Leonard Slatkin: How to make our orchestras more diverse

The veteran conductor has shared with Slipped Disc a chapter on a burning topic from his forthcoming book:

In the New York Times on July 16, 2020, Anthony Tommasini wrote a thoughtful and insightful piece on diversity in the orchestral workplace. He focused on the “blind audition” as being out of touch with the needs of today. Much of what he has written mirrors my own thoughts as expressed in a chapter of my soon-to-be-published new book.

In the interest of bringing attention to this subject, I have decided to let all of you read the chapter “On Diversity” in conjunction with the New York Times article. This discussion is vital in our quest to encompass equality within the orchestral community. When the book is published, there will be additional material based on the questions and comments that have been submitted.


“I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”
—John Cage

Perhaps the finest three years of my life were spent attending Los Angeles High School. It was seven blocks away from my house, so I could walk there, or when I was sixteen, take my Corvair. Searching for a parking place might put me three streets away from the building, but hey, I had my license and, by God, I was going to drive whenever I could.

The school was in a district that encompassed areas with students representing various racial, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds. We were a lesson in how young people could get along. The time I am speaking about is the period from 1959 to 1962, pretty much before the world would change in terms of, well, everything. During my entire time at the home of the Romans, very little attention was drawn to the differences between cultures.

We studied, played, and learned together. Our social and cultural disparities made little difference to us; we could both celebrate and make fun of those qualities that made us individuals. Sometimes during lunch breaks, some of us would jam into one of the smallish practice rooms and engage in something called a “chop” session, in which no topic was off limits. We could insult each other, trying to outdo the person who said something that today could get you suspended or even expelled from school.

That is just how it was. My, how times and propriety have changed.

If there is one topic that is on the lips of pretty much everyone in the orchestral world, it is the subject of diversity. What was once the exclusive province of white males has been altered dramatically in a surprisingly short period of time. For some, these changes cannot come fast enough, and with that, we have found ourselves in some almost unnavigable waters.

My high school music groups were filled with the same variety of individuals as the whole school. About a mile away, there was Fairfax High, located within a mostly Jewish neighborhood. And to the east, there was Fremont, a predominantly black school. This was only partitioned because of the way the school districts were set up, and if you went to public school, you went to the one closest to where you lived. I was fortunate to have attended the most diverse school of the three.

Travel about five miles to downtown LA, and if you went to Philharmonic Hall, you only saw white musicians on the stage. But go to the sound stages, jazz clubs, and recording studios, and you could find a balance of musicians that looked surprisingly like good old LA High. I would soon learn that the real world was not like this at all. But I was not prepared for the degree of segregation, mostly but not all unintentional, that existed in the orchestral world.

My first taste of this came when I was asked to join the union when I arrived in St. Louis as the assistant conductor. Since I already belonged to Local 47 of the American Federation of Musicians in Los Angeles, it was not necessary for me to be part of the Local in my new home. When the first inquiry was made, I was told that the number that was applied to the union affiliate was 2-197. I did not understand why there was a hyphenated set of digits and received this explanation:

“Because Local 2, the second oldest union in the country, was for white musicians, and Local 197 was the separate union for black musicians.”

Gulp!

I discovered that this was not uncommon in the States, and that it was not until 1953 that segregated locals began to merge, starting with the amalgamation of Locals 47 and 767 in Los Angeles. To this day, I still do not understand why both numbers are still included in some cities. Why not just one, equal union for all?

When I was appointed assistant conductor in 1968, there were just two members of the St. Louis Symphony who were black. That number has not changed by much over the years, and the same is true for most major orchestras. As difficult as it was for women to be hired, the plight of blacks, among other racial minorities, has been even greater. Most of you may not remember the time when only men played in the orchestra, with the occasional exception of a harpist. But at least that barrier came crashing down rather quickly with the dawning of the screened audition.

I have written about this in a previous volume and will not get into the details other than to amplify some of my thoughts. The idea behind the use of the screen was that if no one could see the person auditioning for a position in the orchestra, then there could be no accusation of discrimination. This made perfect sense during the civil rights movement and continued into the equal-rights era. But today, questions are coming up, many that seemingly have no satisfactory answers.

Check out how your orchestra looks onstage at the present time. In many of our top-tier groups, you will see an almost equal number of women performing with their male colleagues. This certainly was not the case even ten years ago. There is no question that the screen has made a difference in this area, considering that the United States has not exactly been the paragon of equality between men and women. After all, there are still twelve states that have not ratified the ERA.

But times have changed. It is my belief that now, very few women would be discriminated against on the basis of their gender in the orchestral world. In a way, the screen now represents a bit of an insult to those who are making the decision as to who will join the orchestra. Do we really believe that today’s musicians cannot come to a fair conclusion because they have seen who is playing?

Perhaps more to the point is that the screen takes away certain parts of the musical experience that musicians will encounter in the actual job. We do not rehearse or perform behind a barrier. Why should we have it there for auditions? Yes, anonymity would be compromised, but usually, one or more members of the orchestra know someone who is coming to audition anyway. I certainly have had moments when I have tried to guess who might be playing, even though there is no paperwork confirming the identity of the person behind the wall.

Here is an example of how much inequity the screen can cause. When there is a wind or percussion vacancy, or even a titled or frozen chair, the people on the audition committee typically include those who are in the section in question. So if you have a vacancy for first flute, and the second flute of the orchestra tries out for the position, the committee automatically knows that this colleague is auditioning. How? Because that person is supposed to be in the hall listening and is not there, so logically the panel assumes that this musician is one of the candidates playing. Add to that the members of the orchestra who are usually advanced straight to the finals, and chances are that most jury personnel can figure out when that particular musician is playing. As trained professionals who have rehearsed and performed together over a number of seasons, they know how their musical colleagues sound.

The same prejudicial matters can arise when a candidate is a student of one of the members of the orchestra. Certainly the teacher will have coached the younger musician through the rigors of the audition and how to best prepare and perform. And what of those players who have served as extras and substitute musicians throughout the years? Everyone knows how they play and act as citizens in the orchestral workforce. Then you have those string players who may have tried four or five times and have failed to make the cut. Magically, one of them finally gets in, but it is all in relation to the others who played on that given day. It is not in the context of their previous efforts. A baseball player who hits .200 is not going to make the team. Add to all that the question of what other industry hires anyone without knowing about their background, and the dilemma becomes even clearer. There is no true fair doctrine, at least in practical terms.

In addition, the anonymity of the candidates leaves us without critical information we should have access to during the audition process. We do not need to know their names or ages, but having a CV listing their work experience would give us important information about how they would contribute to the orchestra. Those who may not have taken an audition in a long time might not be as technically capable as when they began their careers, but their service may prove their potential value to the organization and needs to be taken into account.

For the past several years, the League of American Orchestras has been focusing on how to bring more African Americans into the world of symphonic music. And many orchestras have programs that give the equivalent of scholarships to people of color. In Detroit, one or two musicians can play in the orchestra for two years, but when the fellowship program ends, they get thrown right back into the pack of the jobless.

We can all agree that any musician hired for an orchestra job must meet the requirements of solid musicianship, first and foremost. This can only start with an early introduction and continued study of music, beginning at home and in the schools. Orchestras should do everything in their power to encourage programs that bring this learning to the fore in their communities. With less and less governmental support going to arts education, it is up to the professionals to step in and work hand-in-hand with schools to develop programs that expose children to the sounds of an orchestra and provide musical instruction.

But suppose budding orchestra musicians of color are discouraged because they still feel the stigma of discrimination. Often, when I speak to students of color, they tell me that they have been warned off by some about the prospect of entering the musical workforce with the odds stacked against them. There are no reparations in the music world. We can, however, alter the audition process, just a little, to help ensure the highest quality outcome while encouraging everyone of ability.

