‘Black musicians have to be that much better to get an audition’

‘Black musicians have to be that much better to get an audition’


norman lebrecht

March 11, 2021

From a debate at the Association of British Orchestras’ annual conference:

Chineke! Orchestra bassoonist Linton Stephens: ‘In classical music, where we have a huge demographic that doesn’t look like us, where we don’t have any representation, we add that extra expectation onto ourselves that not only do we have to play well, but we have to prove as Black people that we can play well.

‘For Black people to get an audition, we’ve got to be that much better. We’re accepted more if we’re exceptional.’

photo: Chineke


  • Miko says:

    I think you’d be more useful reporting the late arrival, early departure and inaccuracy-filled keynote speech delivered by the keynote speaker Caroline Dinenage MP.

  • Economist says:

    “we’ve got to be that much better”

    Surely the opposite is true: that orchestras would ceteris paribus opt for a black player.

    • Rogerio says:

      Black musicians certainly do have the following disadvantage;
      In most cases, their fathers and mothers and grandparent were not classical musicians. That means;
      1) The first line of their CVs cannot read “I was born into a musical family” – which always makes a good impression.
      2) As a result of the above, their family are not musicians in an orchestra, not conservatoire professors, not judges in music competitions, and therefore have no “power of influence” within the musical family.
      If this state of things is to be changed by “being exceptional” – Blacks better wait sitting down.

      • Emore says:

        You are exactly correct and this is the major problem in the industry (and quality lowering issue.) Add in, maybe a poor kid that happens to be an exceptional player–will get slaughtered by the “deserved” people–aka, the musician class. It’s the “kids of…”, “born into a musical family…”, and kids of really wealthy donors that get the spots and are treated like “they belong.”
        The industry will die because it is elitist. End of story.

        • Adrienne says:

          It’s entirely natural that children born into musical families will have an advantage. I’m sure this applies regardless of the type of music played in the home. To employ the emotive phrase “musician class” in order to justify your accusation of elitism is absurd.

          Poor children suffer from a wide range of disadvantages, these are likely to include lack of proficiency in their mother tongue, in maths, science, and probably self confidence as well. How many become accountants? To single out music makes no sense whatsoever.

          To conclude with “end of story” is just plain arrogance.

      • The View from America says:

        The Preucil family in Cleveland is “Exhibit A” in this regard — what a bunch of stinkers.

        Of course, nepotism leading to “inside-trackism” abounds throughout all walks of like, not just in the arts. Think of the opportunities that the Kennedy, Bush, Trump and Biden kin have gotten because of “who they are” rather than “how good they are.” The same goes for the business world, journalism, academia and religion.

        It’s human nature.

        • Harvey says:

          Take heart dear ‘The View from America’.

          You people in the states still have your senile savior Biden who believes: “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black” when interviewed by an ‘oppressed black man’ with his own show, who’s rich and is a narcissist. His name is ‘Charlamagne tha God’…lol.

          Biden is losing the rest of his rote memory before the whole world. Remembering who he put in his own cabinet it too hard for him. I watch him on cnn when he’s allowed by his handlers to speak but not take even journalist’s questions.

          Who knows though? Maybe he’ll do something constructive like push that megalomaniac NY Governor Cuomo to resign before his own party impeaches him. He’s up to 6, no..now 7 young, white females he’s degraded. No black ones??

      • Christopher Clift says:

        I must disagree with the basic premise of your piece. There must be loads of players and singers who have come from non-musical households but have made the grade in top class music. I am one such whose parents had no idea of what being even a music student entailed – for culture our household listened to the BBC Light programme (now Radio 2). Luckily my music teacher showed enormous faith in me after age 12 by encouraging me in my (free) violin lessons – there is no way my parents could have afforded lessons for me otherwise.

      • Max Raimi says:

        I have been on scores of audition committees. I have never seen a CV (which we don’t even look at until we have already heard the candidates behind a screen and voted on them) which mentioned anything about the applicant’s family.

    • BruceB says:

      Then why don’t they?

      I’m not saying Blacks are bad or anything like that, just wondering where the evidence of your assumption is.

    • dantheman says:

      and their SAT scores need to be that much higher

  • Thea Derks says:

    There are still many hurdles to take in gender and diversity matters unfortunately.

  • Ellingtonia says:

    ‘For Black people to get an audition, we’ve got to be that much better. We’re accepted more if we’re exceptional.’ Can we have some documented evidence to support this claim or do we have another rolling out the “victim” card”? As far as I can see you only have to be more exceptional than those who are also being auditioned, and if you aren’t (irrespective of colour) you won’t get the job. I think it is what orchestras call “selecting the most talented candidate”.

    • D** says:

      You’re so right. The following brief stories about people I know (from different backgrounds) don’t prove anything, but they help to show that very talented isn’t enough.

      1. Extremely talented cellist, one of the best high school cellists in his state, majored in cello performance in college and seemed destined for greatness. I would have predicted a career in a major orchestra, but he just didn’t quite have it, and he and changed careers.

      2. Extremely talented violinist, also one of the best in her state, earned a graduate degree in violin performance, tried but couldn’t get into a major orchestra, played for a while in a low-paying regional orchestra, eventually changed careers.

      3. Extremely talented clarinetist, earned a doctorate in clarinet performance, tried but couldn’t get into a major orchestra, made it into a couple low-paying regional orchestras, also did some private teaching but barely made a living, now works for an insurance company.

    • Bone says:

      Maybe you haven’t been keeping up: unless blacks make up the majority of a meritocratic endeavor (sports particularly), then ipso facto the endeavor must be racist.

