Why won’t ‘hideously white’ BBC accept blind auditions?

Why won’t ‘hideously white’ BBC accept blind auditions?


norman lebrecht

August 31, 2020

It is almost two decades since Greg Dyke, the last D-G but four, described the BBC as ‘hideously white’. Since then, not much has changed by way of internal procedures.

We have confirmed with musicians that, contrary to global practice, the BBC Symphony has refused to allow potential new players to audition behind a screen. In the absence of screen protection, like chooses like and the BBC Symphony remains as it is.

Along with most leading orchestras even the Vienna Philharmonic, pictured below, now uses screens.

But the BBC remains stuck myopically in  the last century.

A new D-G starts today. Will he do anything about it?


  • Paul Dawson says:

    Not only are blind auditions the right way to operate, but they also are a public demonstration of a desire to move away from ‘hideously white.’ So, win-win.

    • Ned says:

      It can be argued panellists need both to see and hear a candidate play. Also, a screen is a barrier which ultimately restricts communication between performer and audience. Personally I trust musicians to give trials and jobs to the best players and doubt screens have any affect on the outcome of auditions.

      • Bruce says:

        Personally I trust musicians to give trials and jobs to the best players and doubt screens have any affect on the outcome of auditions.

        You would be mistaken there. I trust musicians (of which I am one) to have the best of intentions, but we are just as susceptible to unconscious bias as much as anyone else, where something about a person is a turn-off (I don’t just mean in a sexual sense): it has nothing to do with their playing, but you tell yourself something like they wouldn’t be a “good fit,” or they “don’t understand our style/ traditions,” etc. Your reasoning doesn’t have to stand up to close examination; it just has to be good enough to soothe your conscience, so you can tell yourself you are being fair.

        Blind auditions at least start applicants out on an equal footing. Then, if your winner turns out to be middle-aged, overweight, black, or whatever, the trial period is when they have a chance to prove that they can do the job (as opposed to just winning the audition, which is a big deal but isn’t everything). It also gives the committee the chance to check for their own unconscious biases and work against them, if they wish.

      • Ton_D says:

        @Ned, there is a lot of politics within the (classical) music world, and especially orchestras. Also, you are playing alone during an audition, so the type of communication is very different to a symphonic situation.

      • Jerome Hoberman says:

        All one needs to refute your argument is to study the history of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which now uses a screen for all rounds of its auditions (including finals) and requires that an appointment must be made at the end of every audition process.

    • Goeff says:

      The use of the phrase ‘hideously white’ is near disgusting.
      You don’t hear me say ‘hideously multiculural’, so stop ranking and harping on things; where free choice can still reign.
      There is no REQUIREMENT to employ musicians, based on some leftist view of “we need every creed, race and colour in our orchestra”.
      That’s not free choice. That’s stipulation according to maximal “racial entropy”!
      Free choice means: the founders of the orchestra are free to choose.

      If some want a traditional British orchestra, there’s nothing wrong with that.

      • doofus1714 says:

        dear Goeff,
        what in the hell is a “traditional British orchestra”?
        by your comments, it is clear you are a fool and a bit of a bigot….but 2 people gave you a thumbs-up, so that is encouraging to your kind I suppose.

    • Sheldon Meier says:

      Anybody who believes the HIGHLY OFFENSIVE “hideously white” comment is a XENOPHOBE!!!!!!

      You want more diversity instead of merit? Stop using all of the dead, white composers as benchmarks. Use all of the alternative deceased composers instead. See how fast you get “change” then and if anybody shows up.

      Hatred and violence against white people as a group (which includes Jews for the uninformed masses) reflects on YOUR inadequacies. If you don’t like it, MOVE to a country that aligns with your vague values and see how THEY treat you. Don’t see snowflakes renouncing their citizenships to seek asylum elsewhere…DO YOU???

  • Una says:

    My audition to get into the BBC Singers was blind in 1977! But then they had my name, and blatantly obvious even by its pronunciation and mispronounced by May Ernglish, of Irish descent!!

