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The story of Abbie Conant, first trombonist, and a Conductor trapped by prejudice

When prejudice becomes blindness

2021 April 28 | by Arduino Mancini Heuristics and biases - Stories

In 1980, musician Abbie Conant was at the beginning of her career, playing the trombone at the Teatro Regio in Turin.

At that time she decided to apply to other orchestras, 11 to be precise, all over Europe; she received only one response, from the Munich Philharmonic.

Dear Mr Abbie Conant”, began the letter.

In the audition, the candidates played behind the screen, invisible to the jury.

This was a rare occurrence in Europe at the time, but one candidate was the son of a member of one of the city’s orchestras; to avoid any favouritism, the Philharmonic had decided in the first round of auditions to conceal the identity of the musicians.

Conant played Ferdinand David’s “Concertino for Trombone and Orchestra”, a piece customary for additions in Germany, and missed a note.

“It’s over!” she said to herself and went to pack her bags.

But the jury was impressed. Classical music experts say they can tell if a musician is good in a few moments, sometimes even from the first note, and with Conant there was no doubt.

She played 16th out of 33 candidates and the other 17 were sent home.


when the jury realised that Frau Conant was not the Herr Conant they all expected,
the room was embarrassed.

The audition included two more performances and she passed them with flying colours.

A year later, in 1981, Conant was downgraded to second trombone without explanation. It took a year for Conant to prove herself again, but according to the conductor, “as a trombone soloist, you need a man“.

The musician had no choice but to take legal action and the Philharmonic argued in its defence that “the plaintiff does not possess the necessary physical strength to conduct the trombone section”.

Conant was given extensive pneumatological examinations and found to be well above average. An audition in front of a trombone expert was arranged, which she passed brilliantly.

The Orchestra then claimed that she was unreliable and unprofessional, but the assertion was clearly instrumental.

It was only after eight years that Conant was given her first trombone position again. The Orchestra refused to pay Conant the same amount as its male colleagues; the artist sued and won again.

She prevailed against all charges, and she prevailed because she was able to use an argument that the Munich Philharmonic could not refute:

the Conductor (Sergiu Celibidache) who was now questioning her talent,
had heard her play the trombone concertino under absolutely objective conditions
and had then exclaimed: “that’s what we want!”

What can we learn from this lesson?

Prejudice is a widespread cognitive error, which can lead to very “unpleasant” situations:

  • induce people to make mistakes that can be extremely costly, as happened in the case of the Director of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra;
  • neglecting the talents of people who can make a significant contribution to the success of the organisation because of their gender or their diversity.

What do you think about this story?

(1 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)
Michele D'Urzo 4 May 2021 8:34

How many times do we hear:
“You are right, but …”
We must admit (sadly) that the “brain” hardly prevalis over the “guts”.
In a culture where popularity and public (i.e. box-office sales) count more than quality and excellence, we must be aware of the hard facts.
I don’t mean we have to give up, but that if we want to overcome the prejudices, we must be ready for a long and hard fight.

    AM 4 May 2021 8:40

    Are you ready to fight Michele? 🙂

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