Friday, 7 February 2014

Blind Auditions

This article first appeared in

I watched the BBC's The Voice UK (the UK suffix to distinguish it from the Dutch original on which it's based) for the first time at the weekend. More than a decade of reality/fly-on-the-wall television makes for keeping a cynical distance from what is, ostensibly, an X Factor clone. However, I was intrigued to watch the principal gimmick of the show in action, that is to say the Blind Audition.

In one form or another blind auditions have always been around. The main idea is that the performer is given the opportunity to be judged on the precise criteria for which they are to be used. We've all heard the phrase 'a great face for radio', which highlights the appeal of the blind audition by turning its value upside down - the idea that an individual's appearance might be considered at odds with the qualities of their voice.

Blind auditions also serve another purpose, which is the drama of discovering that the origins of a talent can confound the expectations of those who hear it. The big reveal is a staple coup of a film such as Singin' In The Rain. Interestingly it's also constitutent of the drama in a talent show like X Factor where the audience and panel can already see the performer - only to have their prejudices confounded. Indeed, it's possible that the success of averagely talented (if brave) individuals in such a situation is as much to do with an audience or panel over-compensating for their embarrassment in judging a performer on criteria that doesn't - and shouldn't - consitute their ability.

In The Voice UK, a panel of celebrity perfomers sit in chairs facing away from the performance stage. The performer sings live (amplified/balance with a microphone and accompanied with a live band). During the 90 seconds of their opportunity, the panel have to decide whether or not they like what they hear sufficiently to want to turn round, which commits them to helping to mentor the performer towards other performing opportunities.

Of course, there are a number of political, face-saving and showbiz-like games that are played out in this situation. Essentially though, the panel judge what they hear on that criteria alone.

Age, dress, shape or skin colour are almost impossible to discern. Even sex can also be rather difficult. The sex of the performer is an important issue in blind auditioning. A study carried out in Princetone University over a decade ago showed that blind auditions had significant potential in overcoming the sex-bias of the constituent members of Europe and American orchestras
Traditionally, new members of the great symphony orchestras were handpicked by the music director and principal player of each section. Most contenders were the male students of a select group of teachers. 
To overcome bias, most major U.S. orchestras began to broaden and democratize their hiring procedures in the 1970s and 1980s, advertising openings, allowing orchestra members to participate in hiring decisions and implementing blind auditions in which musicians audition behind a screen that conceals their identities but does not alter sound. 
[Florence Nelson, director of symphonic services at the American Federation of Musicians] recalled how sensitive she was to the gender issue while auditioning. She remembers being told in the 1980s to remove her shoes while walking to center stage behind a screen, so the judges would not hear the "clickety-clack" of a woman's high heels.
There are two differences in this situation to what is now a conventional TV talent show. The first is that the audience - live and at home - can see the perfomer(s) before the panel. As a result, the sense of catharsis is different, though the 'reality' inserts and backstage cameras seek to open up the back story that democratises the performers' lives.

The second is also slight but has a greater effect. The Voice UK uses no compere, the presenter keeping a very low profile, even in voiceover to pre-recorded tape. As a result, the behaviour of the audience, the panel and the apprehension of the performer, even after we have heard them perform is not moderated. There are any number of conventions that the BBC keep in place, from editing the pre-record to the moody music that plays over a back story about an individual's battle with weight or bereavement but telling the audience what to think at any one point is reduced to nest to nothing.

Clearly a blind audition is not always going to be practical. Auditions for singers in particular may depend on very specific roles or the demands of a director. Yet it is worth bearing in mind that having confidence in one's own ability may be as surprising to a panel who, like many of us have experienced as an audience to talent shows, may harbour some prejudice despite themselves. This residual part of the 'blind audition' may yet work in your favour.

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