  • Sam McElroy says:

    Meanwhile in New York, they want blind auditions banned because they are too fair – they keep selecting the best musicians, and have failed to engineer the non-music-related, arbitrary outcomes preferred by the social engineers who insisted on them in the first place. You can’t have it both ways. You either go blind and let the chips fall as they may, or abolish meritocracy altogether by imposing arbitrary quotas and diminishing musical standards. The problem then arises when an infinite number of arbitrary groups then claim under-representation, citing criteria that include, but are not limited to, skin color, age, gender, socio-economic class, sexuality and religion. And infinite combinations thereof. Let’s, rather, focus on resurrecting the good old days of music in schools and communities (pull a copy of “Brassed Off” from the old DVD library if you need reminding!) so everyone gets an opportunity to rise to the top. The chances are that our orchestras will eventually, naturally begin to look like the society that formed them. Forced outcomes, after all, are inherently autocratic and carry their own form of injustice.

    All that presumes we survive the more pressing problem of Covid which, I’m sure, is of far greater concern to all musicians right now than the insanity of identity politics.

    • John Rook says:

      Excellent post.

    • Sisko24 says:

      The only person I’ve heard or read who wanted blind auditions banned is one music critic from The New York Times. I haven’t heard about any orchestra, opera house or ballet moving to scrap blind auditions…and for good reasons. One of those reasons is that blind auditions makes it more likely that racial, gender, age and other forms of prejudice are not allowed in those auditions, but also that favoritism on the part of the jury isn’t allowed to color their decision.

      • NoName says:

        You haven’t heard about it because companies simply have to, they lose vital funding if they don’t offer equal opportunities

    • V. Lind says:

      Utterly agree.

      And I adore “Brassed Off” — one of my favourite movies of all time.

    • Le Křenek du jour says:

      Perfectly said. Thank you.

      I do however think that describing the ideologically mired, klutzy nudniks who throw around their weight in fashionable circles, as ´social engineers’, is unwarranted.

      ‘Social engineering’ is a grown-up thing, a social democratic concept, a responsible and reversible method, answerable to scrutiny and results and modifiable accordingly.

      It demands hard knowledge and rational calculation.

      **It has an obstinate will to erode by inches the conditions which produce avoidable suffering, oppression, hunger, wars, racial and national hatred, insatiable greed and vindictive envy, yet it is aware of the narrow limits within which this struggle is being waged, limits imposed by the natural framework of human existence, by innumerable historical accidents, and by various forces that have shaped for centuries today’s social institutions.**

      The above are not my words, but those of Leszek Kołakowski, the Polish philosopher who has written perhaps the most devastating critique of Marxism — and yet Kołakowski understood, maybe for that very reason, the ultimate nature, aim, and method of the social democratic endeavour.
      (——Source: Leszek Kołakowski, ”The Social Democratic Challenge” (1978))

    • Bruce says:

      Keep in mind, when you say “they” want to abolish blind auditions, you mean that one critic who wrote that one column. Some people agree with him, some don’t, but he’s the primary source.

      As for the Philharmonic itself, someone can always read https://nyphil.org/about-us/general-information/commitment-to-change as an announcement of intention to hire only black people regardless of qualifications, if that’s where their mind leads them. Nothing to be done about that.

    • MacroV says:

      You do realize that most U.S. orchestras don’t actually do blind auditions, despite all the railing against Anthony Tommasini last month? At least not for finals, and not for principal positions. But I do agree “Brassed Off” is a terrific film.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I take great heart in the fact that a number of people have voted positively for this comment and that there still remain intelligent and reasonable people like yourself out there, making the comments.

      Hope springs eternal.

    • Jerome Hoberman says:

      “They,” meaning Anthony Tommasini? Most of the U.S. music world reacted strongly against his NY Times screed.

      • Sam McElroy says:

        Good point. By “they” I meant the constituency represented by Mr. Tommasini. Journalists tend to represent not only their own personal view, but what they consider to be a prevailing view, or at least a view that, once expressed, stands a chance of gaining popular traction. Hence my conscious pluralization.

