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Age, gender and orchestras

0 Robert Levine
orchestra2 Editor's Abstract

Recent controversy (March 2009) involving the Phoenix Symphony, its Music Director, Michael Christie and several of its musicians have gained attention in the orchestral music world. Mr. Christie’s attempt to fire or demote several players has been met with legal challenges and lawsuits alleging age discrimination. Polyphonic Senior Editor Robert Levine uses the Phoenix mess to reflect on age, gender and race discrimination in orchestras.

Ramon Ricker

A visitor from another planet might ask, upon learning of the current mess in Phoenix, whether such discrimination on the basis of illegal and invidious criteria such as age, gender or race is systemic in our industry.

The answer is neither “no” nor “yes.” Such discrimination is not systemic in the sense of being the intended result of processes deliberately built into the hiring process. Indeed, vast amounts of time and energy have been put into designing a hiring process that is, quite literally, blind to any characteristics other than the ability to play. But bias and discrimination do exist, and factor into far more personnel decisions than we in the industry would care to admit – enough to make a surprisingly large impact on the demographics of orchestras.

Everyone has biases. Some are quite strange; I remember vividly an audition many years ago when the Music Director expressed a very negative opinion about musicians of Japanese extraction (although he was just fine with musicians of Chinese ancestry). And that bias most definitely affected his decision that day.

But the most commonly seen biases – on the part of both Music Directors and orchestra musicians – are against musicians of a certain age and women musicians. These biases play out differently in the career cycle of musicians, though. The bias against women seems to be mostly in hiring musicians for principal vacancies. The base against older musicians seems to be in hiring for all positions, but is more apparent at the end of musicians’ careers.

I recently did an informal survey of gender and principal positions amongst ICSOM orchestras, using the roster information on orchestras’ websites. The results, while likely not precise, were fascinating.

The closest thing to gender balance across the field is in the principal second violin position; almost half of ICSOM orchestras have a female principal second. Is it a coincidence that this position is (albeit very quietly) regarded by most observers as the least prestigious of all the 16 chairs considered as principal positions in most orchestras? Fewer than one-quarter of ICSOM orchestras have a female concertmaster, although it’s the same instrument as principal second violin and auditions for the two positions involve very similar repertoire. These numbers would suggest an industry bias against women in what’s universally considered to be the most prestigious, best paid, and most visible position in an orchestra.

Another hint of gender bias comes from the flute numbers. I don’t have data for the gender balance between men and women (or, more accurately, boys and girls) entering the training pipeline for orchestra jobs. But anecdotal evidence suggests there are lots more women than men who train to become professional flutists. So why are fewer than half of the principal flutes of full-time orchestras women?

Brass and percussion are, as one would expect intuitively, a lost cause for gender balance. The only instrument where a female principal isn’t a complete anomaly is horn; there are seven female principal horns in ICSOM orchestras that I could count. And in what the English call “the kitchen,” there aren’t even anomalies; I could find no female principal timpanists at all, and only one women principal percussionist.

Gender discrimination is not the only possible explanation for these numbers, of course. The phenomenon of self-selection could play a significant role. (“Self-selection” is, according to Wikipedia, “a term used to indicate any situation in which individuals select themselves into a group, causing a biased sample.”) Many fewer women than men choose to become percussionists or brass players when picking an instrument, which would obviously skew the gender balance in those positions even in the absence of any bias. And it’s at least possible that women musicians are less attracted to leadership positions, although that’s not been my personal experience.

Another possible explanation is that the raw demographic figures incorporate the effect of past bias. Orchestra positions are usually tenured, and are often held by the same occupant for decades. Prior to the adoption of screened auditions, there was a good deal of open gender discrimination in hiring, and some musicians hired then are still holding those positions, which could mean that the raw numbers show more gender imbalance than is actually the case for recent hiring. But examining that hypothesis required far more data than was easily obtainable.

I suspect that controlling for that variable wouldn’t make much difference. Using my orchestra as an example shows why.

