Your Lying Eyes

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16 December 2006

Stereotyping at the Philharmonic

Last year I posted about diversity at the New York Philharmonic (and this was followed by near identical articles in the NYT and WaPo). The general trend of women becoming more dominant in the strings continues. I attended this concert last night, and did my best to count up and remember the basic demographics of the players. Of the 13 first violins, 8 were women, and 3 of these East Asian. There were also 8 women among the 14 second violinists, of whom 6 were Asian and two of the men were Asian - 8 asians in all. In the viola section, 7 of 12 were women, but no Asians. I was surprised by the dominance of women among the cellists - my recollection is that out of 9 cellists there were only 3 men. Only 2 were Asian (one of whom tried to trick me with streaked blond hair). But then when we got to the double basses, things changed dramatically - all 8 were men (I couldn't tell if any were Asian from my vantage point, but of the ones I could see clearly none were).

The woodwinds were what you'd expect - the flutes were played by women, the clarinets, oboes and bassoons mostly played by men. And the several percussionists and 10-strong brass section were all men. And of course the harpists were women. All in all, the more delicate the instrument (requiring very fine and nimble finger movement), the more likely we are to find women playing it, while the bigger the instrument or the rougher its playing style (e.g., swinging sticks or blowing hard into long brass tubes), the more likely men will be wielding it.

Now this is interesting right now because Gene Expression's Razib has gotten into quite a little dust-up over a short post on how amazed he was to find an astonishingly good looking young woman avidly discussing science fiction at a coffee house. His accusers are essentially arguing as follows: Razib is stereotyping; stereotyping is evil; therefore Razib is evil. His defenders counter as follows: Good looking women are rarely interested in science fiction; Razib saw a good looking woman who was interested in sci-fi; Razib saw something rare.

You can see the problem here: the two sides have completely incompatible mind sets and so could never even settle on a middle ground or even on a "let's agree to disagree" point - there is no reconciliation of the two attitudes. For one side, the "validity" of the stereotype is completely irrelevant to its use - the very act of making an assumption about someone based on - well, anything - is out of bounds. I personally believe these people are full of shit - they are more than happy to make generalizations about men (or white men in particular). The other side sees patterns and is curious to what extent these patterns hold true and what might lead to them. That discussing some patterns (stereotypes) might be "harmful" irregardless (I love that word!) of how statistically convincing they may be is madness.

Then there is the Sailer-Gladwell dust up over car salesmen. Here, the clueless Gladwell, who's never done anything but write and go to school, is certain that car salesmen, the most manipulative and bottom-line focused group of people on the planet, don't know anything about selling cars because they typically take a different initial bargaining position depending on the race or sex of the customer. The gullible (though successful) Gladwell thinks the salesmen are victims of unconscious stereotyping - since the notion that men and women or whites and blacks might actually differ in their bargaining methods (as a general rule) is unthinkable.

That's why I find these patterns in the New York Philharmonic's make up so interesting. There are few more rarefied milieu's than that. These musicians are the cream of the cream of the crop, occupying a position of extraordinary prestige [imagine meeting someone at a party: "And what do you do?" "Oh, I'm a violinist. I play for the New York Philharmonic." Impressed?]. To be hired, they go through blind auditions, but that is after years of unimaginably rigorous training and single-minded dedication (from parents and student) and navigating through the most sophisticated cultural filters (think Juilliard). Yet after all that, the crudest generalities prevail - how small and nimble are your hands, are you big enough to handle a double-bass, do you like to bang on drums? To deny a woman a job playing timpani because of her sex would be wrong. Yet while orchestras use blind auditions, there are still almost no women timpanists (there might well be none for all I know) or percussionists or horn players.

By the way, this concert was a bit of a strain for me. Two Debussy pieces (ugh) sandwiched around two works by Finnish composers - a short Sibelius work (the evening's highlight - Sibelius was ethnically a Swede) and an excruciating new work by a female Finn, Kaija Saariaho. A Finnish female composer - talk about breaking stereotypes! I can assure you, though, that few left that concert wishing there were more of them.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Female percussionist: Evelyn Glennie.

December 16, 2006 4:59 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

Thanks, Vico!

From the wiki entry: She was the first full-time solo professional percussionist in 20th century western society. She is deaf. [EA]

Talk about the exception proving the rule!

December 16, 2006 5:26 PM  
Blogger Steve Sailer said...

Cello playing was already heavily female back in the 1970s, which I never understood because the playing posture isn't terribly dignified for women.

December 16, 2006 10:44 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

Very true. I caught Sara McLoughlin on Leno or Letterman Friday night. The contrast between her sensual voice and flowing piano playing well-cleavaged in her black evening gown - and the poor girl accompanying her on cello directly facing the audience with her legs akimbo around her instrument - well it made me chuckle.

December 17, 2006 8:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Women outnumbering men among elite violinists/violists runs counter to the tendency for the there to be more variation in men's mental attributes (e.g., IQ). That tendency suggests there should be more extraordinarily talented male string players, whatever the size of the instrument, than extraordinarily talented female players. That hypothesis also finds support in the fact that men have composed nearly all the great music and make up a diproportionate share of the listeners/devotees of every musical style, including orchestral music. This makes me think that reverse discrimination is lowering the number of male string players, whatever the symphonies say about blind auditions.

December 19, 2006 2:54 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

You seem to be suggesting that violin playing maps well to intelligence, but I don't know that that's true. I'm sure there is some positive correlation, but I doubt it's enough to expect the distribution of violin playing talent to mimic that for IQ.

I'm guessing men still dominate among soloists (the very best players in the world), but not so completely (like say, mathematicians).

The great composers were known as keyboardists primarily. Mozart also was a top-notch violinist, but when playing with others would usually take the viola (e.g. his Sinfonia Concertante).

So I don't agree - I'm sticking with my assumption that it's the smaller, nimbler fingers that lead to female domination of small strings rather than reverse discrimination.

December 19, 2006 10:49 PM  
Blogger Leonard said...

Nicotine, have you ever known a high-level musician? Classical, I mean; any kind that doesn't get women (/men) as a social side-effect of playing.

The few I've known were not particularly high-IQ types. I lived for a while with one in a group house, so I got to hear him practice. One short passage of one piece in particular, burned into my brain. Over, and over, and over. And over and over. And over. Endless. Days stretched into weeks, into months. Yet he did perfect that passage, something he eventually performed solo I think.

I'm smarter than him, but I could not do that. My brain rebelled just hearing it, not trying to force myself to do it. I'd get it right once or twice, then think, "good enough! let's play a game!"

I don't doubt that IQ correlates with high level musical skill, since it correlates with practically everything. But I would guess that the correlation is not particularly strong in this case.

December 20, 2006 10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sibelius was not ethnically a Swede but a Finland-Swede. Finland-Swedes are genetically closer to Finns than Swedes.

December 21, 2006 9:00 AM  
Blogger ziel said...

I stand corrected!

December 21, 2006 10:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do know of one female timpanist in the U.S. A Miss Charlotte Mabrey is the timpanist for the Jacksonville Symphony Orchstra. She's been with the orchestra for over 20 years.

December 24, 2006 1:13 PM  

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