    • Haydn70 says:

      Outstanding post…spot on!

  • anonymous says:

    ‘Along with most leading orchestras even the Vienna Philharmonic […] now uses screens.’

    This statement is just incorrect.

    In the UK, many orchestras do not use screens in auditions. Many orchestras in Germany do not use screens and have candidates audition on stage in front of the whole orchestra.

    It is usually down to specific auditions and by negotiation with the section principal and the orchestra management as to whether a screen is used. In any case, almost every single orchestra in the world (except the Met Opera) removes the screen before the final round.

    In the past three years I have done auditions for the RPO, LPO, LSO, Royal Opera House, Philharmonia, BBC Philharmonic, BBC NOW, Ulster Orchestra.

    The LSO had the 1st round screened.
    BBC NOW had the 1st round screened.

    None of the others were screened – it is not common place in the UK, although some principal players and managements do try it out.
    Norman – how many orchestral auditions have you done recently? I’ve done dozens.

    • M2N2K says:

      In our non-operatic major American symphony orchestra, almost all auditions are completely screened including final rounds, except those that are held for a few Principal positions when playing some chamber music with current Principals or, on particularly rare occasions, performing a few excerpts with full orchestra is a part of the ultimate final round after no more than three candidates remain still in contention. No system is perfect, but ours is as fair and effective as realistically possible – it works quite well.

  • George Kennaway says:

    I totally support blind auditions; the BBC Phil has done it like that for years. But in the UK, orchestral vacancies are filled by a process of audition and then a trial engagement with the orchestra, possibly over some weeks. And there could easily be a dozen triallists. In many other countries it’s run like a competition, with screened auditions at each round; after that, you’re on a year’s probation.

  • goahead says:

    Blind auditions cannot be completely fair if the final round only consists of Asians. I can smell their fear.

    • Nobody special says:

      Nothing like some racism first thing in the morning

      • John Rook says:

        Depends on what time zone you’re in.

      • citicrab says:

        Anti-Asian bias is fine, they are an over-represented minority, not a real minority.

        • Adrienne says:

          …. and not dark enough, apparently.

        • Hamish T. says:

          By that standard anti-Black bias is fine as they are an over represented minority, not a real minority as well.

          We still see this in welfare, prisons, sports, Porgy and Bess..lol!

          Seriously, you never see other races trying desperately to enter or infiltrate black organizations. Nobody is committing mass violent acts on behalf of white victims of black crimes. No WLM, HLM, ILM, ALM, etc. only 1 race (black) is supposedly more victim obsessed above all others.
          Why is this??

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        Apparently the USA is racist to its core, yet Asians can succeed, as well as Indians, in that multicultural nation. Seems racism only applies to one cohort, in reality.

        It wasn’t so long ago that I remember reading one of the major universities in the USA was cutting the number of Asians being admitted to courses.

        Ah, it’s the gift which keeps on giving!!!

  • V. Lind says:

    Do you know, with the licence fee under threat from a determinedly hostile government, and a scramble to try to get programmes into production under Covid restrictions, this just might not be top of Tim Davie’s agenda when he starts TOMORROW? (I believe the UK has a Bank holiday today).

    On the other hand, he is an insider and well abreast of things going on inside the Corp and almost certainly equally well informed as to what is going on without. One thing you cannot accuse BLM of is suffering in silence, so that, steered by the also not-retiring June Sarpong, may just push “diversity” well up his to-do list. And the recent Proms debacle may have served a useful purpose in putting the orchestra on his radar. Announcing blind auditions would cost nothing more than the erection of a screen and would make a clear statement.

    • Allen says:

      “and would make a clear statement.”

      I think we’re already knee deep in statements.

      • V. Lind says:

        Exactly my point. The BBC will be looking for ways to try to accommodate the screaming hordes — and have a built-in defence if nothing much changes.

    • M McAlpine says:

      Correction! The BBC is under threat from an increasingly disenchanted public who are fed up with the bias of this corrupt organisation.