Here follows the Slatkin Audition Process (SAP):

All applicants submit their CVs for consideration as has been the usual method.

A round of preliminary judging takes place, either in the form of in-person auditions behind a screen, or through recordings that are listened to by the audition committee. Again, this is the normal route today.

After that, a round of in-person semi-finals takes place, without the presence of the music director. The difference is that the screen is taken down, no matter the number of contestants. Among other factors not discussed above is the right of a candidate to see the space into which he or she will play. I actually find that this is one of the most compelling arguments against the screen. As a listener, I want the performer to feel at ease and know what the hall looks like and how it sounds without a barrier between that person and the jury.

Let’s say that the audition committee boils it down to three or four musicians. Are you ready for the really big change? Here it is: There are no finals in the traditional sense! Instead, each of the persons who passed through the semis is invited to play with the orchestra for four weeks. It does not matter what the position is—we will know in that time whether someone is good enough to become a member of the ensemble. String players can rotate among different chairs so that all the other members of the section have an opportunity to express an opinion based on their proximity to the candidate.

After all the candidates have completed the trial period, the audition committee meets with the music director to present observations and opinions on their qualifications. The final decision is reached between the leader of the section in question and the music director, as it used to be a long time ago. There is no vote, as any judgement in music is subjective and each person brings his or her own personal feelings into the mix.

What many people do not know is that once a musician gets into the orchestra, there is a probationary period, which can last up to a year and a half. During that time, if the player is employed by another orchestra, that person can take a leave of absence, thereby retaining a position in the former ensemble while awaiting a tenure offer. This is unfair to the originating orchestra, as no auditions can be held until a verdict is rendered by the potential new group.

Therefore, I am going to suggest that the tenure period be shortened to four months. After each four-week period, a group of musicians meets with the probationary player to give input and feedback. After that time, a decision is made. We do not need a year and a half for this, as it only delays the situation for the future, should a person decide not to accept the position after that time. We must think about what is good for the orchestra and not just the player who might be coming from another group.

How does this process help in terms of diversity? It seems to me that a decision can be made in favor of a candidate who represents an underserved community if the jury members feel that the player’s musicianship is on par with the others being considered. I am not a fan of affirmative action, but in this case, a tie is broken by the person who brings the potential to inspire other minorities to the stage. The candidate of color contributes added value by bringing the orchestra a step closer to reflecting the diverse community it serves, which will ultimately lead to a stronger and more sustainable organization.

This is not a perfect solution, by any means, but it is a start in encouraging more persons of color not to give up because of the process. In my heart, I truly believe that the days of overt discrimination in the music world are over. There may be personal reasons that one member of a jury does not care for an applicant, but this is almost always counterbalanced by other fair-minded musicians on the committee.

Recently, a group of six black opera stars held a virtual roundtable, much of it focused on the racial tensions and divisions in the United States. Most of them said that they wanted to see persons of color at the head of artistic institutions, thereby setting themselves as role models more connected to the community. What was most striking to me was that all of them agreed that the corporate world had many leaders who were black and wealthy.

That got me to wondering if orchestras might take advantage of this. Currently, everyone has to go through the audition process, and as you have read, I believe there is a different form of discrimination that occurs through this method. But what if a new position were created in the orchestra; not a temporary fellowship, but a permanent appointment reserved for a person of color?

More than likely, the program would start by funding a string player because those are the sections in which we need more equitable distribution of musicians. The audition process would be as outlined above, with the pool of applicants comprising musicians from underrepresented communities. The position would be an ongoing initiative funded by leaders within the black communities and others.

The musicians entering the orchestra through this program would be subject to all the rules and regulations of the total membership. They would go through the same tenure procedure, and once confirmed as full-time members of the orchestra, the jobs would be theirs to keep. When these musicians leave or retire, they would be replaced by another under the same principles that governed the initial entrant. Their annual salary would be paid for by the endowment created for this purpose. In other words, as with some other musicians, their positions would be fully funded.

There is a reason I have not discussed female conductors or composers so far. That is because they are already making significant progress in the field. Orchestras and opera companies are going out of their way to be more inclusive, sometimes to the point of overdoing it. There may come a day when the gentlemen start to complain about discrimination against their gender. Tough. It has been a long, hard road for the ladies. For the next few years, we will see and hear their voices. Time will judge how their artistry will be accepted.

Several female composers see their pieces played on a regular basis today. And they come from all over the world. Their works are performed by the major orchestras and opera companies, still not in the numbers of their male counterparts. Female conductors have yet to make it into the upper echelon by becoming music directors of the top-tier orchestras. That will come soon enough. At least one opera company, San Francisco, has chosen a woman to lead the theater. Hopefully, she and eventually her compatriots will not be seen as women but rather as just conductors. I cannot wait for that day.

share this

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on google
  • Interesting.

    What you are proposing is more in line with the English orchestras where the audition is a more draw out process and involves playing in the orchestra rather than a series of audition rounds.

    The hardest constituency to convince in the issue of diversity are the orchestra members themselves.

    My experience in talking about this topic with top 10 orchestra members are that they feel they have earned their position through hard work, discipline and training.

    Rarely is the topic of opportunity, early childhood, family, and economic privilege addressed or talked about.

    Therefore, the tenured members feel that they are compromising their artistic standards for the sake of moving the diversity ball forward towards the goal line.

    It would be great for ICSOM to create a panel of Black/minority orchestra members (and there are several now – enough to create a very solid panel) to create a set of recommendations that can be used by all member orchestras to create an audition and training ladder that achieves diversity through the traditional steps while making allowances for opportunity.

    In my opinion that would be the place to start.

    • I would be interested to know how the audition procedure works in the English orchestras. During my time with the BBC, I was never asked to participate in the process. It seems to me that one of the prime functions of a music director is to form and mold the sound of his or her orchestra. If that person is not present at the auditions, how can this be accomplished?

      • A new member of an orchestra can potentially be there working with colleagues for 20 or more years. A conductor is very unlikely to be there more than 6 to 8 years.

        • Yes, but there is a constant (hopefully slow) turnover of musicians (via retirement, if nothing else), which enables successive music directors to mold (or mould) the orchestra toward their ideal.

        • … although sometimes an orchestra gets lucky by finding a music director who is not only very good, but also very committed to the long-haul. When that happens it’s a win for everyone — conductor, players, the audience, orchestra management, and the community at large.

          Examples I can think of are MTM’s tenure at the San Francisco Symphony (25 years), JoAnn Falletta in Buffalo (21 years), Robert Spano in Atlanta (19), Franz Welser-Most in Cleveland (18), and Osmo Vanska in Minnesota (17). Several of these tenures are finishing up now, but I think Falletta, Welser-Most and maybe Vanska have no plans to be moving on anytime soon.

      • Dear Mr. Slatkin, I very much appreciate your contribution to this important discussion. I think we all can agree on the idea to become a true musician you must have an inner flame burning. You just need to express yourself through music. So what do we, authors and readers of this blog, altogether do to lighten this flame in YOUNG people, I mean seriously? Is there anything around here young people with diverse backgrounds can identify with, anything making them keen on becoming part of this peer group? If we agree that at least some careers started with a kid’s key moment sitting in a concert audience it’s only logic that as soon as we have really diverse audiences, we will naturally have diverse orchestras (… and it’s far easier to work on diverse audiences – no practicing required!).

      • Dear Maestro, thank you for your comment.

        Please correct me if I am wrong, but it was/is my understanding that the London orchestras use a lengthy process of inviting players to play in the orchestra before awarding a position. I am not sure how one gets invited and if they hold US style open auditions to allow one to “get to first base”. But an open seat, esp for winds and brass, can take years to fill.

