Individual Merit versus Group Identity
Back in 1969 two Black musicians accused the New York Philharmonic of discrimination.
The Commission on Human Rights decided against the musicians, but the event inspired the largely white-male ensemble along with many other American orchestras to begin (in the 1970s) holding "blind" auditions in which the identity of all potential-to-be-hired musicians were shielded by a screen so judges could not see them.
This procedure insured that no unrecognized or unintentional sex-race prejudice or favoritism could influence employment choices. Quality of musicianship alone could be considered.
Such an audition policy makes sense, for (obviously) the sex, color, or other physical attributes of musicians are irrelevant to performance ability. Under the blind judging system only the most excellent performers would be hired; thus, orchestras assuredly would consist of the highest qualified instrumentalists.
According to the League of American Orchestras, over the ensuing three-plus decades after the blind auditions were instituted more women actually were hired into orchestras, rising from the 1970s level of 6% representation to 47.4% by the mid-20s.
We should note, however, that this gradual increase in women’s acceptance into orchestras could have been due to the blind audition policy, but it also could have resulted simply because more women were becoming musicians and auditioning.
The League also reported that the percentage of Asian orchestral members nearly doubled from 5.3% in 1980 to 9.1% in 2014. But the ratio of Black musicians remained around 1.8% and Hispanic/Latino 2.5% during the same time period, so it was clear that for whatever reason those percentages did not increase significantly.
It’s also noteworthy to remember that the differently ranging demographic profiles in all categories occurred during the 30-plus years of blind audition procedures; thus, it is impossible to place blame on any hiring preferences or prejudices.
In spite of the absence of compelling data, however --- demographics are not compelling --- in today’s politically correct world there now arises the notion of forced "social equity."
This term is becoming a fast-growing war cry in the music industry, and individual ability is under siege to give way to group-identity representation.
The musicians’ unions are steadfast in their support of blind auditions, maintaining correctly that they are the best way to ensure employment fairness, so the requirement remains in collective bargaining agreements. But several powerful music organizations and critics have become increasingly insistent for all orchestral music positions to move away from standards based on ability.
Even though auditions are still blind (for the time being), concertmasters are now being hard-pressured to consider race, ethnic background, and gender representation over musical expertise as criteria in deciding, for example, who gets promoted.
What is happening here?
Employment positions are not to be proficiency based anymore.
Along with many other skill-oriented professions, the music business is to be group-identification based. "Diversity" and "social justice" should now be top concerns, so instead of striving to offer audiences the best quality music possible, orchestras are now supposed to act as bodies for "inclusion" and consistently favor "representative-of-the-population" numbers of musicians other than white men, women, or worthy Asians.
Any hiring program, so the argument goes, should not focus on musical capabilities of orchestral members because socially structured instrumentalists offer a richer and more diverse representation of genetic group percentages over strictly-selected-by-talent individual musical performers.
The same faulty rationale also extends into claims that orchestras need to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve, so the blind audition process should be eliminated not only to take into fuller account the musicians’ race, gender, and background but also their residency.
Even if one buys the peculiar premise that orchestras should represent their community by matching the demographics of local residents, how could the New York or the Vienna Philharmonic orchestras represent their physical communities when their true "community" is made up of music lovers from all over the globe?
Regardless of how the group-oriented argument for "representation" is framed, the result of such a program would be that the physical screen for blind judging of skill is abolished in favor of judging the musician in place of the music.
Palpable questions hang in today’s politically-correct-silenced air: Why is an orchestra supposed to reflect the diversity of its players’ race/background or be representative of the community it serves? Isn’t an orchestra about music? Isn’t the "diversity" presented by an orchestra about the diversity of music composers and compositions? Isn’t the diversity of ensembles about the diversity of instruments making up an ensemble?
Orchestral music is a universal language understood and appreciated by people of all colors, ethnicities, and circumstances. It has been played by expert musicians the world over working together in great harmony throughout every era of modern history.
The battle we currently witness in the professional music culture mirrors the same one we witness across all strata of American culture. Individuals of unrepresented-by-numerical-percentages of the population via association with group identity are to receive not “equality” by nature of individual merit but "equity" by nature of group identity.
This unnatural state of affairs would do orchestras, their instrument-playing members, their viewing/listening audiences, and the culture at large no benefit either musically or socially. It would, in fact, be detrimental to all.
Under a numerically-based representative system, Black, ethnic, and gender-specific musicians could never be certain their position wasn’t granted via their group identification rather than via their individual talent.
The genuinely talented of whatever personal circumstance — Black, ethnic, or gender-specific included — could never cease to wonder how the less talented got "included" into their previously merit-based mix.
Tribal affiliation over individual talent may raise the representation percentages of certain designated groups, but an orchestra by definition is made up of superbly efficient individual players each contributing equally by proficiency alone to the whole that is music itself.
The inevitable results of all this social engineering if it comes to pass? Resentments and/or insecurity will simmer soundlessly among musicians. And the music they play aloud will suffer.
Disharmony will reign.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Adamas." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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