    • Wesley says:

      If the licence fee is under threat it’s because a majority of the British public, for the first time in the BBC’s history, now opposes the licence fee (see recent polls passim). It’s nothing to do with the current government, which I suspect doesn’t really have the cojones to do anything about it. But even those who broadly support the idea of the BBC, as I do (or at least used to before it became The Guardian TV), appreciate that paying a fee to one particular provider in order to watch any live output from any other provider is no longer supportable. It’s simply an outdated model – if the BBC is so confident in the quality of it’s programming, then it should move to a subscription-based service.

  • John Rook says:

    Even though I’m no fan of BBC politics, I seem to remember that Greg Dyke was rather pushed into that statement by a BAME BBC Scotland presenter. As we know, there’s nothing hideous about being white or the presence of such in the public domain. Far from it.

  • Stan says:

    At least, the BBC is trying very hard to address diversity on TV.
    For example, guests and panellists for classical music programs are always widely representative.

    I don’t know whether blind auditions are effective – they should be!

  • The Vienna Phil removes the screen for the last round of its auditions, as many orchestras do. Interestingly, the membership of women in the BBC Symphony is about 50%, one of the highest ratios in the world for a major orchestra. The Vienna Philharmonic has creaked up to about 10% in the 23 years since admitting women. Blind auditions are only part of the solution.

  • patrick G says:

    The New York Times does not want blind audition any more for the Phil. Too many Chinese , Korean and Japanese women, not enough Blacks….

  • Billy Behind The Screen says:

    Whilst I think blind auditioning couldn’t be a fairer process for organisations and their applicants, I and many others have the underlying belief that you’ll maybe miss out on the best fit player/person for the section. This of course isn’t breaking news.
    The constant stream of players who give up their lives to move cities and countries after winning a brief audition process to then not pass a tenure or probation for whatever reason is horrific.
    UK auditioning and trialling is a great system for sections to work with potential job winners, getting to know them all musically and personally before arriving at a fully considered decision. It also offers players performance work whilst on trial that pushes their experience level and CVs making them more desirable to panels at that initial hurdle of applying for jobs. They also get paid – win win.
    I dont think it’s been a case of ‘like chooses like’ in the situations I’ve ever been involved in, there simply isn’t enough British BAME musicians coming through at the highest level.
    For that I think ultimately the government is responsible.
    Apologies in advance if you don’t share my opinions

    • William Safford says:

      My opinion: blind audition is the least bad system that we currently have.

      It has many advantages, just one being that it helped break the glass ceiling for women. Orchestras are not yet at full parity, but much progress has been made. Many other advantages have been listed elsewhere.

      But the blind audition system also has disadvantages.

      There are musicians who are known as professional audition takers. They are adept at winning auditions, but not being a good fit in the orchestra. I mean nothing sinister by this; it’s just that someone may be more adept at performing in an audition situation than on stage with colleagues.

      The flip side of this, is that there are many otherwise-fine musicians who are not adept at the audition process. Put them in the orchestra, and they play beautifully with their colleagues. Put them alone on the stage behind a screen for an audition, and they don’t shine the way they do in ensemble, whether due to nerves, lack of collaboration with other artists, or some other factor.

      The blind audition system does not take any factor into account other than how well the auditioner performs a concerto and orchestral excerpts, there and then, at that moment in time. Would the second place finisher, or even someone eliminated in the first round, be a better fit in the ensemble? Would one of the eliminated people be a more reliable colleague: playing more consistently, showing up on time for rehearsals, showing initiative in taking on additional tasks? Someone who is just more pleasant to sit next to? Blind auditions tell the orchestra nothing about any of this.

      And more.

      What is the solution? I do not know.

      • Anon says:

        The “best fit” idea invites bias and is a pathway to the exclusion of certain groups. If an audition is blind, you can’t say that it discriminates against any particular group.
        It may have its flaws from an artistic standpoint but at least discrimination is out of the question.

        • M2N2K says:

          As I noted several times earlier: there are no perfect ways of auditioning that are realistic and practical, but keeping screen up for as long as possible is still better and yields better results than not doing it that way.