        A couple points for me to make in response to your note:

        Given the incredible diversity of London due to the Colonial past of Great Britain, it would seem that the Big Five orchestras of London should be addressing the issue of diversity and inclusion with the same intensity that the US Big Five orchestras are having to now do. London has some of the top music colleges, a vast pool of talented freelancers, and many accomplished teachers.

        It is my understanding that the music directors in London are invited by the Players Committee to conduct but the actual running of the orchestra is done by the administration and the Players Committee. Self governed.

        Boston used this approach while Levine was doing both the Met and the BSO and it seemed to work. Not sure if it is still being used with Nelsons.

        So to your point, yes, the older US model of the music director hiring his (yes his….there were no women) musicians to cultivate a unique sound is in the past. Reiner, Szell, Stokowski/Ormandy, all used this to full advantage to create their “sound”.

        That changed when orchestras went to a musician committee approach for hiring rather than the Old School where a young musician was recommended by a master teacher at Julliard or Curtis and showed up to audition with just the conductor and the personnel manager running the audition.

        But even in the US, using a committee does not allow the music director to build a “sound” in the manner that the Old School was able to do.

        In my mind we have something that this is rather generic and becoming more so each year. I would challenge anyone to play ten recordings of US orchestras and be able to identify the orchestra and bat .500 or above.

        But again, the musicians will not go back to the Old Days and nor should they. What I find so ironic is that in many cases, we have returned to a world where top musicians are invited to private auditions after a cattle call audition is produced to appear “fair”.

        The elephant in the room is what to do with blind auditions, how auditions should be run and who should be invited as we, as an industry, address
        400 years of systemic racism.

        Should we be asking for racial information on a resume?

        Should we either use a curtain until the end (like the MET) or go to no curtain (as you have suggested)?

        Do we compromise quality for diversity and inclusion to make societal progress as a whole?

        These are very hard questions to wrestle with and given that my comment was greeted overwhelmingly by negative opinion only shows that the status quo will be very hard to change especially in an institution like an orchestra where fast change has always been hard to attain due to the very nature of orchestras being a “museum” and a cultural repository of the past.

        By the way, the Chicago Sinfonietta, founded by Paul Freeman, is now in its 26th season, and continues to build momentum. It was founded on the principal of diversity and inclusion and its time has come. It would be wonderful if some of the ICSOM orchestras used the CS as a “minor league” affiliate and used the CS pool of young talented minority musicians to sub with their orchestras. That in itself might lead to permanent positions for these qualified musicians and could be a new model.

      • Dear Leonard. With all due respect, what you are proposing is a system in which a candidate will be chosen on the basis of their skin color and not on ability. That is racial discrimination, pure and simple, and is simply untenable. Besides isn’t it rather arrogant of us to presume that African Americans or other people of color would even be interested in classical music (a historically white European art form) to any significant degree? They have their own art forms that they themselves cultivate and shape as is their right.

        • Nowhere does Mr Slatkin suggest that musicians be chosen “on the basis of their skin color and not on ability.” He explicitly states as a condition that all final candidates display equal talent. In my experience, people of all colors express interest in classical music to a significant degree. Not unanimously, of course; but classical music is a minority interest across the color spectrum.

  • What a thoughtful piece of writing! I hope that orchestral musicians and administrators will be stimulated into productive discussion by it.

  • i disagree with slatkin, but i’m just happy he’s put forth an actual potential plan whose logic and merits can actually be weighed and discussed. i’d much rather someone put a bad idea in front of me than just scream, “DIVERSITY GOOD.” for 500 words.

  • Slatkin has never bought into the Maestro mystique and has always had a realistic, down to earth philosophy about music and performing. He has done a great service to many American composers. In another country he would be considered an important cultural figure.

    His takes on issues like this, or audience applause make a good amount of sense. However it is likely the smaller budget orchestras that take them
    up first.

    The biggest American orchestras already have lost faith in the audition system, but for a different reason.

    • In other countries, Maestro Slatkin would be honored and revered. in the us empire, all they cared about was economic hustling, huckstering, and war mongering imperialism that was cheered on by a monumentally stupid populace.

  • Thank you Maestro, for being such an excellent ally. we need more people in your position to express these views, and suggest changes that need to be made, so we’re not always turning to BIPOC players for advice, who are tired of fighting this fight alone.

    • Their only fight is to play as well or better than others, they are given advantages that no one else gets. Stop inventing problems that are non-existent.

  • Excellent post, Maestro. There’s no question that the entire audition process needs revamping, meaning much more than just hiring more minorities. You’ve addressed that in part. But, going back to the use of screens, I really do think it serves the right purpose, which is to eliminate any chance of discrimination of any kind. (I notice that you haven’t discussed age discrimination.)

    I’ve been in orchestra/arts management since 1984, and have been a card-carrying member of AFM since 1971. In all that time, I have never once heard about a complaint being filed by a minority musician that his/her audition was rigged against them in any way. In other words, that part of the process seems to be working OK. (A few years I managed a non-union orchestra. When we had auditions, I insisted on using a screen, just to be sure that everything was fair and square.)

    The main issue is how do we get young African American kids interested in learning string and wind instrument. (Thanks to an interest in rock, jazz, R & B, etc., brass and percussion seems to be pretty popular.) If the pool of African Americans applying gets larger and larger, it stands to reason that more will be hired.

    The same is true for African American orchestra managers. You and I could both name on a just a few fingers the number who are in the business.

    I’m not sure what “black and wealthy” corporate people has to do with this but do you think that a player hired because he/she is a person of color would feel comfortable in that role? (I write this as a White guy.) No matter how much you told people that he/she went through the exact same audition process, this musician would always be looked at slightly askance. Call that human nature, call it racism. But I think it’s true.

    Let’s get the AFM, ASOL, ICSOM, ROPA, Sphinx Organization, etc. together in the same room and start the conversation.

    • As mentioned in the article, the priority is on musicianship, so gender, race or ethnicity has nothing to do with the end result. But the discussion I watched with the six black singers from the Los Angeles Opera specifically mentioned reaching into the black community for financial support and backing for artists.

    • Well, I experienced discrimination in an audition for the Metropolitan Opera in 1985. Despite its being “blind,” it was obvious who was wearing high-heeled shoes and who was not. The committee was merely looking for excuses not to have to listen to people. One wrong note and I was bounced after playing the most difficult excerpts perfectly. But I was not female, in a profession dominated by females, and I was not the person whose parents had provided enormous financial support and other influence with the Met to ensure that their daughter would get the job. One was was by somehow preventing the retiring harpist from doing any sort of coaching with any other harp students. He was barred by management or by some sort of bribery. Everyone knew about it. And yet, we auditioned on blind faith. So, assuming no discrimination is as bad as assuming it exists, and not recognizing it when it does happen, for discrimination comes in all colors, genders, shapes and sizes. Blind auditions are the best thing that ever happened, when they are truly blind. But I think the best way is for the conductors to do the hiring, except when they make bad choices.

  • So inferior women and minorities (only blacks of course) remain jealous of the talent and accomplishments of others so much so they whine about it…

    • Folks really would have loved living in the old Soviet Union. In that regime nobody was better than anybody else and everybody had a job, but nobody was doing anything.

      Sounds like an ideal solution. You’re heading that way in the USA anyway, after reading Bari Weiss’s resignation letter from the New York Times.

      Controlling thinking and no individual points of view; the DNA of the Soviet Union.

  • Vacuous nonsense. This pathological obsession with “diversity” (i.e. race-obsessed bean-counting) über alles will be the death of culture.

  • “I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”
    —John Cage

    I don’t understand why a conductor like Slatkin would dig-up such meaningless quote, it undermines what he wants to say, which is a serious subject.