Since I came to Milwaukee 20 years ago, there have been 15 permanent principal openings, of which 4 have been filled by women (2 were flute positions). That’s a little better (but not much) than the orchestra’s overall history of principal hiring. I can trace back 15 musicians who have held permanent principal string positions since my orchestra became full-time. 14 were men. The one exception is our new principal second violin, our most recent principal hire. Of the 36 musicians who have ever held permanent principal positions in Milwaukee that I can trace, six have been women (of whom three have been principal flutes, one principal harp, and one principal second).

Oddly (and perhaps tellingly), the gender balance is better for assistant principal positions. We’ve had six permanent assistant or associate principal openings in my 20 years here; three have been filled by women. And, for acting principal positions, the balance is even better; seven of the nine musicians I can recall serving as acting principals in my 20 years here have been women.

By contrast, for non-principal positions, the gender balance is almost dead even. Of the 28 permanent non-principal positions we’ve filled over the same two decades, 13 were filled by men and 15 by women.

There is not an obvious “process” explanation for these numbers. All but two of these many vacancies were filled through an industry-standard screened audition process. Screens were used for all but the final round, with audition committees having sole authority to advance candidates to the final rounds and the Music Director having sole authority to choose who to hire from the finalists.

Is Milwaukee unusual in hiring disproportionally few women principals? It doesn’t appear so. We have four women principals; the most any ICSOM orchestra has (at least that I could find) is seven, while one (San Francisco) currently has none at all. And very few have more than one women principal outside of the traditional “principal second, principal flute, harp” triangle.

Do these numbers demonstrate systemic gender-based discrimination? They certainly don’t prove, or even suggest, intentional discrimination (although an accepted definition of “proof” in such matters is itself very hard to formulate). But it does appear that the deck is stacked against women who audition for principal positions other than the traditional three listed above. When full-time orchestras average five to six women amongst the 16 most prestigious, and best-paid, positions in each orchestra, it should cause us to wonder just how squeaky-clean we are about gender discrimination. Given that the gender balance in hiring for the less prestigious and less well-paid section positions appears to be much less tilted, Occam’s Razor would lead an unbiased observer to conclude that gender discrimination is alive and well in the process of hiring principal positions.

Old musicians and young conductors

Age discrimination is a harder issue to quantify and analyze. Anecdotally, young musicians do better in both hiring and termination decisions. It’s rare for a musician past the age of 40 to be hired by an orchestra, and it’s extremely rare that one younger than 40 is dismissed on artistic grounds or demoted, except perhaps for cases of disabilities caused by over-use (and those cases are more often dealt with by the musician going on long-term disability leave.)

But, unlike in the case of gender, there is some correlation between age and skills. There are many older musicians who continue to play well and to improve as instrumentalists. But no fair-minded observer can deny that there are also some older musicians who don’t improve as they age, and that there are a few whose skills deteriorate significantly. Any discussion of age discrimination in orchestras needs to recognize that it’s much harder to identify truly age-based discrimination than it is gender-based discrimination, which can safely assumed to be invidious by default.

Nonetheless, a lot of assumptions are made about musicians of a certain age. Certainly skills don’t deteriorate quickly enough to fully explain why it’s so hard for a musician past the age of 40 to win an audition, for example. Is there bias against experience in the hiring process.

I believe there is. In part it comes from those conductors who claim to want musicians who are “moldable.” I’ve always suspected that this is actually more about hiring musicians who are green enough to be uncritically accepting of the conductor’s maestro-ness. This, in turn, likely stems from the inherently paternalistic nature of the conductor/orchestra relationship. It is no accident, after all, that conductors are “maestri” while musicians are “players.” If the conductor views his/her role as that of a “master” (whether in terms of power or in terms of ability and knowledge), they will want musicians who are easy to manipulate or who appear to them as students.

Not all conductors fall into this mindset, of course. In my orchestra, we’ve hired far more principals in their 30s and 40s than ones in their 20s, and we’ve hired a few section musicians in their 30s and 40s as well – very much to the credit of our current Music Director, Andreas Delfs, and our audition committees. But I suspect that, in this respect, we’re atypical of the field. Part of the explanation for this may lie in our use of a chamber music round for virtually all recent auditions, both for section and titled jobs. Certainly ensemble playing is a skill which is far more about experience than is the ability to play excerpts flawlessly.

