Your Lying Eyes

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25 June 2005

Biodiversity at the Philharmonic

Saw the NY Philharmonic play Mahler's 6th last night. They did a fine job, but somewhere around 1/3 of the way into the 4th movement, I began looking at the orchestra members. And being a Mahler performance, the orchestra was huge.
Symphony orchestras are interesting because getting into one is highly competetive, but who gets chosen is based on blind auditions - so there is no favoritism, no secondary considerations, no prejudice involved in the selection.
These musicians train from an early age, are rigorously schooled, and represent the creme de la creme of musicians below the superstar category.
So what does the orchestra look like? I counted 18 first violinists. Six were men, 12 were women. A survey of the strings generally confirmed that at least half were women, except for the double basses, where only 1 of the 8 (eight!) was a woman.
Among the 20 woodwinds, 7 were women, but this is deceptive: of these, 4 were playing flutes (4 out of the 5 flautists). Of the remaining 15, only 3 were women. There were two harpists, and both were women, and two keyboardists, one a woman.
But among the remainder of the orchestra, featuring 6 percussionists and 20 brass, all 26 were men.
Ethnically, east asians were noticeable among the strings (about 1 in 5, maybe a little less). Only one of the winds was clearly east asian, and again none of the percussionists and brass. There was one black musician in the orchestra - a horn player - though he is one of the principals, not just brought out for the occasion as Mahler meat.
What to make of this? It appears that even in the rarefied world of the symphony orchestra, free of even subtle prejudice - where only superb skill and a lifetime of devotion can bring success, crude stereotypes still prevail. All the "manly" jobs - banging on drums and blowing into horns - are taken by men. Instruments requiring fine motor skills and where big fingers pose a problem - like harps and strings - find lots of women (and not a few asians) - the exception being the double basses, which are huge, ungainly instruments where big hands come in handy. In a highly competetive environment where objective skill measurement rules, such as in symphony orchestas and professional sports, one can see some subtle and often not-too-subtle population differences come to the fore.
The relative under-representation of blacks in symphony orchestras is interesting because music is one area where, unlike, say, chess, blacks aren't exactly second-string players. African Americans did, after all, invent, seeemingly out of whole cloth, an entire genre of serious music. There's a rich field for speculation here - everyone's favorite explanation for racial disparities could be employed plausibly. Certainly the training required to become a classical musician does not come cheaply, and so most blacks would be priced out of the market immediately. But classical music is also a fairly rigorous intellectual challenge, and the same forces that cause average African-American SAT scores to be 100 points lower than white scores could be at work here as well.


Anonymous Harlem said...

Who cares. Sorry,

July 01, 2005 8:42 PM  

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