    ‘Old ideas’- which ones? The stuffy, reactionary, non-thinking ones which want to cultivate cheap routine? The sloppy ones against which Mahler fought all his life? Or the ‘old ideas’ that were at the basis of great music, including Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin etc.? The old ideas about the nobility of the art form, its spiritual aspirations, its sophisticated, humanist language and structure? Maybe the old idea of ‘musical inspiration’? or of ‘genius’ maybe? Or did Cage mean the ‘old idea’ of tonality and tradition, which has made possible the existing repertoire?

    ‘New Ideas’ – which ones? The breaking-out of the box and replacing music with nonsensical sound art, which is so much easier than music? The idea that Western classical music is worthless and inferior to the traditional musics of other, non-Western cultures? The idea that music is a mere museum culture and be best disposed of? The idea that coincidence can create music?

    The subject of diversity has nothing to do with anything that Cage ever did, maybe except his wide range of mushroom taste.

    Cage was afraid of ‘the old ideas’ because he had no musical talents. He was a superficial charlatan who ate too many mushrooms, of the wrong variety.

    • Wow to say Cage had not talent shows what you know.

      Just listen to his Music for Prepared Piano from the early 30s to learn about the vision this composer had. A true work of genius well before the American Mavericks who came after.

      He also grew to be more of a philosopher than a composer and while mocked and ridiculed, 4’33” is an incredible statement of what constitutes music in the concert hall.

      I bet you think Ives was also a charlatan.

      • Cage’s little prepared piano pieces are nice, but they are nothing more than that, and there is nothing against them. They reflect a very minor mind and don’t offer anything more at repeated listening. His later ‘philosophy’ has nothing to do with music and is of a juvenile level, nice for alcoholic student party conversations late at night but not serious.

        Types like Cage and Ives are a ‘sigh of relief’ for people who are ‘tired of music’ and want something else, like children after a long school day.

        Yes, seen from a point of view informed by the Western musical tradition since Perotinus, Ives was also a charlatan with a minor talent, showing that originality has no relationship with musical understanding or quality.

        http://johnborstlap.com/why-ives-is-not-a-great-composer/

  • What about Asian players, Maestro Slatkin? Are they not a dominant force in American orchestras today? Or are Asians simply easy to categorize as “white” since they are not Black?

    • As you point out, Asian musicians are a very strong contingent of many orchestras in the States. They no longer represent a minority. And these musicians are also among the highest number of students at conservatories and music schools.

  • Elephants in the room – US room that is. Broadening the outlook:

    1) How about the number of Asians hired? Where does this stand in the diversity debate? String sections in several major US orchestras are disproportionally Asian. That is, disproportionate to the rest of the orchestra and to the communities that support the orchestra.

    2) Foreign hires. Are there truly no qualified US nationals? I can name foreign hires requiring visas for all positions from regional orchestra conductors to principal winds and string section players all up and down the spectrum of per service to full salary organizations. Really?

    3) Hiring has never been “fair”. Ask those that have been rejected after final unscreened rounds as a “student of so-and-so who I consider a rival” or “your playing challenges me – you are out” or any other “political” considerations that enter into human interactions. One down vote can be all it takes. And, on the other hand, there are those selected because of their family affiliation or teacher affiliation. Great connections when they work for you.

    4) The biggest elephant – will there even be orchestras post-Covid? Do most in the US even care?

    • 1. Many are Asian-American.
      2. See above
      3 As pointed out in the article, the final decision should rest with the head of the section and the music director.
      4. Who knows? Maybe we cannot have live auditions for quite a while.

      • Re point 1 – what difference if foreign Asian or American Asian? Still an over representation if we are focused on color.

        Point 2 is a different problem in US hiring. In addition to hiring Asian citizens and handing over work visas, orchestras also hire Europeans. In many instances US citizens are not eligible even to audition for positions in the home countries of the foreign hires.

        Point 4 – live or even recorded auditions are the least of the trouble coming for the arts in the US.

        Considering the future and admittedly beyond the scope of your article, have you looked at music ed curriculums? Grunge, rap, pop, hip hop not infrequently take precedence over the classical cannon. World music is presented from the Middle East to Asia to Native American, but Mozart is considered elite and “dead, White, male”. I don’t see that tweeking orchestral audition procedures will counter this lack of respect and exposure given to Western classical music in US schools. You can’t bring in new audiences when no interest is developed in the genre.

  • It has to start in grade school. All children who want to play an instrument should be able to play. In Cleveland, a local foundation, supported by the Cleveland Orchestra, has 3000+ inner city children learning how to play violin, viola, cello and bass. I can’t wait to see the results in 15-20 years. A musical education is priceless. Even if only 1 or 2 professional musicians are produced, all of the remaining students will be blessed with a rounded education and will have an appreciation for classical music.

  • Accusations of bias would fly and lawsuits would become order of the day at auditions. Blind auditions exist for a reason, as do trial period for new members.
    But, we could always just do away with artistic merit altogether and impose racial quotas.
    NFL, MLB, and NBA should go first in America to show everyone how diversity truly makes an organization better!

  • The Nerd York Times launched a full-scale attack on classical music as a whole, and it is anything but insightful or even intelligent. Tommasini’s ideas are ludicrous, and all the featured black musicians are ones who have been extremely successful, which proves there is no race problem in classical music.

  • “The school was in a district that encompassed areas with students representing various racial, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds.”

    And you as a teenage drove your Corvair to school? I don’t think that fits in the pattern. You were much better off than most of your fellow students economically.

      • I think the point is, most kids didn’t have any car at all to drive to school — cheap or no.

        My first car was one I drove to my graduate school out-of-state. It was affectionately known as the Rustmobile. When I left campus I knew it would never be able to make the journey back home (halfway across the country), so I sold it to another student for $100.

        Two years later I received a letter from a friend who had stayed in the area, telling me that my car was still seen around campus, evidently having been sold to yet another student. “That car just will not DIE!”, he wrote.

        That’s the kind of “first wheels” most of us had.

      • You had a Corvair? Really? I’m envious. I liked those cars. I was a kid when they were around, but they were ‘boss’ – as we used to say. Was it truly “unsafe at any speed”? (LOL!)

      • A ’61 Corvair would be a luxury car compared to no car or some that I saw other students with.

        Sorry, but you were privileged.

  • Fair enough. But when will something be done about the gross under-representation of white people in rap and hip-hop?

      • if black people should be a fix quata in clasical music where they are underpresented then white people should get the same positive treatment in fields whete they are under represented anything else is racial discrimination

  • “For the past several years, the League of American Orchestras has been focusing on how to bring more African Americans into the world of symphonic music. And many orchestras have programs that give the equivalent of scholarships to people of color. In Detroit, one or two musicians can play in the orchestra for two years, but when the fellowship program ends, they get thrown right back into the pack of the jobless.”

    OR: they get hired permanently. My own thinking is the way to change this situation is to have more minorities in music education at all levels. This fellowship in a symphony orchestra is an excellent idea.

    I think your suggestions are completely out of line, although I respect your conducting.

      • Maestro, it doesn’t follow that a more diverse orchestra will result in a more diverse public.

        People like classical music or they don’t, regardless of the diversity of the players.

        • There’s plenty of evidence, across a wide variety of disciplines, that seeing “people who look like me” engaged in a discipline is often what triggers a young person even to consider it as a career or life option. That very likely applies to orchestral music, as well.

      • That’s the equivalent of saying there needs to be more “diversity” in synagogue and temple.

        That sure isn’t happening!

      • Don’t most people get their first exposure to classical music by listening to a recording? I know I listened to records for years before I ever went to concerts and I had no idea what the sex or color of the musicians was. For some reason black people don’t have that much interest in classical music. Boston has a large black population and rush tickets are only $10, but there are still very few black people in the audience. If you want to obsess over the diversity issue start by getting black people to like classical music.

  • Thank you for a thoughtful essay. But this should be of value to everyone who wishes to see classical music flourish and thrive. I think it’s great to ask wealthy Blacks to join in the effort, but seeing them as the primary source of support leaves as sour taste.

