The Dartmouth Aires and Red Flags: Who's Judging?

The Dartmouth Aires are Dartmouth’s oldest a cappella performance group. Known for their colorful outfits and eclectic personalities, they have been a staple on campus since 1946.[1] Today, they are the preeminent performers of Dartmouth Traditionals: an unofficial and loosely defined set of relatively old Dartmouth a cappella songs from circa 1890 to 1960.[2] Although most of the songs have been phased out throughout the college’s generations, some have established themselves as staples on campus or within certain circles of alumni.

A cappella is a serious phenomenon on campus. The audition process is rigorous, members have to commit to several hours of practice per week as well as give up a large chunk of their winter break for tour, and, perhaps more so than other clubs on campus, become insular social circles of their own. But in considering the question, “who gets to participate,” one naturally ponders the enigmatic audition process.

In the words of one member in the Aires, the audition process is “kind of ridiculously intense.”[3] Every auditionee must perform a series of pitch matches and scales. If the auditionee makes it through the scoring system, which several of my interviewees could not even describe, he then performs an actual song for the group. After this, the lucky few get called back and inducted as new members of the Aires.

Although the audition process is ostensibly simple, there is a disconnect between the new members of the Aires and the composition of Dartmouth's student body. In the academic year 2021-2022, the Aires took five new members, 4 of whom were white. The class above them has 4 members, all of whom are white. The class above that class has 5 members, 3 of whom are white. The class above that is 1/6th nonwhite. The class above that is 1/5th nonwhite. The past five graduating classes included 25 members; 5 were people-of-color. According to the Dartmouth website, 44% of the student body consists of POCs.[4] The math is simple: the Aires miss the mark.

To the people who say that these numbers are cause for alarm: perhaps. To those who say that these numbers are shocking: not at all. The everyday economist could create numerous pathways to these numbers. For instance:

High-income households can afford musical training for their children (1)
High-income households’ children get into Dartmouth (see above) (2)
People with musical training are the best equipped for the audition process (3)
Most high-income households are not filled with POCs (4)

Definitely rudimentary, though certainly plausible. However, if we believe that there is something else within the selection process — say, the “ridiculously intense” and, dare I posit, potentially biased audition process — there may be a way to address these issues internally.

I was curious as to whether outsiders were the only people that took notice of the Aires' relatively homogenous composition, so I asked interviewees if the group has ever had discussions of diversity or representation when considering new members. One respondent’s response to the question was fairly terse: “No, I’d say mostly the thing we focus on is musical ability, more than anything else.”

Well, if the Aires are focused on musical ability, why not use a blind audition process? Consider groups that are supposed to be exemplars of judging the merits of musical talent: classical orchestras. Such a system would be easy to adopt at Dartmouth. However, when asked why the group does not utilize a blind audition process, I was told:

"We are a musical group first… but also… we are just as much a social group. We may be brought together because of our musicality… but it’s definitely a strong social group as well. And I think that having the auditions be not blind lets us also determine mostly whether there is some red flag before letting a person join our space."

To clarify, I mentioned the possibility of blind auditions, and the interviewee responded that the Aires are a social group, as if to suggest that seeing the auditionee somehow signals to the group how sociable the auditionee might be. In fact, I doubled down on this respondent, saying exactly that, just to clarify his response. He replied, “yeah, I mean… hmm… not sure *laughs*.”

The notion that seeing the auditionee can somehow give the group information allowing them to extrapolate his sociability carries huge implications. What, exactly, are they looking for? What are these “red flags” that might result in someone getting dinged? Could it potentially be the clothes they wear? Is there some sort of implicit bias against people with a certain skin color? I was told that the Aires are an artistic group driven to find the best through their musicality, yet, when I confronted one of them with the reasonable possibility of removing the visual aspect of the audition process, I was met with alarm. To be fair, the respondent admitted later in the interview that, “I can’t imagine that there isn’t some level of underlying bias [in auditions] that sort of infiltrates every other part of this university.” To say it out loud is one thing; to act on it is another.

I proposed blind auditions in my interviews with members to get the conversation started, but the idea of “blindness” is filled with problems of its own. William Cheng’s Loving Music Till It Hurts discusses in depth the issues surrounding the need for blind auditions in the first place.[5] He writes:

“Put performers behind screens too habitually and we might forget why we need to do so. Preach too zealously the virtues of meritocracy and we could stumble into the traps of post-racial and colorblind fantasies.”

Put simply in the context of the Aires, if they did start to hang polyester screens in front of the auditionee, we might begin to ask ourselves, “what is this actually covering up?” What “red flags” are we curing through the veil, and why are these “red flags” an issue to begin with? I was not given any specific examples, so I can only conjecture, but suppose an auditionee with a “red flag” somehow made it through the audition process under a blind audition system. He is an incredible singer, easily the best that auditioned in the cycle. What happens at the big reveal when the group sees him for the first time? Do they embrace him with welcome arms because of his unparalleled musicality? Or do they ostracize him in disgust, angry at themselves for being duped by the perceived justice of the blind audition? We can only suppose what the “red flags” are, but the fact that they are driven by visual signals beacons us to consider the biases that we hold against one another.

The goal of this section has been to explore the question of who gets to participate. Music as a participatory exercise can be an incredible tool for promoting inclusion, that is, when everyone is allowed to participate equitably. Unfortunately, the converse is true, and we see with the a cappella audition process that artificial barriers to entry, sometimes under convoluted criteria, have kept people out of the musical community at Dartmouth. Taking steps to critically assess the structures we – the student body – set up to induct members into our musical groups can help uplift people with “red flags,” whatever those flags may be. Are they not people, members of our institution, as well?



[2] Although this is commonly known in the student-body, it was also confirmed to me in my interview with an Aire (anonymous)

[3] From an interview with an Aire (anonymous)


[5] Cheng, William. 2020. Loving Music Till It Hurts. Oxford University Press.

Previous: Who Gets to Participate -- Next: Eleazar Wheelock and the Native American Musical Narrative