  • Anon says:

    But auditions are blind?

  • Carlos Solare says:

    “we’ve got to be that much better”

    That’s exactly what I thought when I came from South America all those years ago to study music in Germany. So I rolled up my sleeves and got down to work to be at least as good as the others. It never occured to me to play the “race card” – I didn’t even know there was such a thing!

  • LOL says:

    It’s not true. American orchestras are dying to have Black/POC musicians. Training academies like the New World Symphony only provide audition support to minority students. Borderline discriminatory.

  • E Rand says:

    Easy to claim, and impossible to substantiate. A credulous media, hungry for any scrap that will feed this current hysteria, will leap to publish. The truth? Every institution is clamoring for black candidates of quality. Clamoring. They just aren’t there in classical music, yet, in sufficient numbers. And, they won’t be if the Left continues to lower the bar of expectations (“math is racist”, “correct English is racist”, etc.) with the typical soft bigotry of low expectations.

  • dantheman says:

    It makes sense. This is exactly why the Chineke! orchestra is “that much better” than the rest.

  • Karlo says:

    Auditions should be completely screened, from the prelims to final-superfinal round and the panel should not be allowed to talk, as every musician has a pre-existing bias, wether recognized or not. Auditions are a democratic process that requires voting after hearing what a candidate has to offer. So, as is when the citizenry votes for an official and political platform, SILENCE in the voting booth amongst the voters (panel) while casting the ballot and live with the end result. If artists and orchestras cannot abide by that, stop telling everyone the system is fair and balanced.

    • J Barcelo says:

      That would be nice, but what do you do when you get 200 applications? There’s no time or interest in hearing 200 bassoons. The applicants must be whittled down. The management has to start somewhere and those CVs that are not hidden behind a screen are where a great deal of discrimination begins.

      • Karlo says:

        Race is never on an application or resumé or curriculum vitae, where all the pertinent information is regarding education and experience.

  • IC225 says:

    But…when you submit a CV and/or a recording to apply for an audition, there’s no way anyone can tell your skin colour. Perhaps you might get discriminated against in or after the audition. But surely not before anyone has actually seen you?

    • Jay says:

      Often our names are a dead give away. I’m not a musician (an accountant) however I definitely don’t use my west African name when applying for a position as one could easily identify my race. I did an experiment once and applied for several positions with my actual name and received far fewer responses. When I sent out resumes as ‘Jay’ there was a noticeable uptick in the number of interview requests I received. I’m not just making this up as there is a documented bias in hiring of candidates that have ‘ethnic’ sounding names.

  • minacciosa says:

    I thought being exceptional was the point.

  • Wannaplayguitar says:

    I am going to defend the argument that it is harder for musicians of BAME to gain a foothold in the classical music world…not impossible, but as quoted ‘you have to be that much better.’ Those classically trained musicians who did not have a well connected musical family background were soon made aware (or at least were so in the past) that there is a ‘network’ element to getting on that first upward step of the ladder (and it starts early.)Whether this means going to the best music teachers, attending the best schools, being on the best possible music courses, getting to know the people who can give you the clearest and best picture of what you will need to do to prepare for auditions etc. there is no doubt that should any of these elements be missing it will be a rocky path and forever a very uneven playing field.

    • SVM says:

      It sounds like you are making the argument that “it is harder for people who do not have a well connected musical family background” regardless of race (which is probably true, and with which I am inclined to agree), *not* “it is harder for musicians of BAME” (I do not know enough about this to comment). Plenty of white musicians, too, have experienced “a very uneven playing field” for the same reasons you describe.

      This is why it is so important we resist superficial solutions such as positive discrimination (which will ultimately help only the privileged persons *within* the demographic category for which special pleading has been made), and instead tackle the underlying inequalities of opportunity.

  • IP says:

    Is that why blind auditions seem to bother them?

  • Max Raimi says:

    My orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, has no screening process. Anybody can audition, and nobody is turned away. I am unaware of any orchestra that requires photos or any other reliable way to discern the race of applicants prior to auditions.

    • Jay says:

      If you have an ethnic sounding name then your race can be a dead giveaway. I have a west African name as that is my family background. However, professionally and when applying for work I always use an Anglicized name so that whoever is reviewing my materials can’t automatically assume my race and engage in any unconscious (or in some cases conscious) bias that may bring up.

  • BruceB says:

    If you follow the link, it appears that the British system of orchestra auditions is different than the American in the matter of using screens. Apparently it’s not the case over there that the audition ends and only then do you find out what the winner looks like.

    And another thing: the article says “for Black people to win an audition,” not “get” an audition — not the same thing. One wonders if Classic FM changed their wording, or if SD did.

  • Francesco says:

    Western Art music or Classical as some call it, has survived and thrived for centuries. 99.8% the ‘greats’ we admire (especially since we have sound recordings) whether solo, chamber or orchestral musicians or conductors have been White. Maybe since clearly they were not much needed, nobody cared about people of color in the Classical music world? Is there a big uproar over how many black players (or lack of white players) there are in the NBA?
    I know I’d gladly switch my Orchestral salary with LeBron’s. How do I get that job and can I find a way to get me in the NBA even though I’d be mediocre at best? Oh, I should be at least as good as LeBron? Well, they should be at least as good as I am before hoping to get my Principal chair. Enough with this nonsense. Nobody is missing your presence, just like nobody is missing white players at an NBA game.
    Shut up, work hard and good luck at the audition. Most people fail at those A LOT of times and it has nothing to do with the color of their skin.