A principal speaks up in defence of blind auditions

From a new essay in the US Spectator by Nicholas Finch, the Louisville Orchestra’s principal cellist, undermining an ill-advised critic in the New York Times:

The fight for equality in America has been long and hard-fought. Sometimes a multi-generational upheaval has been required to undo old notions and myths. But there have been a few times when a new process enabled these changes to happen almost overnight. In the world of classical music, no change was more consequential than the instituting of blind auditions, whereby the musician auditioning for a position is behind a screen, and the only thing a panel can adjudicate is the sound of music….

I am the principal cellist of American ICSOM Orchestra — the Louisville Orchestra, led by our brilliant young music director Teddy Abrams. I have taken countless auditions for other orchestras behind the screen. I have also served on and led audition committees. While the process certainly has its imperfections, I have seen just what a powerful bias-neutralizing force they can be.

In spring 2019, I led an audition for two spots in our cello section. Numerous people I know and love were among the applicants. Could I have been biased in favor of any of them? Of course. Did I have any idea who was who behind the screen? No. We ended up hiring two fantastic cellists, who happen to be female….

Read on here.

 

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  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    well written.

    so is the answer to do what the MET does?

    Screen comes down only after a winner is selected?

    And if so, how does that address the fundamental problem of the art form requiring $$$ for training in early years?

    While well written, Mr Finch does not offer any solutions to the problem. Just that he thinks blind auditions are the way to go.

    • Dennis says:

      “Finch does not offer any solutions to the problem”

      What exactly is the supposed “problem”? The “problem” is a fiction created by race obsessives who essentially want to find a way to implement racial quota systems (not only for orchestra members but for composers of works performed, etc. – all through the system), but blind auditions are too fair and get in the way their agenda to remake orchestras, so they have to go.

      • Old Man in the Midwest says:

        Wow. Make America Great Again 2020.

        • Dennis says:

          Really insightful non sequitur. I notice you dodged the question.

          • Old Man in the Midwest says:

            When you use quotes for the “problem” it’s clear that people like you are part of the problem.

            Progressive will eventually come to orchestras….the two that are left at the end of the century.

          • William Safford says:

            No. Old Man called it for what it is. The problem predates the Orange Enemy of the People, but he magnifies it.

        • Harry says:

          American orchestras raised their level rapidly in the past decades through blind auditions. Last time I checked, three of the big five US orchestras have minority concertmasters. The other two orchestras are looking for concertmasters now and very well can also find minority Concertmasters. Aren’t those encouraging signs of diversity?

          • MacroV says:

            American orchestras would have improved over that time anyway, as the overall level of play improved, and at least outside the Big 5 or so, the best candidates were generally far better than their predecessors had ever been.

            That said, I’m all for the blind auditions; they certainly have helped promote diversity, at least in terms of gender and nationality.

      • Anon says:

        It’s true.
        The “problem” is completely made up.

    • Anon says:

      “Mr Finch does not offer any solutions to the problem.”

      Orchestras could start by hiring musicians from underrepresented groups when they perform Harry Potter, Nightmare Before Christmas, and music from video games.

      Perhaps the owners of the IP could offer lower licensing fees when certain quotas are met.

      • Bone says:

        “Certain quotas.”
        So, less of what and more of what would you advocate for?
        Also, thank goodness we are finally acknowledging that artistic standards are the least important part of these audition discussions.

      • Harry says:

        Should we do the same with NBA, MLB or NFL teams? Set a certain quota as you said for the regular season games and put the real team on for the playoff?

  • CarlD says:

    What a wonderfully well-written, well-reasoned article.

  • Bone says:

    Well written and honest.
    Cancelled, I’m sure.

  • James McCarty says:

    I enjoy reading the US Spectator, but was rather surprised to see Mr. Finch refer to the home of the New York Philharmonic as “Avery Fischer Hall.” It’s been David Geffen Hall for several years now, and the previous benefactor spelled his name Fisher. Otherwise, I find myself in complete agreement with Mr. Finch.

    • MacroV says:

      Either he hasn’t kept up, or decided he is not obliged to adopt the new name; he didn’t sign any contract with David Geffen, after all.

  • David Rowe says:

    Wow.
    Beautifully and respectfully stated. Thank you, Mr. Finch (and Norman, for highlighting)

  • Hilary says:

    A very well argued piece and good to be reminded of the reprehensible behaviour of Celibidache. Karajan-In the same decade , and an older generation – was more forward thinking in this respect( the Sabine Meyer affair ).

    A bottom up approach is what’s needed to address the undoubted issue of more diversity in classical music as regards race/gender/class ( the latter very applicable to the UK). Don’t attempt to make adjustments when it’s too late.

