The useful application of obsession

by Lee Cioppa, Associate Dean for Admissions

Talent.  Boy, that’s a tough word to explain.  Potential is another one.  How do we assess talent and potential?  What exactly are we looking for?  How do we tell in a short 15 minute audition whether there is the talent and potential to succeed at Juilliard and, eventually, as a professional?

“I know it when I see/hear it….”  A very common response, but doesn’t that seem vague and unsatisfying?  

A few years ago, I read the book “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell.  Here’s how he describes what it’s about: 

It’s a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, “Blink” is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good.

You could also say that it’s a book about intuition, except that I don’t like that word. In fact it never appears in “Blink.” Intuition strikes me as a concept we use to describe emotional reactions, gut feelings–thoughts and impressions that don’t seem entirely rational. But I think that what goes on in that first two seconds is perfectly rational. It’s thinking–it’s just thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than the kind of deliberate, conscious decision-making that we usually associate with “thinking.” In “Blink” I’m trying to understand those two seconds. What is going on inside our heads when we engage in rapid cognition?

In the book, Mr. Gladwell has a chapter on “thin-slicing”:  “There’s a wonderful phrase in psychology—‘the power of thin slicing’–which says that as human beings we are capable of making sense of situations based on the thinnest slice of experience.”

There are two concepts here that fascinate me related to auditions:

  1. That faculty actually only need the time frame of an audition to “thin-slice”, or evaluate the talent and potential of an applicant; and
  2. That there is a tremendous amount of information about an applicant that is gathered during an audition, but a lot of it is processed by the unconscious and evaluated through rapid cognition.

So back to “I know it when I see/hear it…” An artist with years of experience certainly does. But what are those pieces of information that a faculty member is unconsciously assessing?  Or another way to look at it: other than technique (for example, for a musician: is the applicant playing the right notes in the right rhythms and in the appropriate tempo? Is he in tune? Is her physical set-up on the instrument correct?) what the heck makes a difference?

Well, just as it takes an artist to recognize an artist, it can take an artist in words to articulate clearly the specific characteristics that define a talented individual.  Diane Ackerman is an extraordinary writer, and in her most recent book One Hundred Names for Love she writes about her husband, another writer (Paul West) after he has a stroke.  Paul’s stroke affected the left hemisphere of his brain, and he could no longer process language in any form, a condition called Global Aphasia.  Over a period of many years, he recovered even to the point of being able to write again.  However, Ms. Ackerman writes, “Since Paul was naturally creative, a wild and wooly thinker, it wasn’t really surprising that he balked at conventional speech therapy…Before his stroke, his brain hadn’t worked that way; that’s not where his strengths lay.”

She then proceeds to define creativity. And in reading her words, I came to a psychic full stop – here it was, what I had been searching for!  A laundry list of what it takes, of the characteristics of an artist.

And this is what she wrote:

…risk-taking, perseverance, problem-solving, openness to experience, the need to share one’s inner universe, empathy, detailed mastery of a craft, resourcefulness, disciplined spontaneity, a mind of large general knowledge and strength that can momentarily be drawn to a particular, ample joy when surprised, intense focus, the useful application of obsession, the innocent wonder of a child available to a learned adult, passion, a tenuous (or at least flexible) grasp on reality, mysticism (though not necessarily theology), a reaction against the status quo (and preference for unique creations), and usually the support of at least one person….

(My favorite is “useful application of obsession” – what else would you call the ability to practice your craft for hours and hours every day of your life?)

Can these things really be evaluated in an audition?  Certainly, you won’t see them listed as criteria on any audition form.  But here is where the “blink” comes in…I think that the answer is yes.  It’s not quite the first impression, two seconds that Mr. Gladwell refers to.  But over the few minutes of an audition – that “thin-slice” of all of the time, preparation, passion and determination that brought an applicant to that moment – so much more is learned than just what is seen and heard. It’s not unknown, it’s not mysterious – it’s years and years and years of experience that the unconscious mind is using to process and evaluate these characteristics that Ms. Ackerman has so brilliantly described.

I certainly knew it when I read it!