  • Maestro your ideas should be discussed. To build on “applicants comprising musicians from underrepresented communities”. What needs to be addressed, certainly for string players, is quality of sound that reflects his or her’s instrument. A talented minority player will not get the nod in a toss up if the other owns a marvelous sounding instrument that is richer, deeper and superior. So, with the glut of fine stringed instruments in shops all over this country (which I have seen time and again) I think it is worth discussing Luthiers get pooled into your theory. It has already been done with a few top soloists. I’m not talking Stradivaris now but perhaps it can be done on another level for the purposes in which you have outlined. Just my opinion here but the tenure process should be lengthened from its current 2-year format to 3 years, not shortened to four months which you have outlined. Four months is not long enough to grant a candidate what amounts to a lifelong position. What if a player hides for those first four months, contributes very little, does not get tenure and all they really needed was more time to get comfortable and blossom?

    • One of the reasons for the shorter tenure track is that it is simply not fair to hold a position open for a long period of time. Should either the new musician or the orchestra not grant tenure, the player goes back to their old ensemble and the vacancy continues to exist for several years. And everyone knows if someone is “hiding,” in which case they should not be in the orchestra anyway. There is nothing wrong with pressure.

  • I don’t think the problem lies in the audition process, the problem is that any orchestra will be dependent on who applies. If only 2 non-white candidates present themselves for a position out of a field of 75, then of course the chances of a non-white candidate getting the job is small, unless either of them is the best player, and then no sane person would object to them being offered the job. What are the demographics of music colleges/conservatoires? If non-white people are a small minority there, then of course the field of candidates for orchestral auditions will reflect that. If you want change in this area, the work has to be done at school level. More non-white schoolchildren learning instruments will mean more going into music colleges/conservatoires which in turn will mean more non-white candidates at these auditions which in turn will increase the number of jobs offered. Orchestras do their outreach and education projects, which is all to the good, but then it’s the follow up process that needs looking at. If 20 non-white children, inspired by an education event, wish to take up an instrument, is the system set up to enable that? What if their school has little or no music provision? What if that child’s family cannot afford the lessons? Their interest would soon fizzle out if significant obstacles like these could not be eliminated. This, I believe, is where we should be directing our attention, you need to build from the bottom up, it may not produce instant results, but given time it could produce the results Mr. Slatkin is striving for.

      • We do know who applies. CV’s are part of all applications. They are simply not distributed to the audition committee in a blind (screened) approach.

  • Thanks, Mr Slatkin, for this piece, which has provoked one of the most interesting discussions for a very long time on Slipped Disc. As a Brit I’m intrigued to learn that, as chief conductor, you had no input to player-selection when you were at the BBC – that probably made you feel like nothing more than a permanent guest conductor! If you were happy with the personnel that presumably was fine, but how did it affect your attitude to it as ‘your’ orchestra? (You may not want to answer this in public!)

    • That is correct. The positions in many of the U.K orchestras are only about programming decisions, often not even choosing the guest conductors, and doing more concerts than the others. It was satisfying but not in the usual way being a music director feels.

  • Mr. Slatkin, I see two possible issues with your proposal, neither if which would be too hard to fix. The first is that, if I’m reading you correctly, the audition committee in the end becomes merely a toothless instrument — a courtesy: it’s possible for the section principal and MD to appoint whomever they wish to from among the finalists (though it might be politically unwise to do so if it defied a consensus). The second is that the shortened probationary period leaves no room for second chances. I know of a case in a major US orchestra in which a young player was denied tenure, but the MD thought highly enough of the musician’s potential so that the player was given an extra year and did win tenure in the end, leading to a long and distinguished career in that orchestra.

    And as long as I’m writing here, I want to thank you for your support and encouragement during my student and early-career years at Aspen and afterwards, which meant so much to me and no doubt opened a few doors…

    • One could argue that the auditionees should also have a second chance. Depending on the orchestra, some CBA’s simply have the music director casting one or two votes and the majority decision determines who gets the job. And I know of a recent audition where exactly the reverse of what you mention took place.

      There is no reason, that after the four month period is over, that there could be a request from the musicians or music director to extend that time another month or two.

  • “Diversifying” a classical orchestra should not be an end in itself. “Diversification” has no intrinsic value.

  • No audition procedure is perfect, but “blind” kind is the best solution available. Long “trial” periods as final rounds are simply unrealistic. Efforts should be directed toward improving education, not on tinkering with hiring – certainly not on creating racial quotas.

    • Absolutely regarding education, from the earliest age on. But that is another subject. There is no perfect solution for this dilemma but one has to start somewhere in this new world in which we live.

      • With all due respect, Leonard, education is not “another” subject – it is the only (or at least the main) subject. If we “have to start somewhere” regarding the hiring process, it would be by trying to improve it – not by dismantling (or at least undermining) the best feature of it which is using a screen during auditioning in order to minimize any possibility of discrimination. Including trial periods of several weeks playing with the orchestra sounds nice in ideal world, but is in most major orchestra cases completely unrealistic in real life.

      • I think it’s an important factor, though. A dearth of applicants of color could stem from a lack of opportunity. The mostly white kids in our local youth orchestra study privately with teachers and I wonder how many students of color don’t have that option due to cost.

        Having more students of color who receive the best training would, I’d think, result in.a few more at the pro level competing for jobs.

        Having said all this, I don’t think we’ll ever see orchestras heavily populated with African American performers. As a group, they constitute 10-15% of the population. Women, on the other hand, constitute half or more of the population. So if an orchestra has only 15% of musicians who are African American, that just may be par for the course.

        • Supporting education starting from early age, based on economic needs – yes, absolutely. Discriminating in hiring based on race – absolutely not, because that is precisely what perpetuates and in fact increases racist attitudes.

  • Brilliant, Leonard; well thought out and very cogently presented. This is a tough conceptual area, and your approach is certainly a splendid starting point. Let’s see what ICSOM (does it still exist?) can do with it.

  • Years ago, just before I left the Montreal Symphony, a fine young man, Charles, became a new member of cello section. He was polite and well- spoken, played well and got along well with everyone. As far as I was aware, Charles was simply another contributing member of the orchestra’s very fine cello section, a section of 10 excellent players. He was from the US Midwest somewhere, and incidentally Charles was black.
    One day he was not in the section. He simply disappeared. As near as I can discover — and I liked Charles — he had gotten stoned and climbed on stage during a recital of Janos Starker (as I remember it). embarrassing himself and, presumably, the orchestra. All I know is that I was sad that a fine player and a good guy was lost to the orchestra and to the music we made. And to himself.
    What is the lesson in this? Human life is complex, and guidelines for our formal associations must be made with humanity and flexibility. It is too easy to protest, argue, and fight; and inevitably to spoil what could be lasting and beautiful.

  • This all interesting and something to consider, EXCEPT the last suggestion. How can you legally suggest that there be a job posting for a permanent and tenured position that is only open to one or two races! That is a clear violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act:
    Prohibits discrimination in hiring, compensation, and terms, conditions, or priveleges of employment based on race, religion, color, sex, or national origin.

    I’m all for Fellowships, etc. but saying to the world “Now hiring: Blacks Only!” is a scary proposition that would surely backfire and lead to lawsuits. There are some string sections in some orchestras that have almost zero white males any more either, could you even imagine the backlash of a “white only” audition?! It’s insane and I hope you delete that from your upcoming book. It would also lower the perception of anyone in that chair as a “token” musician that was only selected based on race. nobody wants that!

    • All manners of businesses have programs for hiring minorities and I see no reason that the arts cannot do the same. My proposal is creating a position over and above the contractual norm. I understand what you are saying, and my thoughts about this have changed over the years. The culture is different and I believe we must at least try to encourage all people to enter our workplace.

