In Brief

"Gatekeepers," the people who decide which musicians get their work heard by the masses, look beyond talent to personal characteristics in their selections, Yale University psychologist Linda Jarvin, PhD, said at APA's 2003 Annual Convention in a talk on determiners of taste and style in the arts. The talk was part of the Ester Katz Rosen Symposium co-sponsored by the American Psychological Foundation (APF) and Div. 10 (Society for the Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts).

In her talk, Jarvin presented this and other findings from research she recently conducted with psychologist Rena Subotnik, PhD, director of the APF Esther Katz Rosen Center for Gifted Education Policy. Jarvin and Subotnik asked gatekeepers in the world of music--such as symphony artistic directors and music critics--what characteristics led them to admit a person to the ranks of the elite.

Innate musicality--interpretation that goes beyond the notes and rhythms on the page--is one of the key qualities of a great musician or vocalist, the research showed, an idea backed up by opera director Guillermo Silva-Marin, who discussed the findings at the session. He said that, in his work with "the [Luciano] Pavarottis of the world," he looked for performers who could thrill him.

"Singers who may not have much vocal talent, but who can send emotion through lines like 'I love you' or 'I hate you,' those are talents that will wow an audience," said Silva-Marin, general director of Canada's Opera In Concert.

Also essential in gatekeepers' eyes are good social skills, because directors want to work with people who will be reliable and good co-workers, found Subotnik and Jarvin. Knowing how to play the game is important too; musicians should be able to self-promote enough to make sure the world takes notice. Gatekeepers also prefer the kind of charisma that asks an audience to listen to the music, rather than a performer who says "look at me."

Risk-taking as a characteristic elicited two types of responses from gatekeepers, said Jarvin. Some said consistency is important, especially in performance of familiar works when changes could put an audience off, Jarvin said. However, variation can be an asset when it creates exciting and memorable performances.

Teachability is most important for orchestral performances, which require collaboration, said Jarvin. But for soloists, knowing what is good advice, and following it, is most crucial, Jarvin added.

Gatekeepers didn't look so much for traits like persistence, self-confidence, learning ability, technique and intrinsic motivation. "It's taken for granted that people at this level of performance will have mastered these skills," Jarvin said.

This ongoing research on the artist-gatekeeper relationship is part of a larger, multidimensional study on transitions in giftedness, funded by the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut. The study's principal investigator is APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, also at Yale.