Perspective And Pushback To Tommasini’s Commentary On Blind Auditions

The 9/10/2020 edition of New York Times published a follow-up article to the opinion piece written by Anthony Tommasini in paper’s 7/16/2020 publication. The follow-up is intriguing in that if contains several noteworthy perspectives.

The best rejoinders came from groups of respondents.

The first, Weston Sprott (recent Shop Talk guest), Alex Laing, Joy Payton-Stevens, and Titus Underwood. It does a superb job at poking holes in the idea that auditions, and more importantly awarding a position, are entirely blind. But that was just the warm up to the larger point where the quartet of Black orchestral musicians espouse an approach similar to what I’ve been suggesting here for years (emphasis added).

The goal, as we see it, isn’t simply to make American orchestras more diverse. Rather, to use today’s language, it is to make them antiracist. An antiracist orchestra might have a hiring process that recognizes the need for corrective action. An antiracist orchestra might employ a version of football’s Rooney Rule, whereby an audition could not move forward without a specified number of qualified Black artists among the finalists. An antiracist orchestra might define the work so that more qualities — like artistic vision, interest in ongoing learning and development, and ability to authentically engage various audiences — are valued in the hiring process. In short, an antiracist orchestra would subscribe to paradigms that make hiring Black orchestral artists a normal and necessary part of pursuing its artistic goals.

The Rooney Rule is such a good suggestion

The second item is from Afa Dworkin and Anthony McGill. They had me with a numbered list and items #1 and #3 are real standouts.

  1. We cannot fix what we do not measure. If the musician candidate pool is to be diversified, it is important to know how many Black and Latinx musicians audition today, and why.
  2. Orchestras have conducted their work in the same manner for decades. If we are now expecting a different result, we ought to be prepared to change the process. Allocate 15 percent of your budget toward addressing systemic racism for the next 10 years. Hold the entire organization accountable for integrating diversity, equity and inclusion into every facet of your work.

The lack of centralized data has been an ongoing problem that the field seems to be in no particular hurry to fix. I’m hopeful that prodding from this pair of musicians will help bring about meaningful change.

Lastly, there’s nothing better than putting your money where your mouth is and if orchestras what things to be different, they have to make it a priority and allocate respective time and treasure. Anything else, regardless how insecure, ends up becoming nothing more than lip service that perpetuates status quo.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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