How do professors at the mdw – University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna assess the musical performances of students? This question has been examined in the qualitative study Quality of Arts (QUART), conducted by Rosa Reitsamer and Rainer Prokop at the mdw’s Department of Music Sociology.
Theoretically, this study is informed by theories of social practices. According to Theodore R. Schatzki (2002), a practice is a “nexus of sayings and doings”. Social practices are, therefore, anchored in human bodies, objects, and artefacts, and they depend on tacit and unconscious layers of knowledge that usually cannot be verbalised but manifest themselves in bodily presentations of action (Reckwitz 2002). This study aimed at exploring the professors’ assessment of musical performances in actu. For this purpose, performances of piano, violin, flute, and voice students at recitals were recorded on video and served as a basis for interviews with teachers who were asked to explain how they assess their students’ achievements. The videos document the embodiment of the formal properties of musical works at the moment of performance. Regardless of the specific skills required to play the piano, the violin, the flute, or to sing arias at a high level of artistry, we identified in our analysis several assessment criteria which all the teachers referred to in the interviews. One of these criteria can be described as “emotion management” (Hochschild 1990).
Commitment to Music
The concepts of “emotion management” and “emotion work” were introduced by Arlie Hochschild (1990) into the sociology of emotions. These concepts describe how people working in the service sector employ specific techniques to manage their feelings in order to anticipate and internalise emotional reactions demanded by their clients, giving the impression to be born for their jobs. In contrast to flight attendants, for example, classical musicians can be described as privileged emotion managers, however, they also have to regulate their feelings in order to meet the requirements of the music labour market. For instance, they need to control stage fright, to prepare physically and psychologically for concerts, and to convey feelings and emotions to the audience as they perform. Hence, the students should “play with feeling”, or as the professors repeatedly put it, they should “merge with”, “feel”, and “commit themselves” to the music. With reference to Arlie Hochschild, this assessment criterion can be described as “deep acting” by which the communication of emotions appears to be a “natural result” of one’s emotion work. Accordingly, a shrug, a sigh, or a smile is not perceived as a superficial expression of “surface acting”, but rather as a self-induced “real” feeling. The teachers regularly emphasised that this comprehensive regulation of feelings is not something we’re born with; it’s much rather a significant part of one’s education and training. As a result, they address the body as an “object of work” that undergoes comprehensive transformations during the time spent in musical education at the university. Three forms of transformation deserve a closer look.
The Body as an “Object of Work”
Similar to acquiring sportive skills for playing football or ski jumping, playing a musical instrument is a tacit learning practice. This learning practice is focussed on the body in terms of material, mental, and affective transformations, thereby acquiring a form of “bodily intelligence” (Bourdieu 2001). Material transformations refer to the adaptation of the body to the instrument, strengthening the confidence in one’s technical skills. “You have to trust in the things that you’ve spent years practicing—otherwise, you’ll never be able to play virtuoso passages,” says a violin professor in the interview to explain the required material adaptations. Mental adaptations include numerous cognitive skills such as reading a musical notation quickly and memorising scores, imagining how a musical work should sound like, and developing a “performance plan” (Sloboda 1982) for a musical work. A performance plan, that is the interpretation of a musical work, rehearsed by students under the guidance of their teachers, refers to the ability to internalise a work’s meanings that should be presented at the moment of performance. In assessing the “deep acting” skills of students at recitals, the professors emphasised the importance of such adaptations, including diverse forms of tacit knowledge such as playing techniques or the employment of gestures, facial expressions, and body language.
The QUART study illustrates that the assessment of musical performance is by no means a question of the individual tastes of professors. Rather, they develop a practice of assessment that is both embedded in a “community of practice” at the university and in the transnational field of classical music as a whole.
- Bourdieu, Pierre (2001): Mediationen: Zur Kritik der scholastischen Vernunft. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.
- Hochschild, Arlie R. (1990): Das gekaufte Herz: Zur Kommerzialisierung der Gefühle. Frankfurt a. M.: Campus.
- Reckwitz, Andreas (2002): “Toward a Theory of Social Practices: A Development in Culturalist Theorizing,” in: European Journal of Social Theory, vol. 5 (2), pp. 243–263.
- Schatzki, Theodore R. (2002): The Site of the Social. A Philosophical Account of the Constitution of Social Life and Change. University Park: Pennsylvania State UP.
- Sloboda, John A. (1982): “Music Performance,” in: Deutsch, Diana (ed.): The Psychology of Music. New York: Academic Press, pp. 479-496.