    • MacroV says:

      Karajan was a mere four years older than Celibidache. The latter was probably a more old-fashioned type, but Karajan lived by his own rules, one of which I assume was that if the clarinetist he liked was female, no big deal.

  • Richard Hayes says:

    When everyone is supposedly equal to one another, there is no point in either auditioning or levels of compensation. Pay everyone exactly the same.

    Also, just show up as is and permanently dismiss any education credentials as they overtly promote both intellectual and financial inequality.

  • Harry Collier says:

    Difficult to fault blind auditions. And obvious that one needs to fight discrimination in choosing players, be it discrimination due to colour, race or sex.

    • Dennis says:

      But discrimination is precisely what the opponents of blind auditions want.

      On the one hand you say you don’t fault blind auditions, but then say we still need to fight alleged discrimination in hiring. But if blind auditions are standard practice, where is the evidence of discrimination in hiring the first place? And how does one get rid of alleged discrimination while upholding a blind audition process that opponents say is actually one of the chief barriers to “fighting discrimination”?

      • Max Grimm says:

        To play advocatus diaboli…

        …there is no such thing as „a blind audition process“, as prospective candidates start said process by submitting their CVs for review. Here in Germany, it is also customary for applicants to submit a photo of themselves with their CVs. In some other countries, orchestras request applicants to submit a video recording of themselves playing a required piece. All of this could technically permit an orchestra or audition committee to „stack the deck“ long before a screen gets put up and an audition becomes ‚blind‘.

        • Dennis says:

          That at least raises some potential issues and details that I haven’t seen discusses in the general flap over “blind auditions.”

        • Yes, agreed! And to add to your point, I always felt that in top-tier orchestras, the auditioning committee, and especially the principal, always knew EXACTLY who was auditioning, and when, even though hidden from view. The principal may be biased toward a favored student, etc. whose sound/style is easily recognized from all the other applicants.

          • Harry says:

            Dear Petersmusic, just try to understand you better, to prevent the kind of nepotism you described, we should take down the screen and let the “principals” see who is playing?

        • Harry says:

          Here in my orchestra, audition committee members are not allowed to to see any resumes of the candidates. We are only allowed to know the winning candidate’s background after the hiring decision is made. We are forbidden to see any other candidates’s Resume before, during and after the audition.

          • Player says:

            But who decided who is invited? It’s at the invitation level that problems can arise.

          • M2N2K says:

            In our orchestra, we look at resumes with names removed from them (photos are never asked for) and invite everyone whose CV shows as little as 1% chance of the person being anywhere near required level of competence. There is virtually no possibility of missing anyone worthy of being heard. Besides, those not invited are still allowed to audition and the panelists are never informed until audition is completely over whether any of the players was among those invited or not. Most likely, we are not unique and other major US orchestras probably have similar procedures.

  • mary says:

    Because of the weakened position of American orchestras, the NYT music critics actually have some influence on the programming of the NY Philharmonic (such as Tommasini’s craze for all things contemporary) in order for the orchestra to get good reviews from the Times (the NY critics never, ever, pan new works, ever, whereas they’d be more than joyous to pan another Beethoven performance) because one bad review means 100s of empty seats, so the NY Phil has adapted its programming to the tastes of those writing reviews.

    But that small influence has gone to the head of the NYT classical music staff. They now think they can start dictating policies: auditioning, hiring, quotas….

    Once upon a time, music critics were mocked as failed musicians. No more, they are now aspire to be failed arts administrators too.

    • Timothy says:

      Under the attitude displayed in your last two sentences, the majority of musicians these days are “failed musicians”.

    • KH says:

      I am simply amazed that NY Times classical music staff, a group of worthless parasites, somehow still have their jobs when the MET orchestra is furloughed. Exactly what are they paid for?

      • The View from America says:

        “Exactly what are they paid for?”

        Ever heard of advocacy journalism? “All the news that’s fit to tint.”

  • Larry W says:

    “Nothing helped increase diversity in classical music more quickly and effectively than blind auditions.” Very true, but overcoming racial and gender bias alone will not save symphonies. Once finalists have been selected, many orchestras include a round of chamber music with orchestra members to see how they fit in. Even in the era of Covid, this is impossible behind a screen.

    In addition to tone, time, and tune, musicians need to be advocates and ambassadors for classical music. A face-to-face interview with finalists could explore this capacity and factor in the final selection.