My own belief is that, if an audition produces candidates of equal musical merit, the older one is the better bet. It is true that younger candidates may be more “moldable” by whoever is Music Director at the time. But Music Directors come and go, leaving their moldings behind for the next boss to deal with. The real test for orchestra musicians in sustaining their contribution to their orchestra is the ability to maintain their skills. Someone who can play a great audition in their 30s or 40s has proven the ability to do that. Someone in their 20s hasn’t. Given how hard it is (and should be) to fire musicians from most orchestras, this ought to matter a lot.

But where age discrimination – in appearance or in reality – has the greatest impact is at the other end of an orchestra musician’s career. And, like gender discrimination in hiring, it probably has more effect on principal players. This is not surprising, of course; musicians in principal positions are far more visible (or audible), and the deterioration of their skills of more obvious consequence to the orchestra’s ability to play well. But, as the recent events in Phoenix demonstrate, there are conductors who believe that older principals can’t play well simply because they’re older.

And older musicians have other drawbacks for some conductors. It is hard for older musicians not to know quite a bit about the music they play, the orchestra in which they play, and what should be done in rehearsal to make it sound better. It is not unusual for orchestra musicians with decades of experience to know more about those things than a young Music Director, or at least to believe that they do. And such a belief will inevitably affect the interactions between those experienced musicians and a young and inexperienced Music Director. I have known some conductors in that situation who have handled it with grace and wisdom. I have even known a few who have tried to learn from those musicians. But there are many examples of conductors wanting to surround themselves with musicians who don’t suspect they might know as much, or more, about what’s going on as does the Music Director. A conductor who regards himself as “Maestro” is not going to want musicians in front of them that can easily detect the wetness behind their ears.

However, there is no easily accessible data that might indicate that age discrimination at the end of musicians’ careers is an industry-wide problem. Many musicians close to retirement chose to negotiate a severance package rather than go through a drawn-out and public termination process, even if they aren’t convinced that they’d ultimately lose. And managements are generally willing to accommodate them, both to avoid losing and to not force the Music Director into an unpopular stance with the orchestra or the public.

Other forms of discrimination

The reader who has made it this far might have noticed that there’s been no discussion of the one form of discrimination that, above all others, has determined the nature of American society – racial discrimination. And yet American orchestras have proportionally far fewer African-American or Latino members than does the population as a whole. Does this suggest that there has been racial discrimination in the hiring process?

More data would be needed to state that with any confidence. If, as is likely the case, the number of African-American or Latino musicians entering the orchestral training pipeline is also disproportionately low, then the low number of such musicians hired could simply indicate a self-selection problem. Given that auditions for the largest orchestras regularly attract hundreds of applicants, it would take more than a handful of minority candidates to make hiring one at all likely. Fortunately for orchestras, there are organizations in the field, such as the Sphinx Organization that are working hard to increase the number of minority instrumentalists. (For a different perspective on this issue, read the “In Pursuit of Diversity in Our Orchestras” by Aaron Dworkin, Founder and President of the Sphinx Organization.)


Of these three legally invidious forms of discrimination, it would appear from the numbers that gender discrimination – especially in the hiring of principal musicians – is the easiest to demonstrate and the hardest to pass off as based on artistic criteria. Age discrimination, while it does play a role in hiring and especially in terminations and forced retirements, would be impossible to separate out statistically from the phenomenon of declining skills in some older musicians. (There are, of course, other criteria to use in judging individual cases of alleged age discrimination, but they’re not helpful to an analysis across the field). And the possibility of racial discrimination in orchestra hiring would need more data to assess. But it’s likely that there simply aren’t enough minority musicians in the training and pre-professional pipeline to develop a statistical basis to demonstrate that such discrimination is systemic.

But what is true of the field is not necessarily true of any given orchestra. Certainly the numbers in all three cases justify some soul-searching on the part of audition committees and Music Directors. Even presenting the appearance of discrimination is problematic in today’s climate of diversity. If the reality of discrimination exists in a particular orchestra, not only is it engaged in illegal and unethical conduct, but that orchestra is liable to be placed in a very embarrassing public light sooner or later.

Just ask the management of the Phoenix Symphony.

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