        • William Safford says:

          I agree, and I support that ethos. That’s why I wrote that I don’t have an answer for any of this.

          As I already mentioned, the blind audition helped break the glass ceiling. The blind audition helped in a number of other ways in terms of reducing bias in many other realms: yes, in terms of Asians and people of Asian descent, and, to a lesser degree, Black people and others, but also in terms of opening auditions to people who might otherwise not receive the opportunity to audition, no matter who that person may be.

          These are worthy goals. I support them.

          That said, possible modes of discrimination are not necessarily fully eliminated.

          For example, one applies to audition. Often there is a pre-screening. Even when there isn’t, at least the applicant fills out an application form of some sort and pays an application fee. Except in instances in which everyone who applies is accepted, there can be bias, conscious or unconscious, from one’s name, head shot (if required), address and zip code, etc.

          It’s complicated.

          • M2N2K says:

            Not as complicated as you make it appear. In our orchestra, and I would be surprised if any other major American orchestra does not follow similar procedures, photos and ages are never required for applying. When we, audition panel members, look at those applications, all names, addresses, contact information, etc. are always removed from them. Besides, those who are not “invited” are still allowed to audition and the panel members are never told whether the person on the other side of the screen was invited or not. We have been doing it that way for several decades already.

  • J Morris Jones says:

    A musician told me a while back that he was auditioning for a major orchestra, and the audition was behind a screen. As he was playing his concerto, he noticed a small hole in the screen. At the end of the performance he crept up and looked through the hole – and noticed an eye peering back at him. He got the job, too.

  • Geoff says:

    Hang on Norm… I thought you said we should have a go the beeb for ignoring complaints from ethnic minorities’ about Rule Britannia… but now you want them more diverse and to make to play along to songs about slavery? That just seems cruel.

  • Ralph Bateman says:

    Sometimes, especially for rank-and-file fiddlers, the jury actually need to see the candidates. The players can sometimes look wrong. No, not in the colour of the skin – but they way they move. There’s a bit premium on them not looking like they’ll stick out and that they’re not thrashing around. Things that you wouldn’t be able to gauge with blind auditions.

    • M2N2K says:

      In most cases, minimizing possibility of visual prejudices by using screens is far more advantageous than not using them for the purpose of looking for rare eventuality of someone not looking perfectly “fit”.

  • Bloomers says:

    Maybe it’s not a problem with screened auditions and it’s just the “annual glorification of slavery tune” that’s puts ethnic minority players off applying… or maybe i’m taking an exaggeration opinion in response to Norman’s like-clockwork horse manure…

  • Abedsbrother says:

    But I thought it was Maestro Slatkin’s suggestion that the screen should be removed so that certain hiring quotas could be satisfied.

  • marcus says:

    Playing Devil’s advocate for a moment, surely all African/Carribean/Asian players will disbar themselves or lay themselves open to a charge of “Cultural Appropriation” (Whatever that is) Gets coat.

  • Dennis says:

    Further proof that anti-white bigotry is the only bigotry allowed these days. He wasn’t even fired after making that statement, and went on to have further prominent university and corporate appointments.

    Imagine if a prominent public figure described the NBA, say, as “hideously black.” Think he wouldn’t get fired, or that’d he’d have many future career prospects?

  • Violinist says:

