What factors really play a role in orchestral auditions? Is the playing or connections of a candidate more critical to an audition committee when selecting a winner? Musicians and non-musicians alike will be surprised to learn of the amount of unfairness that orchestral auditions foster. Playing an orchestral instrument, bassoon, for nearly seven years has given me valuable insider information into the world of orchestral auditions, in addition to a wide range of articles and studies I have also analyzed.
Utilizing screens, at least in some rounds of orchestral auditions, has become the norm in orchestral auditions today. Many studies have shown that screens make auditions a fairer process, although concerns about ensuring the presence of underrepresented demographics in an orchestra are evident. A closer look at how blind auditions work and the usage of screens is necessary to develop a deeper understanding of this debate.
As found in most competitive institutions in the US, the most privileged demographics are generally given the best opportunities. American orchestras are no exception, as Black and Latino musicians comprise under 5% of total orchestral musicians in the US. Unfortunately, many Black and Latino musicians often feel the need to work harder than White musicians to get just as far, if at all. For this reason, the utilization of screens in auditions has become widespread in recent decades in order to eliminate racial bias. As a result, underrepresented demographics have begun to penetrate American orchestras, and even a top orchestra such as the New York Philharmonic now boasts a larger number of women than men.
The infamous story of trombonist Abbie Conant is an important reminder of the effectiveness of utilizing screens. Conant won the 1980 Munich Philharmonic trombone audition, which was held behind a screen. Upon winning, however, many of the orchestra members and the music director sought to remove Conant due to her gender. Without the screen used on the day of the audition, Conant surely would not have had the chance to win. Overall, women see a 30% increase in their chances of being hired when screens are utilized.
However, several believe that blind auditions are not enough to increase the presence of underrepresented demographics in orchestras. The argument that screens should not be utilized so that orchestras can prioritize underrepresented demographics has arisen in recent years. Although this idea would surely help with representation, some have argued that this takes factors besides musical ability into account, making the idea controversial.
With more music students in school than ever before, the power to create change in the orchestral world is more evident than ever. Whether one agrees or disagrees with the usage of screens or other variable factors in orchestral auditions, I believe it is important for everyone to brainstorm and establish their own opinions on the topic. The following quote by Martin Luther King Jr. perfectly sums up this situation: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Goldin, Claudia, and Cecilia Rouse. “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians.” The American Economic Review, vol. 90, no. 4, 2000, pp. 715–41. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/117305.
“A Trombonist Got a Job with the Munich Philharmonic. Then She Fought Them in Court for 13 Years.: WQXR Editorial.” WQXR, https://www.wqxr.org/story/trombonist-got-job-munich-philharmonic-then-she-fought-them-court-13-years/.