      • Maybe you‘d like to „hire“ minority audiences then as well. Or better start „affirmative action“ yourself first, for example move into a „minority‘s“ country. And then it might dawn on you that the endangered minority in this world is all you are and represent.

      • I completely agree that we need to do everything that we can to encourage minorities to join orchestras and have careers in music. But creating a tenured position that only accepts black or black/latino applicants is in itself a violation of the Civil Rights Act and illegal. I can’t imagine the backlash it would create if an orchestra tried it and honestly I’m not sure it is a position even supported by black musicians. What we CAN do is support Fellowship programs, allow fellows to compete from later rounds in regular auditions, partner with organizations like Sphinx to help highly talented musicians find opportunities for professional training and make auditions accessible. I think it’s important to do community outreach and working with minority communities with children at young ages to give them access to music and orchestras. Also encouraging the hiring of black/latino guest artists and compositions, etc. Your last comment about creating a permanent position for blacks only is something I very much hope you backtrack on publicly. It is a non-starter with even the most progressive of orchestras and unions and could lead to lawsuits for discrimination. Ultimately I think it will hurt the cause!

  • Thanks Maestro Slatkin for a thoughtful post and a sensible ‘Slatkin Audition Process’. I can see it work well under certain circumstances.

    Audition process is a chronically controversial issue. It’s difficult to create a system that is fair to ‘all’. Any audition process enforced by a master agreement needs to have some breathing room.

    From a musical perspective one problem I see in replacing the finals with a 4-week playing with the orchestra experience. That 4-week experiment can be an artistically difficult period within a small section – regardless of the quality of semi-finalists. Will all orchestras be able to weather the luxury of such a long period of difficulty and indecision?  

    At the end I think it’s best that every orchestra create their own process within their own ‘village’ that fits their own artistic needs, their own community’s social conditions and the immediate circumstances of the particular vacancy.

    Regarding use of screens – I still think it’s best to use them for the preliminaries. Finals need to be without a screen as there are a lot of things to be evaluated there.

    • Don’t forget that the audition process continues well after the 4-week period with a four month tenure track review process. So we are really talking about almost half a year, with a possibility that the latter be extended if no conclusion is reached.

  • I wonder if Barry Tuckwell would have ever gotten the position of 3rd Horn with the Melbourne symphony at age 15 using the criteria below?

    In addition, the anonymity of the candidates leaves us without critical information we should have access to during the audition process. We do not need to know their names or ages, but having a CV listing their work experience would give us important information about how they would contribute to the orchestra. Those who may not have taken an audition in a long time might not be as technically capable as when they began their careers, but their service may prove their potential value to the organization and needs to be taken into account.

  • Again with this?
    I am still struggling with how society in general wishes to constantly compromise itself. Board members, and executives have been dismantling orchestras…sorry, demoralizing orchestras for quite awhile now. Fire all of the conductors!! There are so many clowns out there that position themselves in a place that is utterly selfish. I am glad I got to rock Sibelius 5 with you Leo, and much respect for catching me taking some notes down the octave.
    We need a real solution. Not this disgusting “everyone participated” award. Though I have not been able to attend any of the MET Opera auditions, someone was hired every time, blindly, and the band is what you would deem “diverse” and one of the best.

    Auditions in Germany:
    Basically ageism. If you are over 30, don’t expect an invitation. At least they don’t let people continue to play past the age of 64!

    Auditions in Canada:
    Pretty much like what you would see at the MET different laws. Complete anonymity!

    Jobs in Great Brittan:
    No security. Hustle.

    I have a solution. We have to cultivate. Grow things early on. Nothing good will ever come of putting a stranglehold on anything that has some tread on it.

    • Re Germany:

      We had an audition recently in my section in a German orchestra. The invited candidates were female, male, German, from all parts of Europe as well as several Asian countries, Australian and aged between 21 (the youngest applicant) and in their 50’s (the oldest applicant).

      I don’t think any professional orchestra can afford to not invite the best.

      Also, I will retire at 67.

      • I forgot to mention a South American candidate was also invited.

        And the penultimate sentence should perhaps have ended: […] to not invite the most qualified and hire the best – regardless of age, skin colour or other such non-musical deliberations.

        Of course, I hope to retire (as a musician) at 67, the current legal retirement age in Germany.
        Nothing should be taken for granted in the current situation.

  • Considering how many female and Asian (or Asian American) players have been hired over the years, the “blind” audition process seems to be working just fine.
    The only way to hire more African American musicians is to increase the number applying which, of course, means getting more African American youngsters interested in playing classical music at an early age.

  • The mind is shocked about so much intellectual and emotional shortsightedness as in the NY Times article.

    First they said let’s have blind auditions to overcome racial biases. That didn’t work.
    Now they say let’s do away with blind auditions to overcome racial biases.
    That will not work either.

    What idiocy.

    Is it so hard to see: you can not change this in the middle of a long chain. When young musicians apply for orchestra positions, they have about 10 to 20 years of very hard work toward that milestone behind them.

    You simply can not, in a fair society, then discriminate for or against anyone, except for qualification and excellence in the job.

    If you want to have more people from “challenged” backgrounds do the hard work and learn a classical instrument, and perfect it to the level where it is good enough for a top orchestra job, you only can do it by supporting them at the beginning of the chain.

    Anything else is tyranny of a racial profiling ideology.
    Or ‘reverse discrimination’ as they also call it today.

    Action and reaction. Cause and effect. Really, people. That’s so basic. Learn the difference between them.

    And at the end of the day: there simply ARE differences in what people from different backgrounds are interested in. Black people are not as interested statistically in classical music as a group as white people or Asians. That does not mean that white people discriminate against black people.
    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

    What idiocy. Sad.

    • Well said Tamino. Interesting, is it not, that no serious effort or discussion takes place about diversifying the NBA, NFL or MLB. The owners and fans know implicitly what that would mean to the quality of the product. Teams, and orchestras, will be riven with strife and disaffection.

  • These things need to be addressed and are never easy.

    “The next time you are certain of your position on affirmative action, think of Richard Robinson. Robinson is the double bassist recently hired by the Detroit Symphony — the first black musician hired by the 98-member orchestra in 14 years. His addition doubles the number of black musicians — to two. But Robinson wasn’t hired through the normal audition process. He landed his job after several black members of the Michigan legislature withheld nearly $1.3 million in public funding for the orchestra and threatened to organize boycotts of its concerts unless it hired more black musicians. It is a stark case of affirmative action. But is it a good thing, long overdue in a city that is some 60 percent black? Or is does it constitute unwarranted interference in a talent-based selection process, interference that threatens the artistic integrity of a fine orchestra? Darwin Apple, a black violinist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, was outraged at “the intrusion of politics into an area where legislators are ignorant.” Other musicians and orchestra managers, white and black, were equally offended. Even Robinson has his misgivings. “I would rather have auditioned like everybody else,” he said, according to a recent report in The New York Times, from which these facts are taken. “Somehow this devalues the audition and worth of every other player.” ”

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/opinions/1989/03/08/the-hiring-of-richard-robinson/d84b3ef6-ad93-4045-9aa4-19e19016f0f8/

    • Let’s remember that if you asked all the members of any orchestra (not just the DSO but ANY orchestra) to reaudition in an open audition, on the day of the first rehearsal, you would have a very different orchestra.

      If the institution is relying on government funding that is in large part a redistribution of taxes paid by the local public, then yes, it should be expected that the institution show progress with regards to diversity and inclusion. That would be expected for a contract for paving a city road or building a bridge

      It is very unfortunate that Mr Robinson has been put in this position of having to defend or make peace with the politically correct who believe that affirmative action type appointments somehow diminish the accomplishments of the appointee. They don’t. He deserves his spot and most likely plays better than many of the older players who surround him.