    • SVM says:

      People can promise the earth in an “interview”, and subsequently fail to deliver. In the context of hiring an orchestral musician (as opposed to a marketing professional), the best form of advocacy is his/her playing. If you really feel the need to assess a musician’s capacity to “be advocates and ambassadors” through other means, at least make the means of assessment empirical (e.g.: ask the candidate to give a pre-concert talk).

      • Larry W says:

        Sorry, you missed the point. Any interview would come after the final selections. They have already “delivered” their playing excellence. And yes, increasingly musicians are called upon to be teachers and advocates for their orchestras. It would be premature to have them represent the orchestra in a pre-concert talk before they are members.

    • Anon says:

      What do orchestras need to be saved from?

    • Concerned Orchestral Musician says:

      So.. after untold hours of grueling audition preparation, followed by the angst of the whole audition process, now you feel the finalist must then be subjected to a “face-to-face interview”? To ascertain how s/he comes across as an “advocate and ambassador”? What lunacy.

      This step can undo ALL the carefully created blind screening process. Now the “finalist” can be sized up as to his/her physical attractiveness, race, gender, age, perhaps even fluency in English..since they now must pass your oral exam.

      They are hired to play their instrument, not deliver sales-pitches… this must NOT be “factored into the final selection”.

      Your idea is frightening, a thinly disguised attempt for you to have the chance to disqualify contestants based on other issues that are completely immaterial to how the contestant plays! Tear down the screens so you get to size ’em up.

      Back to the 1950s, once again.

      • Larry W says:

        COM, what you describe is not the intent or purpose of my suggestion. What I offered was an added facet to determining the final selection from three potential candidates. If you are an orchestral musician, you should know that far too many win auditions based on the ability to play accurately without any musical or historical context. If you dislike the idea so much, please present your own for positive change in the audition process.

      • Larry W says:

        CON, then how do you view the chamber music component of auditions? No screen there, and many better orchestras add that step. Is that for the purposes you cite? Now that’s ludicrous.

        Let’s try treating musicians like human beings and artists instead of unthinking cogs in a wheel.

        • M2N2K says:

          The “chamber music component” (which in our orchestra is used for some of the principal positions only) helps in differentiating a few ensemble-related musical qualities in one or two candidates who “survived” all screened rounds as the best.

  • buxtehude says:

    Nothing will ever be right until All members of orchestras and their admins have undergone a process very similar to this (it’s in two parts):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lN5Bj5xTdUc
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIp8Vp3LtJI

  • William Safford says:

    Let us be clear. The question is not what is the best approach. The question is what is the least bad approach.

    It reminds me of the aphorism by Winston Churchill: “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else.”

    For example, are blind auditions the best? In some ways, yes. For those who are results-oriented in a positive way, look no further than the burgeoning of female members of orchestras in recent decades in most orchestras. (Vienna–ahem.) Blind auditions have helped improve not only diversity but quality in modern orchestras.

    But are blind auditions a perfect solution? A strong argument can be made that, in certain circumstances, the best *auditioner* is chosen from behind the screen, but not necessarily the best *musician* or *colleague.* (N.B. The few examples I can think of who are professional auditioners, are men, as it happens.)

    This goes back to the Churchill quote: perhaps blind auditions are the least bad approach to auditions.

    Is there a better way? Perhaps. I do not yet know what it is.

    What about the very valid issues that Tommasini posits?

    The status quo is not enough, if the metric is further diversity in orchestras–an end result that I support.

    But is eliminating the blind audition the solution?

    My opinion: until and unless we come up with a less-bad system than blind auditions, they should continue.

    Also my opinion: problems of diversity are real, are a major issue, and need to be addressed in an effective and proactive way. But where and when?

    At levels before they reach auditions for professional orchestras.

    These are very important societal issues.

    The lack of diversity in major symphony orchestras is a symptom of a greater systemic failure, rather than the failure itself.

    Systemic racism is real and alive in America, certain nattering nabobs of negativism (including certain reactionaries who post in the comments of Slipped Disc) notwithstanding.

    If we as a society effectively address the systemic racism in our ranks, starting at birth and going through adulthood, then the issue of a dearth of adequate diversity in our orchestras will eventually resolve itself.

    In the meantime? I’m all ears for constructive interim solutions.

    • M2N2K says:

      Logically, “the least bad” is exactly the same as “the best”. Since, according to your own correct observation, blind auditions “have helped improve not only diversity but quality of modern orchestras”, there is no reason to believe that they will not continue doing that in the future. The hiring process is flawed because so are human beings, but it is the best available to us. The solutions to the “problem”, if any, should be found in addressing overall weaknesses of education from a very early age, offering societal help based on economic inequalities only and not on skin color or any other external characteristics. Such real problems are difficult to address and take several generations to show significant positive results.

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