Creative ways musicians can take the lead

Volume 119, No. 6June, 2019

Shea Scruggs and Weston Sprott

Over the past year, orchestras have mobilized in significant ways to create pathways into the field for musicians of color. Orchestras, working together with funders, educational institutions, and professional organizations, have forged strong alliances to solidify pathways towards greater diversity. While these efforts to reach outward are crucial for advancing diversity, it is equally vital for orchestras to look inward at strengthening inclusion.

Musicians must lead this work. They are the gatekeepers to diversity and the tone-setters of inclusion. Many musicians underestimate their ability to advance inclusion. In our work with musicians and organizations, we have observed several creative ways musicians can take the lead towards creating more inclusive ensembles.

Most orchestral job postings are logistical and informational, containing nothing more than the organization name, job title, audition dates, and some contact information. While this approach helps managers efficiently disseminate information, it forgoes an opportunity for musicians to reflect on and communicate what they value.

Musicians should take ownership of this aspect of the hiring process, drafting organizational descriptions that inspire and attract. What qualities are you looking for in a new colleague, besides being an excellent musician? What is the musical and aesthetic philosophy of your ensemble? Musicians are more than cogs in a machine. Draft job descriptions that reflect the vitality and dynamism that musicians bring to the stage every night.

Inclusion starts before the audition. A sparse and logistical posting gives the message that musicians in this orchestra are chosen to play, not to think or engage. This inadvertent message is a barrier to inclusion hiding in plain sight, and it limits how musicians perceive their ability to connect with colleagues, audiences and communities. It suggests that musicians can only be valuable for their playing and that their playing can only be understood separately from their personhood.

Musicians can increase their value, both real and perceived, to the organization and audiences by taking the time to articulate their values to themselves and prospective colleagues.

Cognitive bias is inherent to how humans perceive the world. Our brains take shortcuts to process the deluge of stimuli we encounter in every moment. This process evolved over thousands of years, and it affects us all. Think you’re immune? Take a few minutes to learn about the McGurk Effect, a perceptual phenomenon that proves what we hear is inescapably influenced by what we see.

When it comes to auditions, ensure that the process yields an unbiased assessment of a candidate’s performance qualifications as measured against other candidates. We believe the following procedural factors will help orchestras mitigate the effects of cognitive bias.

Screen every round
This concept is becoming more recognized as a best practice. Last year, the delegates and officers to the 2018 International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians (ICSOM) passed a resolution encouraging “all orchestras to adopt an audition process that retains screens throughout every individual round of the audition.” Musicians should take this concept even further by screening chamber music and ensemble rounds.

No discussion of specific candidates during the audition
Discussing specific candidates opens the door to implicit bias and organizational politics. Audition committees should feel free to discuss the process in general before hearing candidates. For example, members of the committee who play the same instrument may wish to share insights into why a particular excerpt is included on the audition list. The committee might discuss and collectively affirm their aesthetic philosophies. But once the playing starts, the conversations should stop.

No trial weeks
The rationale for trial weeks is sensible: musicians want to see how a new colleague will fit in with the ensemble. However, this is precisely why trial weeks inhibit inclusion. The focus shifts from “musical ability” to “fitting in.” Focusing on “fitting in” opens the door to a host of social and cognitive biases.

A trial week becomes a referendum on how quickly and effectively the candidate adapts to and navigates ensemble norms rather than a measure of how the candidate played relative to other candidates.

Trial weeks create an out-group of one. This dynamic affects the candidate’s performance and the committee’s assessment. Not only does this magnify biases, it also dilutes focus on the music. It does not serve the music to lend one ear to evaluating a prospective colleague and another ear toward collaboration.

Moreover, in our experience, trial weeks are often offered in bad faith as a superficially logical way to decline candidates who have otherwise already distinguished themselves.

No failed searches (i.e. “no-hire” audition results)
Commit to offering the job to the candidate who receives the most votes in the audition process. In academia, failed searches occur frequently. Usually, they are the result of organizational politics – an impasse between members of a search committee. In orchestras, “no-hire” audition results happen for nominally defensible reasons: “No candidate played well enough” or “no candidate was a good fit.”

