect and beautiful performances, day after day, year after year. Keep in mind, however, gentle readers, the number of positions in symphony orchestras is small, and the number of musicians that can make any kind of living as professionals—people who make their living through performance—is equally small. Competition is fierce, and no one cares much about the feelings of someone whose skills are not up to the requisite level.
And wouldn’t you know it’s The New York Times, a former newspaper, that is stirring the woke pot in professional music? The Times classical music critic, Anthony Tommasini, believes there are factors far more important than musical skill. Blind auditions are racist, sexist, you name the “ist,” because, well, read on:
Tommasini starts by noting the history of blind auditions in his column, To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions:
‘The percentage of women in orchestras, which hovered under 6 percent in 1970, grew [when blind auditions were universally adopted]. 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.’
See the problem? The symphony doesn’t “look like” the community, whichever community woke folk like Tommasini specifies. And while Tommasini isn’t laying out the percentages of cellists, second violinists, bassoonists and others that have to be female, black, Latino, LGBTQWERTY, etc., that’s exactly what he—and the woke “community”—want.
‘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.
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….’
That’s nonsense, which is why blind auditions are so important. Technical brilliance is the first qualifier, but more important is the interpretation of the music. They seek people who can go beyond playing the notes and rhythms perfectly, looking for those that can play the music. Tommasini is being deceptive. Many are technically accomplished; few are truly outstanding musicians.
‘It’s like an elite college facing a sea of applicants with straight A’s and perfect test scores. Such a school can move past those marks, embrace diversity as a social virtue and assemble a freshman class that advances other values along with academic achievement.’
Only a small percentage of any population is truly excellent. However with grade inflation, everyone can be an “A” student. But I’ll play along. Why would a school experiencing such outstanding success in its educational efforts want to do anything other than continue that tradition of excellence? We all know the answer: colleges have abandoned teaching and focused on diversity and social justice. We all know the sorry results. Prof. Jacobson continues:
On campus, this is called ‘equity,’ a euphemism for racial, gender and other discrimination. It’s the opposite of equal opportunity; it’s demanding equal results even if it means discriminating against some people on the basis of race, ethnicity or other immutable factors. It’s the core driving the ‘antiracism’ movement on campus. When campus activists and administrators say ‘equity’ (as opposed to ‘equality’), what they really mean is discrimination based on race to achieve a desired racial outcome.
We are, in Tommasini, dealing with a true believer, one who believes every organization is immeasurably improved by including the right racial, gender, etc. mix. Merely having a non-white, non-male person in the same room magically transforms everything and everyone for the better. If you take the link to Tommasini’s article, gentle readers, you’ll discover he is not advocating for the inclusion of Asians in symphonies. They tend to do very well at that level, and he is apparently lumping them in with white males. Racist.
However, Normal Americans understand what matters is one’s character and abilities. That is what contributes to an organization, and particularly to a high-level musical ensemble. As can easily be observed, wokeness, social justice, diversity, equity, all have done enormous damage to society. Merit matters in every endeavor, but particularly so in the highest levels of classical music.
What he is not telling you is once hired by a symphony orchestra, there is no such thing as tenure. One’s seat is retained by unfaltering excellence. If one’s playing does not remain up to par, they’re let go. Under Tommasini’s scheme, would a diversity hire ever be let go regardless of their level of performance? Of course not. That would be prima facie racism!
Tommasini would not have us believe there are innumerable black, Hispanic, female, LGBTQWERTY, and other categories of outstanding symphonic musicians that would be hired were it not for blind auditions. He knows if such people were out there, they would be hired through blind auditions because their brilliance would be evident.
No. What Tommasini wants, and he says it specifically, is to hire second-rate musicians because of the way they’ll look–“diverse”– onstage. This, gentle readers, is where the business of music enters into the picture.
People come to symphony performances expecting to see and hear perfection. They don’t care how many black people are in the strings or how many women are in the woodwinds, they care about the quality of the performance. They are a discerning audience. When that quality suffers, and that’s exactly what Tommasini is urging in the name of “diversity,” audiences will dwindle, and symphonies will die.
Poverty is diverse too. Get woke, go broke.