The picture above, circa 1960, shows a youthful group of German mandolinists and guitarists. (I am playing mandolin.) The group, previously all-male, had agreed to admit women into their circle. Three of us passed muster.

Malcolm Gladwell’s “Listening with Your Eyes,” his concluding essay in Blink, documents the struggle for fairness in symphony orchestras. Not long ago, he writes, the world of classical music was the exclusive preserve of white males. Musicians’ ranks and positions were finagled by the maestro, often on flimsy evidence of expertise. “Auditions for major orchestras were sometimes held in the conductor’s dressing room or in his hotel room,” notes Gladwell. 

The Munich Philharmonic’s Sergiu Celibidache was “an imperious and strong-willed man with very definite ideas about how music ought to be played—and who ought to play music.” Musicians, needless to say, resented conductors’ abuses of power and strove to formalize the audition process. In the summer of 1980, having listened to fifteen try-outs and then hearing Auditioner 16 perform, Celibidache cried out, “That’s who we want!” The remaining 17 players waiting their turn to audition were waved aside—but when Auditioner 16 stepped out from behind the screen, Abbie Conant was revealed to be a woman. She passed two further auditions with flying colors and Celibidache had no choice but to hire her; still, a year later he demoted her to second trombone.


“You know the problem,” he told her. “We need a man to play solo trombone.” 


In a process that took eight years, Conant sued and was reinstated, but at a salary lower than her male colleagues. She instigated a suit for equal pay that took another five years, and again she prevailed—because, under conditions of perfect objectivity, Celibache had said, “That’s who we want,” dismissing the remaining trombonists. Ironically, the only reason the Munich maestro opted for screened auditions at a time when they were still rare: one of the auditioners was the son of a musician her personally knew. “Abbie Conant was saved by the screen,” observes Gladwell, though noting that others were not so lucky. In another town, one musician was sent packing on blatantly racist terms:


“A screened applicant qualified himself as the best, and as the screen was raised, there stood a Japanese before the stunned jury,” he quotes from a memoir by Otto Strasser of the Vienna Philharmonic, “a grotesque situation.” To Strasser as to his Viennese colleagues, “someone who was Japanese simply could not play with any soul or fidelity music that was composed by a European.”


In the thirty years during which screened auditions and audition committees have replaced the idiosyncrasies of the maestro, “an extraordinary thing happened: orchestras began to hire women,” writes Gladwell. Since then, “[T]he number of women in the top U. S. orchestras have increased fivefold.” Benefits have been all around, he observes, for, by hiring the best musicians, the orchestras produce better music. Hierarchies are socially constructed and so, they can be modified or dismantled. It means, however, examining the privilege of power and rank, something we’d rather not do, for we understand all too well: power corrupts. 


“You are a nobody,” a university dean, with all the arrogance of academic weightiness, said to me soon after my beginning a tenure-track job in “his” university. For year the remark threw a shadow on my career, but today I ask myself: What if that dean tried to say something else but couldn’t get the words right? At a wedding in California years ago, when a young German confided his thoughts about immigrating to the US, I answered, “There are too many Germans here already.” Why was I so unkind to someone I hardly knew? What was I trying to say? Perhaps this: “My brother, whom my husband and I brought to the States when he was fourteen, is marrying again. I’m afraid it’ll end badly. Whatever Helmut attempts, it seems to end badly. His second son is named after a boy who drowned when Helmut’s catamaran capsized out of Morro Bay harbor.” We misspeak, we misread. (You may view pictures of Helmut in Picture Gallery.)


I know that words, which I love, are themselves the culprit. Differentiation begins with word order: a verb tells us more than an adjective does. “All music is created equal,” says Peter Schickele in his popular radio show; likewise, we might say that all words are created equal. Nevertheless, we prioritize the concepts important to us and subordinate the rest. Our day-to-day thinking proceeds only insofar as we are able to differentiate, classify, rank, and categorize whatever information we are asked to digest. We also rank the people we encounter, not by their intrinsic value—their knowledge or experience and training—but according to our own idiosyncrasies and prejudices or, at best, in reference to our current needs or position in life. We do this even when deep down we know the shortcuts are inaccurate, sometimes downright harmful.