On Talent and Hysteresis

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Neil Watkins recently introduced the combined BABS and LABBS Music Categories to the idea of hysteresis. The term originates in engineering (Neil explained it using the example of magnetism), but gets used metaphorically in other contexts to refer to a lagging effect. Something will tend to stay in a constant state unless it’s given an extra push to change it.

Neil evoked the term to describe the way that barbershop judges will tend to score the second song of a contest set at a similar level to the first. The initial level-setting at the start of the first song holds sway over the entire performance unless something striking happens to trigger a re-levelling. And this makes sense inasmuch as most people tend to perform all their repertoire to about the same skill level. Reflecting on my own experience of assessing performances, it’s probably about 15-20% of the time that you find a contrasting piece of music brings out a significantly different profile of skills such as to make you re-evaluate your sense of their level. Either the performance suddenly comes alive or suddenly falls down a hole.

But hysteresis also seems to work on performing groups themselves. Ensembles often maintain a certain skill-set year to year, with neither significant improvements nor significant losses. This is frustrating when they feel they have been working hard, but for little apparent reward (the Red Queen effect), but it’s also useful in the way keeps good habits going. I have been thinking about this so far in terms of the function of mirror neurons in maintaining patterns of musical behaviour within musical traditions, as I wrote about in my second book.

But I have recently been reading Henry Kingsbury’s marvellous anthropological study of a conservatory, and his analysis of the concept of ‘talent’ has added an extra dimension to this. Kingsbury points out that people think of ‘talent’ as something inherent, something that people have inside them (or not). Yet, the identification of its presence is done by attribution: people say, ‘Jane’s very talented,’ and Jane feels confident in her musicality and practices harder. Moreover, the musical status of the person making the judgement makes a difference to how secure the identity of ‘talented person’ is. The identification of talent is a socially-embedded activity.

So, musical competitions are structured ways of attributing talent. And as it tends to be the more confident who rise to the top and less the confident who are ranked lower, the contest results have a direct impact on the performers’ sense of self. The winners are affirmed: as a friend of mine put it, ‘I started singing better the day I won a medal.’

But it’s much more problematic for the lower-placed. To receive an authoritative assessment that you’re not very good – and the extent of this inadequacy will often be quantified by a score and/or placement - makes you question your very legitimacy as a performer. (Should I take up gardening instead?) The choice is either to accept the evaluation represented by the competition results and absorb the damage it does to your self-image as a performer, or to reject it at the cost of cutting yourself off from the community of value involved in the competition. It is emotionally difficult either way.

So it’s not entirely surprising if people come back the next time and perform (in both the musical and the competitive sense) to much the same level as their previous effort. By choosing to participate, they are accepting the authority to judge vested in whatever adjudication system they submit themselves to, and thus incorporate the previous judgement into their own self-identities as performers. The contest cycle itself promotes the phenomenon of hysteresis in performance level.

So, how is it that you do get performers who manage to radically change level? What kind of push is it that helps them change state? I’ll be looking at that in a future post as this one is quite long enough already.

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