      As others have mentioned on this thread, there are far bigger issues that the industry needs to address including relevancy, the Covid 19 crisis (which could wipe out many of our orchestras), and technology which allows the past to compete successfully with the present via streaming and downloads.

      • “If the institution is relying on government funding that is in large part a redistribution of taxes paid by the local public, then yes, it should be expected that the institution show progress with regards to diversity and inclusion.”

        That doesn’t make sense.
        One would want to have the very best orchestra for ones tax dollars, no more and no less. Spending tax dollars on showcases of faux equality are actually a waste of public resources.

        The investment for equal opportunity should go toward the initiating stages of a musical career. To children learning an instrument, to encouraging and finding talent and spark the fire.

  • Dear Maestro,

    I admire your plunge into this unrewarding subject. Here are a few elephants which darkened my view:

    1. Orchestral classical performance, as an industry, is dying; the chances of secure employment at middle-class rates of pay are low and getting lower every day — witness the many who might have carved out a life in music, but chose law or some such, for the financial security and now indulge their love of performance at a high level, as a passionate hobby.

    2. The chips required at this career roulette table include a great many of the waking hours of childhood and youth, plus out-sized contributions of time and money from parents — all of this socially and musically outside of the contemporary mainstream (aka pop), which features both the fresh music and huge audiences foreign to classical. It must be hard enough attracting musical kids born into the classical world. (The publisher of this site, if I understand him, believes that westerners in western orchestras will be replaced by aspiring Chinese immigrants, now being trained in China in huge numbers and willing to work for less.)

    3. How much harder will it be to attract young people from outside of the classical tradition? Into all the years of striving? And if you succeed at luring any into training, are you doing them a favor?

    4. Is all this more about appearances, and fear of being called out, than anything else?

    One thing that men have above women, and maybe always will, is sharper elbows. Their withdrawal from this shrinking industry I think helped women flood in once the barriers of discrimination were removed; ditto the entry of women into mainstream Christian priesthoods once the power of those positions went away.

    What can you propose to tempt the new blood you want into the orchestra?

    I hope this challenge will be useful, not merely provocative. I can send, if you’d like (to Leslie Karr) my line editing of your draft (sense unchanged) which I think would be more forceful in fewer words.

    PS: You might want to take on the unfair advantage had by very good-looking people, now free to shine under your scheme.

  • Checking some sort of “diversity list” when hiring musicians would take the hiring focus away from which applicants possess the most desirable musicianship and skill. Despite Mr. Slatkin’s attempts to persuade that the reality would be otherwise – that musical standards could be upheld while increasing the “diversity” or orchestra personnel – I highly doubt that is how it would work in practice, even if the practice were initiated with the best of intentions.

  • Maestro Slatkin is a national treasure. He and his family have added much to the cultural life of this country. Hats off to him and them. The Maestro is a gifted and talented musician, cares deeply about this country, even though he drove a Corvair as a high school student (this was doubtlessly pre-Nader).

    At the same time, I dispute many of his ideas here; which he himself indicates are just a means for providing a discussion.

    That means, to me at least, there is no correct answer. I think the “blind” audition is the best kind, and that conductors should be the “first among equals” in making the choice of replacements for musicians; neither race nor sex should be a consideration. Talent should be the most important consideration. Don’t forget that many Blacks, Asians and women are extremely gifted musicians and given a chance, they will succeed. The Asians have already made it but still need support.

  • Very astute article from an experienced conductor. But there’s something referenced near the top of the article which bears closer examination – namely, the subject of musical education in public schools. Music education was decimated in American public schools beginning in the 1980s with the poorly advised “back to basics” movement promulgated under Ronald Reagan, who ran in 1980 on a pledge to abolish the Department of Education. It was not abolished but Federal funding to public education was severely cut so that extracurricular programs suffered – especially in poorer districts. In relatively short order, only richer public school districts (along with private schools) offered music education as part of the basic curriculum – so music education was skewed toward white, and later Asian students. And here we are.

  • “… if you went to Philharmonic Hall, you only saw white musicians on the stage. But go to the sound stages, jazz clubs, and recording studios, and you could find a balance of musicians that looked surprisingly like good old LA High.”

    1) Saying that there are phenomenal jazz and studio musicians of color does not suggest in any way that these incredibly communicative and talented artists would be adequate in a symphonic setting.
    2) There are great jazz players who don’t read music but have an incredible “ear.” Try that with classical music!
    3) There are studio musicians who can sight-read absolutely anything, which is a great attribute in the time-efficient forum of a recording session, but less crucial when players know the repertoire in advance and are tasked with searching deeper than what is attainable on efficient first-readings.

    “It seems to me that a decision can be made in favor of a candidate who represents an underserved community if the jury members feel that the player’s musicianship is on par with the others being considered. I am not a fan of affirmative action, but in this case, a tie is broken by the person who brings the potential to inspire other minorities to the stage. The candidate of color contributes added value by bringing the orchestra a step closer to reflecting the diverse community it serves …”

    1) There is no such a thing as a “tie” in musical evaluations. That only occurs when adjudicators lack the perseverance to delve further into the nuances of what they have heard.
    2) This would only make a virtually imperceptible change over a very, very long period of time, and fail to satisfy the sense of urgency (impatience) in our “what do we want — equality of numbers, when do we want it — NOW!” current climate.

    “It is my belief that now, very few women would be discriminated against on the basis of their gender in the orchestral world. In a way, the screen now represents a bit of an insult to those who are making the decision as to who will join the orchestra. Do we really believe that today’s musicians cannot come to a fair conclusion because they have seen who is playing?’

    Yes!
    1) Committees carry very noticeable musical biases for (or against) a musician whom they already know (about whom they have a prior opinion) versus players they are hearing for the first time who are denied any advance first-step towards acceptance (that could have shown attributes not demonstrable during the audition).
    2) Prior personal interactions (e.g., teacher-student relationships) are abundant and infamous sources of bias within the profession.
    3) In 38 years of orchestral life, I have never seen or heard about an occasion when a person of color was hindered from receiving full and equitable evaluation with regard to orchestral employment. I cannot, however, say the same thing about female candidates, for whom the ability to audition behind a screen has resulted in far greater success and rapidly increased their representation in orchestras.

    Enough, already. There is very, very much that must be repaired in the dismal state of human inequality and discrimination. Let us focus on actual injustice without diluting our attention and efforts by chasing after the visual over the substantive.

    • @Daphnis — In support of your very first point is (or was, on YT) a fascinating documentary on the making of the 1992 album “Baroque Duet”. Wynton Marsalis discovers he hasn’t the lip for it and is rushing off to teachers between sessions, as is Battle. He says he finds classical — or at least Baroque — performance much harder than jazz (of which there’s plenty in this movie).

  • The blind audition process should remain in place, it brings the best instrumentalists available for the position into the orchestra. It is fair and it is just if it is handled correctly. If it is taken away and ethnicity is inserted, it will bring resentment towards the new musician by other members of the orchestra and the other candidates who try out for positions. If you want to have a situation like Fritz Reiner had in Chicago, where many of the members of the orchestra sat next to one another and did not speak to one another for years, insert race into the mix and you will have a problem on your hands. No one should have a problem with an above board blind audition process.

    • The dysfunction of the CSO in terms of some of the positions you casually refer to (oboe/flute) (trombone/bass trombone) under the Reiner era had nothing to do with race but more to do with outsized egos.

      To imply that a musician would be ostracized for winning the audition through a means of both auditioning, interviews, and affirmative action type measures, is totally wrong.

      Of all the orchestra I have been involved in (including the one you have referenced), I cannot think of anyone who would resort to this type of behavior due to race.

  • Racism in and of itself is a huge problem in the US and I certainly do not want to minimize it here.

