Behind the Curtain

The world of classical music—particularly in its European home—was until very recently the preserve of white men. Women, it was believed, simply could not play like men. They didn’t have the strength, the attitude, or the resilience for certain kinds of pieces. Their lips were different. Their lungs were less powerful. Their hands were smaller. That did not seem like a prejudice. It seemed like a fact, because when conductors and music directors and maestros held auditions, the men always seemed to sound better than the women. No one paid much attention to how auditions were held, because it was an article of faith that one of the things that made a music expert a music expert was that he could listen to music played under any circumstances and gauge, instantly and objectively, the quality of the performance.

But over the past few decades, the classical music world has undergone a revolution.

Many musicians thought that conductors were abusing their power and playing favorites. They wanted the audition process to be formalized. That meant an official audition committee was established instead of a conductor making the decision all by himself. In some places, rules were put in place forbidding the judges from speaking among themselves during auditions, so that one person’s opinion would not cloud the view of another. Musicians were identified not by name but by number. Screens were erected between the committee and the auditioner.. and as these new rules were put in place around the country, an extraordinary thing happened: orchestras began to hire women. In the past thirty years, since screens became commonplace, the number of women in the top U.S. orchestras has increased fivefold.

“Some people look like they sound better than they actually sound, because they look confident and have good posture,’ one musician, a veteran of many auditions, says. “Other people look awful when they play but sound great. Other people have that belabored look when they play, but you can’t hear it in the sound. There is always this dissonance between what you see and hear.

Too often we are resigned to what happens in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t seem like we have much control over whatever bubbles to the surface from our unconscious. But we do, and if we can control the environment in which rapid cognition takes place, then we can control rapid cognition.

Malcolm Gladwell, Blink