    This BBC rant is getting a bit old, Norman. Have you been an orchestral player yourself? How many auditions have you played? How many orchestral jobs have you won? Have you been a member of a panel hiring an orchestral musician? First of all, I’d rather you not calling me ‘hideous’ just because I’m white. I am also a woman and a non-British citizen who have nevertheless lived and worked in this country for 15 years and worked incredibly hard to get to where I am now – very fortunate with a salaried job in one of the UK orchestras. I must have taken 30+ auditions in my life and even though I eventually won a few jobs most of my auditions were unsuccessful. Only one of them, a first round in the Halle was screened. I tried to learn as much as I could from each of those experiences instead of going straight to “well of course they didn’t hire me cause I’m a woman” or “obviously they have a problem with me cause I’m a foreigner”. Clearly I did not play well enough on those occasions, or did not have enough experience, or was not what they were looking for in terms of style, sound, etc. UK orchestras have a different approach to auditions to just about any other country I know. It’s not a one-day competition when it’s mostly about who’s not gonna miss a single note. The panel can choose any number of players who seem promising. Promising in terms of their playing. Cause at the end of the day it is about choosing the ‘best’ player – some orchestras are louder than others, some like to move less than others, some pay most attention to blending within a section, some play at a higher pitch than others and intonation becomes and issue, etc. And I am not saying that being polite, friendly, and easy to work with does not matter when it comes to hiring a new player. If you end up with two people who are equally competent to get the job those things start to play a more significant role. But at the end of the day it comes down to hiring the best player, the best fit for a given section, the best fit for a given orchestra. Having sat on a number of panels I can assure you that both listening AND watching someone play plays a vital role in the hiring process.

    • M2N2K says:

      That is true, but since we are talking about music, we should make sure that the proportions of importance remain approximately around 99% listening and 1% watching.

  • Enoch Powell says:

    Box ticking is killing the Arts.

  • Larry L. Lash / Wien says:

    The photo you show is the Gustav-Mahler-Saal on the 1. Rang level of Wiener Staatsoper. In addition to being an intermission hangout, it is used for chamber music concerts by members of the Philharmoniker, vocal recitals by young members of the Staatsoper ensemble, pre-performance lectures, and press events. Mahler’s tiny “touring piano” is on permanent display in a corner.

    It is quite likely the blind audition taking place in the photo is for admission to the Staatsopernorchester. Getting in there and serving your time and passing additional tests are all steps to becoming a trial member of the Philharmoniker.

    I laugh whenever I hear someone say that the Wiener Philharmoniker is the pit band of Wiener Staatsoper. In actuality, the Staatsopernorchester is just a stepping stone on the long and complex road to becoming a full member of the Philharmoniker.

  • Herbie G says:

    An interesting thread. Just one question – does the Chineke! orchestra, whose slogan is ‘Championing change and celebrating DIVERSITY…’ (my capitals) audition behind a screen? And if so, are the candidates screened before going behing a screen? Don’t get me wrong – they are superb – but I just wanted to know…

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    I’m sorry they weren’t around in 1940 to stop all those ‘hideously white’ men from giving up their lives to save the people during the Battle of Britain.

    Stop!! Too much white privilege and hideous whiteness.

    • Babba black sheep says:

      “men from giving up their lives to save the people during the Battle of Britain”

      hahaha. They gave up their lives, to destroy those who saved Europe from bolshevist internationalist mayhem.

      • Marfisa says:

        I’m not sure I understand. Are you saying that the Nazi purpose was to save Europe from communism, and that the Allied forces were wrong to fight against Hitler’s regime? Or am I being obtuse?

        • M2N2K says:

          It looks to me like you read the comment by BBS correctly. It is quite amazing that, judging by all those thumbs up, almost all readers agreed with the notion that it would have been better for all western countries to join with the nazis and help them not only to conquer the entire Europe but to succeed in exterminating all of the world’s Jews. What a crowd!

  • Bone says:

    Screens: racist.
    No screens: racist.
    I think I’ve finally cracked the code!

  • Tony Sanderson says:

    Tghey could take a leaf out of their own show “The Voice”. Tom Jones and other judges sit with their backs to the singer being judges.

  • Mr. Clock says:

    Somehow no one is saying that Berliner Philharmoniker is having also no screens. And they are choosing lately new members from people they knew before audition or among themselves…

  • Tom says:

    I’m afraid the BBC just can’t get it right.

    I am aware that certain musicians from the BBC orchestras remark the auditions with personal criteria on their list. That is just awful and biased. Just like the BBC generally.

  • Gerald Martin says:

    Three decades ago final exams at my Detroit law school were identified by a number, not the student’s name, to guarantee the anonymity of the test taker. Black students nevertheless charged the procedure was racist because professors could still determine the race of the test taker from the syntax in the essay answers. (“Writing Black”?).

    All I’m suggesting is you can’t win.