    However I believe that the real obstacle to diversity is something that was only lightly touched on by a few of the bloggers.

    That obstacle is the HUGE investment that parents have to make in their children from a very young age in terms of many, many hours of private lessons, camps, instruments, travel, lost wages in part time jobs with older kids, supervising practicing (requires a parent or equivalent who is at home in the afternoon) and the very expensive tuition in prestigious private high school and college level conservatories

    A couple of more music appreciation classes, field trips to the local classical orchestra, playing in the school orchestra with no opportunity for private lessons, a music major in a state college, or a scholarship or fellowship, are just insufficient nowadays to get someone into a professional classical music orchestra.

    The kid whose parents were unable to make the financial commitment to give their kid the advantages listed above is just out of luck regardless off his/her race.

    Of course it is mainly whites and Asians who have the economic means to provide these advantages in the United States, not Blacks nor Hispanics.

    Incidentally, the same is true in government service . To get into the higher levels or even the mid levels of government in Washington requires graduation from a prestigious, generally private, undergraduate and graduate college, paid for of course by parents, and then AT LEAST one year as an unpaid intern in the office of a government agency or a Congressman, with one’s living expenses, of course, also paid for by parents.

    My point is that the lack of racial diversity in professional orchestras is just a reflection of the ECONOMIC inequality that certain minorities face and reflects very serious structural inequality in US society

    I am ambivalent about affirmative action but if we could somehow make the FULL economic investment, including the thousands of hours of private lessons, camps, travel, conservatories etc. required to win the audition, affirmative action policies probably would not be necessary.

    • Your exaggeration of the facts is part of the problem Sharon.

      In America, one can legally immigrate here and have any sort of life and level of success they choose with hard work and determination.

      Proof of this is in the number of people from lesser nations who flee in order to seek a better life. They always look to the USA and no where else. If so Sharon, what other countries?

      Further, black people enjoy exponential success in America. Many are interested in RAP music. You see them surrounded by money and expensive THINGS in their videos constantly. You also see photos of their huge houses in exclusive neighborhoods featured in the media along with the high end cars, jewelry, etc they amass with their earnings. They can only accomplish these heights in the USA and flash their lifestyles to embolden themselves 24/7.

      No, blacks (mostly with no education and criminal records) are doing great!

      • Conservative media flaunt the relatively few Blacks that are doing very well to prove the point that you are trying to make, “Only in America” but on any economic indicator that you wish to member Black people as an ethnic group as a whole do worse than whites or Asians in the US.

        Immigration to the US has become EXCEEDINGLY difficult and those who do so legally have to wait MANY years. Even getting temporary work visas to play or tour has become very difficult in many cases. Many arts organizations that are involved with international touring have an employee who spends a large part of his/her time dealing with visa issues.

  • “Do we really believe that today’s musicians cannot come to a fair conclusion because they have seen who is playing?”

    Absolutely. As one of “todays musicians” who has served on many audition commitees I know of instances where commitee members, even with a screen up, were able to recognize the playing of their student, girlfriend, boyfriend, sibling,or someone THEY wanted to win, and use all manner of undue influence to try to persuade other commitee members to vote for candidate x. If that person is a principal or titled player, which is typically so because auditionees seek them out prior to auditions to play for them and get advice and help, they may hold subtle forms of power and persuasion over other members of the commitee. The prize of winning a major symphony audition is too great and the difficulty for any one person to win is daunting. Pure objectivity is very difficult.
    Corruption and influence does and will step in, and removing screens with an agenda towards increasing diversity will be like throwing gasoline on the fire. Screens and vigilence are absoluely necessary to keep auditions as fair as possible.

    That said, I have never seen anyone who wins an audition behind a screen ever discriminated against because of their race and denied a job. Anyone who can pull off a winning audition earns the admiration and respect of the commitee – excellence trumps race every time. But race should never trump excellence.

    Successful orchestra musicians and auditionees embark on their journey at a very early age and spend their childhood diligently learning those skills. That is a point at which diversity needs to be addressed. No matter one’s race, it is nearly impossible to compete against someone who started training as a violinist at age 4 with exceptional teachers. Someone who picks up violin in middle school and learns to play from that school’s orchestra director is very unlikely ever to win a major symphony spot.

  • I was less impressed with Tommasini’s piece. He wrote, “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… A typical orchestral audition might end up attracting dozens of people who are essentially indistinguishable in their musicianship and technique.” This is simply not true.

    Ask anyone? Nobody asked me, and I have first-hand knowledge on the subject as a violist in the Chicago Symphony. We have had an opening for Principal Viola in the CSO for a couple of years now, and I am on the audition committee. We have gone through two complete rounds of auditions–prelims, semis, and finals. We have heard well over 100 applicants. We have even tested a couple of the candidates by having them serve as our principal in concert. We still haven’t found someone we feel comfortable giving the job to, and will start at square one with new auditions when the pandemic allows. Indeed, most CSO auditions fail to fill an opening. Yes, a lot of players are technically nearly flawless, but it denigrates every orchestral musician to judge us merely on the basis of speed and accuracy. That is how you evaluate stenographers; it is certainly not what we are looking for in Chicago.

    I very much wish that the problem was too many qualified candidates and a committee faced with a more-or-less random decision of which of the essentially identical candidates to choose; it is not exactly my idea of a fun time to sit for hours and days at a stretch listening to one violist after another play the Bartok Concerto and Strauss excerpts, and we all dread having to repeat the whole procedure in a Sisyphean manner. His thesis is utter fantasy.

    • A principal position is very different than a Rank and File string player who sits in front of the Mighty Chicago Brass section.

      Towards the back of the violas, my guess is that, according to OSHA rules, management should provide a hard hat.

      In all seriousness, it would be that section positions would be the place to start with some sort of diversity and inclusion actions while reserving the principal positions to be filled through competitive auditions.

      Eventually through training, experience and opportunity, the principal positions will be filled by qualified minority applicants.

  • “When there is a wind or percussion vacancy, or even a titled or frozen chair, the people on the audition committee typically include those who are in the section in question. So if you have a vacancy for first flute, and the second flute of the orchestra tries out for the position, the committee automatically knows that this colleague is auditioning. How? Because that person is supposed to be in the hall listening and is not there, so logically the panel assumes that this musician is one of the candidates playing. Add to that the members of the orchestra who are usually advanced straight to the finals, and chances are that most jury personnel can figure out when that particular musician is playing.”
    I have been in exactly this situation in many auditions for titled and principal chairs, serving on the audition committee. I have never, not once, been able to identify one of my colleagues from behind the screen. I find that this debate is marred continually by people who have never played in a professional orchestra stating with blithe confidence things that are simply not true.

  • Easy fix: revive Phil Spitalny’s All Girl Orchestra with Evelyn and Her Magic Violin, mainstays of classical AM radio in the middle to late 1940s. To each of life’s problems there is an answer that is simple, easy, and wrong.

  • It has been a pleasure to have watched you conduct on a number of occasions with multiple orchestras, from the St. Louis Symphony to the New York Philharmonic to the Interlochen Orchestra, and to have met you once.

    Concerning your prefatory remarks, one detail jumped off of the page:

    “My high school music groups were filled with the same variety of individuals as the whole school. About a mile away, there was Fairfax High, located within a mostly Jewish neighborhood. And to the east, there was Fremont, a predominantly black school. This was only partitioned because of the way the school districts were set up, and if you went to public school, you went to the one closest to where you lived. I was fortunate to have attended the most diverse school of the three.”

    If you look deeper into why the schools were partitioned in that way, and why the neighborhoods existed in that way, you likely would see redlining as the proximate cause.

    This is a microcosm of the issue before us: people who are not racists, trying to overcome structural racism, to help rectify in equitable ways the diversity issues in our beloved art form.

    I applaud you for taking a stab at this thorny topic.

  • >