Some female musicians used to slip off their heels before walking behind a fabric screen to play a so-called "blind audition." They were concerned that the committee on the other side of the screen would hear the "click, click, click" of their shoes and judge her more negatively as a woman.

Created to achieve gender equity in the classical world, the blind audition forces a committee to judge a musician's worth strictly on sound. It is not the only part of the process of winning a post at a major orchestra, but it is a highly prized step — and one that has achieved its aim. In 1920 there was one woman in what is now the Minnesota Orchestra. Today, 47 percent of the 76 rostered musicians are women.

And a carpet now is laid for musicians to walk on, so everyone can keep their heels.

The blind audition has become a conversation piece as the classical music world tries to nudge its image as an old, white, European art form. The hope is to get the orchestral world looking more like America in the 20th century.

Forget the 21st century, that will take another couple of decades.

"I think that's correct," said Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, which made diversity the theme of its just-concluded annual conference in Baltimore. "The things that might be worked on for K-12 students, for example, are not going to be realized for 20 years on the level of the professional orchestras. There is a small window that you can engage, and it's difficult to decide when you're a teenager that you're going to be a classical violinist."

On a certain level, the field is the least diverse by far among the performing arts. The league's 2014 statistical report showed that nearly 86 percent of orchestral musicians are Caucasian of some nationality. Nine percent are Asian and Pacific Islander, 2.5 percent are Latino and 1.8 percent are African-American. American Indians make up 0.1 percent.

Nearly 50 percent are women, however.

The numbers are stark at the Twin Cities' top orchestras. There is not a single black musician on the rosters of either the Minnesota Orchestra (87 percent white) or the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (65 percent). There is only one Hispanic. Two report themselves as "two or more" races.

Asians and Asian-Americans, on the other hand, have numbers in both orchestras (12 percent at the MO, 23 percent at SPCO) that beat the national average. According to the League, the number of Asian orchestral musicians nationally has risen by 80 percent over the past five years.

"It's a common story" among Asian-American musicians, said Kyu Young-Kim, artistic director and principal second violin for the SPCO. His parents insisted on classical music lessons for both he and his sister.

How to change the structure

The blind audition discussion inevitably arises at places like the national convention. How can orchestras change the face of their ensembles, when you judge without seeing that face?

Aaron Dworkin founded Sphinx, a Detroit nonprofit that has become a national leader in hosting music camps, filling several ensembles with young musicians of color and advocating for orchestras to loosen up. Several years ago he suggested that orchestras rethink blind auditions.

"Orchestral music is more than the sum of its notes," Dworkin wrote in a post for the blog Polyphonic. "Basing the composition of the orchestra solely upon the performance of audition excerpts, without incorporating other aspects of the musician, limits the ability of an orchestra to deliver the best artistic result."

In an e-mail, Dworkin said he stands by those remarks. Many industries, universities and nonprofits recognize the importance of using "racial/cultural background as one amongst a series of factors in hiring, with merit always being the priority," he said. Why not orchestras, too?

Orchestra musicians insist that the blind audition is only part of the process.

"We are always talking about the audition process, all the aspects, how to make it better," said Sam Bergman, chair of the Minnesota Orchestra's musicians' governing body. "We look at everything."

The SPCO's Kyu declares the blind audition "sacrosanct" for its capacity to "level the playing field." A single instrument can be spare and distinct in a chamber ensemble like the SPCO, and technical requirements are getting higher and higher. Yet Kyu said candidates are invited to play with the ensemble, where they are judged on their communication skills, their sense of team play and chemistry.

It is a bit of a Catch-22: The blind audition is not the only criterion, but everyone has to go through it and a good score gets you to the next round.

Who is in the pipeline?

The fundamental problem is what diversity advocates call "the pipeline" — the academic feeder system that restocks the pond with fresh talent.

"Changing the process assumes a diverse pool, and that's not the case," said Catherine Schaefer Schubilske, a violinist with the Minnesota Orchestra. She is trying to change that, working with young students of color at El Sistema in north Minneapolis.

