Skip to main content

In early-morning darkness, on the train between two European cities, I find myself sitting next to a man, roughly my age, and we start a somewhat coffee-deprived conversation about where our travels are taking us. He, let’s call him Sam, is a pianist, and on the way to a day of examining first-year piano students at a university. In front of an expert panel, which he is a part of, the students play as part of an ensemble and subsequently receive a grade for their performance. Sounding somewhat puzzled, Sam describes how concerned the students are about their grades and that this tension can be felt throughout the day. In the end, he says, for most of them the grade will not have consequences for their career. However, for the top student of the year, who will get a prize, the grade will really materialize. Winning this prize, this one student will get invitations to play at events and thus, will have a kickstart to their career. The moment then is an important gatekeeping instance initiating an accumulation of advantages for the one student. 

Sam describes that the day will not only be straining due to the students and the task of listening actively but also because of the discussions he will have with the other four panel members. After each audition, there is a moment of reflection and a discussion designated to communally grading the performance on a scale from 0 to 100. Sam explains that the members come from different piano traditions– the Russian school, the German one and the British one and that these traditions clash in the evaluations. These schools (plus the French one), as a search-engine dive informs me while writing, characterize the main influential trends in performance, concerning the technique as well as the style of translating the “music’s spiritual, emotional and dramatic essence” (Laurenco, 2010, p.6), originating from the practices of major pianists in the given country (e.g.., from Mozart, Liszt, and Chopin). These traditions come with different ideas of what playing the piano well means. If it does not sound difficult enough to grade a performance individually, piecing these evaluations together appears even more tricky. The discussion then essentially commensurates the commensurations of the different judges. Commensuration, as defined by Espeland and Stevens (2010) is the transformation of “qualities into quantities, difference into magnitudes. It is a way to reduce and simplify disparate information into numbers that can easily be compared (p.316)”. The process then involves two moments of commensurating the performance: individually and in the panel.

Given that I am currently researching conceptions of being skilled in gatekeeping moments, I find myself taken in by his story and probe him on his grading of the auditions. Sam has developed his own system of commensuration, which consists of two separate parts: an intuitive one and a more deliberative one (he is an avid reader of Kahneman & Tversky). The intuitive judgement, explicitly based on his feelings is rated on a scale from 0 to 100. Sam makes this rating twice: early, after the first few seconds and, finally, at the very end. After the first couple of seconds, he describes that his intuitive judgement of the quality tends to be quite strong already. In this instance, the scale to him is a rating from the worst musical performance he has ever seen as a 0 to the very best one (it would be intriguing to know more about this act) as 100 points. 

Then, Sam details his deliberative judgement in greater detail. This judgement proceeds throughout the performance. He has subdivided the quality of play into four different rubrics: (1) technique, (2) understanding of the music piece, (3) artistry, and (4) how the person acts as part of the ensemble. He grades all these factors on a scale from 0 to 10, adds them up and then calculates the percentage score to finally make the deliberative and the intuitive score comparable. While, in an interview process, I would probably try to probe into each, my early-morning-self jumps onto point 3 – artistry – what does it mean to score high in artistry? 

Sam describes that whether someone is an artist or not is something he can just feel – it is about the way of playing the piano, the engagement with the audience – it appears quite like the creation of Collin’s (2005) emotional energy, of creating a moment of collective effervescence. Having just returned from a conference about Bourdieu, questions about how artistry links to one’s embodied cultural capital and how an evaluation of a seemingly naturalized binary of either being an artist or not being an artist matter in the grading process are dashing in my mind. I ask him whether he thinks being an artist is something that can be learned or acquired. Sam’s immediate reaction is to negate this: “no, you cannot just become an artist”. Merely a second later, he revisits the judgement, stating that it is something that people can acquire with different learning curves. For Sam, artistry is something everyone is born with, detailing this further, he points to something akin to the capacity for play. Later in life, so Sam explains, many lose this capacity. Once lost, the capacity to re-acquire it greatly varies between people. Acquiring it as someone who has fully lost it would require a lot of effort. As a path to becoming an artist, Sam explains, one could immerse oneself in literature and engage with others’ artistries (- acquiring cultural capital?). Sam uses the metaphor of the flower to refer to the awakening of artistry: once it has been planted you can feel it. I ask whether the flower then simply continues to grow, and he states that no – the process from there is not linear but rather a transitioning between stages. Coming into the conversation with an ideal of equal opportunities regarding grading, I challenge him on the criterion of artistry: would it not be fair to eliminate it, given that it is so hard to acquire? Sam is rather determined: in the end, he is judging artists, so making the judgement without accounting for artistry would miss the whole point of what it means to be excellent. 

Indeed, Sam’s impression is that the member of the Russian school on the panel seems to only base his judgements on artistry – for this judge, artistry and understanding (Sam’s second, separate criterion) would be equivalent. Sam highlights how different both are, using the example of a Shakespeare recital where one could imagine somebody performing in a very artistic way (- engaging with the audience, with an individual edge) but lacking an understanding of the old-English words. Asking whether it could also be the other way around, whether you could see understanding without artistry he describes that yes, it would just be the opposite: essentially understanding every word but not making you believe the performance. These different types of evaluating, of using different criteria of what constitutes a good performance – whether it is just artistry or whether understanding and technique are also significant in the auditioning – clash in the final judgements of grading. 

From here, I continue to ask him about his own judgements: How do the different judgements compare and how does he then come to a final grade? As mentioned above, Sam’s grading process leaves him with three grades, two intuitive ones, and one which is more deliberative. Sam describes that he actively constructs a different metric for the judgements (the intuitives from 0 to 100 and the deliberative from 0 to 40), for them to not be immediately comparable to his eye. When he does compare them, he appears to prioritize the deliberative judgement as more rational and therefore more significant. Sam describes that when the judgements do not compare, it is usually when the beginning and the end were better or worse than the mid-part of the playing. He also describes, however, that over time, the rubric he uses has come to shape his intuitive judgement.

Sam’s story shows that in a gatekeeping moment like this, different criteria are at play which constitute a grade, something we often just take as a given. Sam makes various judgements over the course of the performance and these greatly differ in their own logics (artistry next to intuition, next to technique), speaking to different ideas of what it means to be a skilled pianist (i.e., someone who can create emotional energy and appears cultured, someone who has a good technique). These logics also differ between the judges. In a way, there is a situation which dictates which criteria to use (i.e., they would not take the market value of the performance into account) but then the different thought communities judges come from also impact the single judgements. Similar to the research funding panelists whom Lamont (2009) studies, we see that people come into the evaluations with these scripts and toolkits but that the situation itself also determines how the judgements play out. Again comparably, we also see that even when people have similar criteria (such as artistry), their ways of prioritizing and conceptualizing them can vary greatly – for one, artistry may be equivalent to understanding, while – for someone else – both may be completely independent. Finally, another aspect I find interesting in Sam’s narrative reflects what De Keere (forthcoming) finds in his interviews with hiring professionals: gatekeepers are morally invested in making adequate judgements – they want to judge well. Sam’s various moments of grading and the different grading scales he consciously sets up to limit the impact the deliberative and the intuitive judgement will have on each other show that he tries hard to make an adequate evaluation and with it, to commensurate accurately.