The Blind Audition

By: Meera Chakravarthy

Choi, Jisoo. “An Interrogation of the Mythos: Blind Auditions and the Symphony Orchestra.” Distilled Periodical, September 5, 2021. Image claimed as fair use

The blind audition is an evaluation tool that conceals the musical performer from the judge to prevent bias during an audition. Blind auditions can last anywhere from 2 minutes to even 20 minutes. In that time, the performer who sits behind a screen is asked to play excerpts, scales, and sight read.[1] Blind auditions are used commonly in orchestra and band settings from high school music ensembles all the way to professional orchestras. This method of evaluation is fairly universal across all orchestras and bands as a tool to select who is the most qualified performer and how they rank against other performers for the “best” spot in the music group. The evaluation tool is supposed to create equality amongst all auditioners by creating an environment where the judge cannot  pass judgment on the physical appearance of the auditioner ; however,there are doubts as to whether it accomplishes this goal and we are beginning to question whether or not this is the most effective method for evaluating musicians. 

Blind auditions were not always the evaluation tool used for music performance. They rose to prominence in the last 50 years. Back in 1969, two black artists sued the New York Philharmonic for discriminaton and racial bias. Although they did not win the lawsuit, it led to the creation of the blind audition across music groups in the 1970s and 1980s.[2] The blind audition helped decreased the gender gap in orchestras; from 1970 to to 1993 the number of women in orchestra roles increased from 6% to 21%.[3] Orchestras, universities, and even primary and secondary schools began to adopt the blind audition as a way to objectively evaluate music performance. 

However, in recent years, critics have questioned the effectiveness of the blind audition. As Anthony Tomassini, music critic for the New York Times, writes, “Blind auditions are based on an appealing premise of pure meritocracy: An orchestra should be built from the very best players, period.”[4] But does it make sense to evaluate music by meritocratic terms only?

The reality is that there are numerous competent players competing for the same spot with very marginal differences in technical ability. Often the differences are immeasurable and based on opinion. This puts a lot of pressure on the individual performer to somehow stand out in a blind audition that is judged based on a 5-10 minute performance. Performers are put in an extremely intense and anxiety inducing environment, which can negatively affect their health and well-being. We also assume that the blind audition is objective, when in reality, differences in technique often are so similar that it is more up to how the judge interprets the particular performer’s expression of the piece and performance. 

There are also many organizations, like Sphinx[5], pushing for more diversity and inclusion in orchestras and bands. As they see it, the blind audition continues to be restrictive because it does not address the root cause of racial inequality in orchestras: there are not enough artists of color that are recruited and trained to be professional classical artists. Many organizations believe that to reduce racial inequality in orchestras and bands, we need to make a concrete effort to hire more artists of color, which means we have to get rid of the blind audition.  We also need to introduce music to more kids from marginalized communities and inspire them to practice the art. 

Music has always been inherently hard to evaluate in an objective manner once one gets to a particular skill level. The easiest way of doing so is to create a facade that music should be solely measured by technical expertise, but the reality of this is not quite suitable anymore. There has been a push to shift this model and evaluate musicians by more than just their pure skill and ability to play the instrument. We might, for instance, consider how well they teach other musicians and/or young people, or how innovatively they create and coach chamber groups. We could also evaluate a performer on how well they collaborate and improvise with others.  All of these aspects contribute to healthy ensemble and a growth environment for artists, which at the end of the day is very important.[6]

Furthermore, a musician can be evaluated by how they can connect with an audience and program engaging and inclusive pieces, such as music written by people of color or music that represents cultures beyond the global north. Orchestras themselves are often seen as “outdated”, therefore getting performers who are qualified at helping expand an orchestra’s audience  reach is valuable[7]. Another way of redesigning this process is to reimagine the impact of the blind audition and to use it as an opportunity to create a rotation system for players. Perhaps the blind audition is used as the initial metric, but players can benefit from constantly rotating positions and roles within an orchestra or band. For one show, a player might be first chair violin, but for the next show, they can play second violin in the middle of the orchestra. This method can help get rid of the inherent hierarchy that exists within music groups. 

Regardless of redesigning of the evaluation tool, there certainly needs to be more effort put into recruiting diverse players from a young age and also reshaping the role of the orchestra and band as a whole. If anything, the conversations to move away from the blind audition is a challenge for music groups to take a look at their entire operational model – from recruitment to programming to organization culture –  and to redefine it to ensure all parts of it are more inclusive, not just the evaluation tool.

1.  “Nber Working Paper Series.” Accessed April 17, 2022. 

2.  Choi, Jisoo. “An Interrogation of the Mythos: Blind Auditions and the Symphony Orchestra.” Distilled Periodical, September 5, 2021. 

3.  “Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of ‘Blind’ Auditions on Female Musicians.” Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians | Gender Action Portal. Accessed April 17, 2022. 

4.  Tommasini, Anthony. “To Make Orchestras More Diverse, End Blind Auditions.” The New York Times. The New York Times, July 16, 2020. 

5.   Choi, Jisoo. “An Interrogation of the Mythos: Blind Auditions and the Symphony Orchestra.” Distilled Periodical, September 5, 2021. 

6.  “Sphinx Symphony Orchestra.” Sphinx Organization. Accessed April 17, 2022. 

7. Midgette, Anne. “Perspective | American Orchestras: Revamping the Model, or Embracing the Obvious?” The Washington Post. WP Company, April 13, 2018.