Racial disparities among orchestra leaders and boards of directors — not to mention audiences — are more pronounced. Roderick Cox, hired last year as the Minnesota Orchestra's associate conductor, joins Atlanta Symphony's Joseph Young as the only black staff conductors in major U.S. symphony orchestras.

"We talk a lot," said Cox, a native of Macon, Ga., who came here from the Alabama Symphony.

In grade school, Cox was a percussionist who didn't like sitting at the back of the band with little to do, so he picked up the French horn as a 13-year-old. It was not easy being one of a handful of students of color among 600 at the Aspen Festival, or one of two among 100 at Interlochen — both summer camps for talented students.

"Pretty soon you look around and you're the only one in the room," Cox said. "It can feel very lonely."

He fell out of love with the horn in college but pursued conducting as a way of staying in the game. Among his duties is conducting the orchestra's Young People's Concerts, where he is a teen idol among diverse audiences of students.

"We get many comments after concerts from students who say things like 'I was so happy to see a conductor who looked like me,' and how they feel that 'I can do this,' " said Jessica Liebfried, the orchestra's director of community engagement.

Cox takes it in stride but recognizes he symbolizes something more than himself — not quite the Jackie Robinson of orchestra conductors but a signal accomplishment.

"The role model is very important," said Cox, who will conduct the orchestra's Symphony in the Cities series this week (see page E2).

MacPhail, the state's largest music school, is trying to stock the pipeline, too. Forty-six percent of its 14,500 students come from ethnically diverse backgrounds, said CEO Paul Babcock. That percentage has nearly doubled in 10 years as MacPhail pushed to reach students in underrepresented communities, through partner­ships with such schools as Ascension and Harvest Prep in north Minneapolis.

These are strings-based programs, which see retention rates of 80 to 90 percent, Babcock said. Once kids get out of high school, though, as with any profession, the going gets tougher.

"They are asking: 'Where is the next opportunity for me as a student? Will someone help me, with funding, with logistics?' " Babcock said. "The acceptance policies in conservatories — some of those criteria need to be revisited."

He, like Dworkin, suggests that "playing all the notes right" should share space with other aspects that would help students get accepted. Babcock represented MacPhail at a conference that the Mellon Foundation called last December to focus on orchestral diversity. Mellon is committing millions to study the issue.

The Minnesota Orchestra's president, Kevin Smith, says diversity was the biggest subject at the orchestra's most recent board meeting. "It's a changing world," he said. "The audition process is a core component that judges technical skill. But what can we do to generate a more diverse pool of applicants?"

Who is in the audience?

As for the diversity of audiences, "things are not OK," said Lindsey Hansen, the SPCO's communication director. "Audiences should see themselves reflected and it's crucially important to us because you're cutting your art form off from a huge percentage of the population."

The SPCO has become a leader in pushing the music into nontraditional venues and formats. Kyu mentioned a Wynton Marsalis piece the orchestra performed. Hansen said a recent "happy hour" concert was a sellout success (the free beer didn't hurt) with 50 percent of attendees saying they'd never been to an SPCO event. Nightclub shows at Amsterdam and Icehouse have been big hits, as is the SPCO's Liquid Music series.

Beneath all the chatter is a fundamental issue: Classical music organizations mainly play work by dead, white Europeans. Kyu takes the point, yet he considers the work both specific and timeless.

"It represents great works of art, speaks to our humanity," he said. "A lot of it is context. A program of all standard Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, it becomes about Vienna. When you bring in something contemporary to balance that, then the music becomes more universal."

In the coming season, the SPCO will program another piece by Marsalis and something by Chevalier de Saint-Georges, the first known classical composer of African ancestry.

"The big opportunity is what's going to happen on the main stages," said the league's Rosen. "Orchestras have worked on diversity through community and educational work while holding constant in the subscription series repertory. There's going to be some rethinking about that."

Yes, and there is lots to think about.

Graydon Royce • 612-673-7299 • @graydonroyce