While there can be valid reasons to fail a search, it’s unfair to candidates to move the goal posts or change the criteria for success midstream. Moreover, given that the orchestral employment landscape shifts audition costs onto musicians, it borders on unethical when a search process results in a no-hire.

Eliminate conflicts of interest on the committee
Conflicts of interest are related to failed searches. The following musicians should be ineligible to serve on an audition or tenure review committee:

  • Musicians who could play interim appointments if the search resulted in a no-hire.
  • Musicians who could be offered the permanent position in the event of a no-hire.
  • Musicians who could financially benefit – for example, they have a spouse who could play as a substitute in the interim.

Unfortunately, we have observed each of those scenarios on orchestral audition committees. In searches for principal positions, these scenarios can be tricky to navigate. While assistant and associate principals can step in to play, they should not serve on the audition committee when they do so.

Get the most out of every new colleague by fostering a supportive and inclusive environment with sincere and constructive feedback.

Shift your mindset. You are not adding a new musician to an existing group. You are forming a new group that includes a new musician as a member. Welcoming a new player is an opportunity to renew and reinvent an inclusive culture. When a player is denied tenure, the organization has failed, not the musician. Your colleague’s success and growth through the process is ultimately an investment in the artistic vitality of your ensemble.

Require all committee members to attend workshops about implicit bias and group dynamics. Before going about the business of evaluating others, musicians should first make sure they understand the subconscious elements that will inform their decision and evaluation processes.

No anonymous feedback. Feedback should be transparent, and the candidate should be in the room when being discussed, instead of just being told the results of a discussion. If members of the committee cannot comfortably share candidate feedback with the candidate in the room, that’s a good sign that the feedback is not candid or constructive.

Make feedback bi-directional. The tenure review committee invests a lot of energy into what it needs from the candidate. Consider what the candidate needs from the orchestra. Ask yourselves and the candidate: Are we investing in this musician’s growth and making them comfortable enough to contribute value to the orchestra? As colleagues, your stated goal should be to support new colleagues successfully through tenure.

Funders recognize that musicians must lead the march towards greater inclusion. Musicians should confidently and directly propose musician-driven and musician-centered initiatives.
There are many places to start. Here are a few ideas:

Conduct an inclusion survey. Survey your membership. Where are the hidden barriers to inclusion?

Invest in professional development. Enhance your skills and knowledge around other things that will improve your workplace.

Attend a diversity conference. There are many conferences focused on inclusion. Not planning to attend the League of American Orchestras Conference this year in Nashville? Check out the 23rd Annual Diversity and Inclusion Conference being held the same day in Brooklyn. Musicians can learn from leaders in other fields, and leaders in different fields are eager to learn from musicians!

Leading inclusion does more than create pathways for more diverse groups of capable musicians. It provides a context for musicians to think deeply about what they value and to invest in skills and processes that make orchestras a better place to work and perform.

Shea Scruggs, a former professional oboist, is a strategic initiatives consultant who works closely with senior leadership teams to build mission-driven and data-driven projects. MET Orchestra trombonist Weston Sprott is an active educator and advocate/consultant for diversity and inclusion efforts in classical music. Contact them at: or


How well do you know your biases?

#1 Actor-observer bias: the tendency to attribute other people’s behavior to disposition while attributing
your own behavior to circumstances.

#2 Authority bias: the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure (unrelated to its content) and
be more influenced by that opinion.

#3 Bandwagon effect (groupthink): the tendency to align our beliefs and behaviors with the beliefs and behaviors of the group.

#4 Confirmation bias: when our brains favor information that confirms our existing beliefs and disregards information that conflicts with our existing beliefs. Confirmation bias dramatically distorts objective assessments. Have a look at this research: “Written in Black and White: Exploring Confirmation Bias in Racialized Perceptions of Writing Skills” ( and-white-yellow-paper-series). Given the same memo, evaluators found more errors and assigned a lower rating to a legal memo when told the author was Black; evaluators found fewer errors and assigned a higher rating when told the author was White.

#5 Halo Effect: when your judgment of a person is positively affected by an unrelated but positively perceived trait.

#6 Horn Effect: when your judgment of a person is adversely affected by an unrelated but negatively perceived trait.

#7 In-group bias: the tendency to favor members of one’s own in-group over members of an out-group.

#8 Status quo bias: the tendency to like things to stay relatively the same.