Red toned photo of Nell Carter in a scene from the Broadway production of the musical "Ain't Misbehavin" with algebraic equation behind her

The Art (+ Science) of “It”

My mother and I were in Midtown Manhattan on a mission – five Tony Awards in three days. As I exchanged my fourth show ticket for the playbill of Ain’t Misbehavin’, a cast-change slip fell unceremoniously to the floor – best actress winner Nell Carter would not be performing. With that disappointing news, and one less Tony to check off the list, we settled into our seats. The house lights went down, the stage lights went up and the first notes we heard were sung by an immediately recognizable voice. Nell sashayed onstage with an ethereal lightness that belied her plump frame. The crowd responded first with relief, then wild applause. I cried at this revelation. She was “It.”

Changed by the experience, I longed to feel “It” again. I moved to New York, hopscotching between gigs and music administration jobs until I eventually landed a publicist position at Atlantic Records. By then, I had met many talented musicians; a handful who seemed like they might have “It.” I was still fuzzy on the precise definition but I understood it intuitively – a you-know-it-when-you-feel-it quality that separated the supernatural artists from everyone else. I guess you could say it felt a lot like finding true love.

To become “It,” the path for an artist seemed daunting. Imagine attempting to insert a slip of thread through a needle’s eye. With a good squint, the thread sailed through. But then you saw the row of needles lined up behind the first like a gauntlet, each a smidge smaller than the last. At some point, for the majority of musicians, the thread ceased to fit through the next eye, or simply unraveled. Those who made “It” were clearly given a different thread at birth than the rest of us.

In pop and jazz, the needles were the countless clubs that provided stage experience and exposure. In classical music the gauntlet began with the right school and teacher. If a teacher saw promise – an inchoate version of “It” – you ultimately advanced to artist representation. A manager with the ears of the right institutions’ artistic planners then devised a performance schedule of your soon-to-be greatest hits. After a nascent fan base formed and you were buffed and coiffed by publicists and stylists, the critics weighed in to formally confirm your talent.

The next step, at least in the early 2000s, was the record label. When a new artist met with the Atlantic Records PR department, we knew they were on the road to “It.” As publicists we were eternal optimists; our job was to hyperbolize not analyze. After I left PR, I didn’t think too much about the nature and nurture of “It,” until I took my nephew Avery to his first orchestra concert last month.

The soloist was a pianist with a reputation for more sizzle than substance, but I figured flash might work best on a 9-year-old. When the Brahms ended and the applause died down, Avery and I went in search of intermission snacks. He seemed pensive – as if figuring out a puzzle in his head. “I don’t feel good,” he said. At first, I thought he meant he was sick, and then I realized my nephew was referring to our conversation before the performance. Avery had asked why I went to concerts, and I had breezily explained that the music made me feel good.

For the second half, with no soloist, the focus was more on the conductor – a wildly expressive dude with flowing locks and manic energy. I saw Avery smile to himself when he heard snippets he recognized from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Following the concert, as we walked to the garage, he said, “I give that leader guy an A-plus. I loved him.” I asked my nephew why the conductor deserved the high grade. “My teacher gives a plus for work that is so good she smiles. She says it reminds her how lucky she is to be our teacher.”

The conversation brought me back to that fuzzy definition of “It” and I had a superbly nerdy thought. Could “It” be better expressed as a series of reactions and relationships, like an algebraic equation? Take the experience with my nephew:

Let’s say the combined product of the artist (A), a TBD Plus Factor (+), and this single performance (P) equaled an unplanned, extraordinary response or emotion (E) from an audience member, Avery.
(A)(+)(P) = (E)
If the performance was truly extraordinary there was likely a similar response from the majority of the audience (N).
(E) * (N) / 100 = Emotional Response Rate (ERR)% 
(per concert)
A high ERR, or more than half the audience, confirmed by observation, meant there was a high possibility that (+) was the real thing.
If (ERR) > 50% then you likely have a Plus Factor. 
At this point, the media and music cognoscenti started to postulate about the particular nature of this plus factor, and if the same results would happen again. To confirm a statistical pattern, an ERR for the artist’s total number of concerts, using the last full year of concerts was formulated.
If the sum of 2015 (ERR)s / # of 2015 performances > 50% 
then you still likely have a Plus Factor.
Finally, the following formula established an “It” score: 
Total Professional Concerts (C) / Total Professional Years (Y) times the artist’s established ERR %. ((C) / (Y)) * (ERR)% = It Score

These scores were applied to a range, with the lowest desirable score a 6 and only applicable to younger artists. True “It” artists’ scores started at 15.

I now had a system for determining when “It” occurred, but was “It” defined? Not quite. And then, of course, I needed to confirm the plus factor existed in the first place.

I decided to confer with my good friend, Ed Yim at the New York Philharmonic.

“I would say the plus factor totally exists,” he said. “I believe artists we would all agree have “It” start with at least one extraordinary factor that sets them apart. Let’s say there are three categories of these artists: those with an intellectual curiosity, then the ones with a primal connection to the music, and finally the artists with an intuitive connection to the audience. Of course, a really elite group can have more than one of these.” I fantasized about an X-Men–style, secret wing in Juilliard for cultivating “gifted youngsters” with plus factors.

We drilled down the concepts some more, talking about qualities within each category and good artist examples. Ed thought pianist Jeremy Denk represented intellectual curiosity. “He has an intellectual mind that informs his work,” he said. “These musicians are curious: They read widely, go to lots of different arts events beyond classical music, or study Greek in their spare time. Experimental collaboration and risk taking is usually a real hallmark of this type of artist, like Jennifer Koh.” I thought of mandolin player and singer Chris Thile.

To illustrate the primal connection category, Ed said, “In someone like Leila Josefowicz or Mitusko Uchida, there is a purity, almost like a musical force they can dip into and translate to the audience. Frank Peter Zimmerman channels something you may not understand intellectually but you respond to emotionally.” Martha Argerich was my primal girl.

Finally we touched on performance charisma. “These musicians aren’t in a bubble on the stage,” said Ed. “The audience is an important part of the performance for them, and they want to connect. Pamela Frank and Josh Bell understand that.” Nell Carter had this in spades.

By considering the relationships between artist, audience and emotion, I inadvertently expanded my exploration from phases of artistry to the holistic system that created them. Like quantum physics, maybe art was invisible energy – atoms humming along, shape shifting into different sounds, images, thoughts and even people. Or an ecology that evolved with infinitesimal steps, spurred by tiny plus factors.

In my quest to define the indefinable, I had made an unexpected discovery. I was an element in this holistic, atomic ecology. I was part of “It.”

Elizabeth Hinckley

Elizabeth Hinckley is the founder of DefCult, a Los Angeles-based communications and organizational development consultancy. Her background as a musician and arts publicist gives her just enough knowledge to be dangerous as the co-creator and editor of …more 

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2 Responses

  1. Very nice deconstruction of what audiences will fight to see. I think previous generations called your + factor an X factor, and that many OUTSIDE the arts bubble today might just call this X factor “authenticity” or “genuineness”. Establishing empathy is the medium of every artist-entertainer.

    Like any enterprise, commercial or artistic, we try to set a giant WAVE into motion and then ride it to show mastery, inc. tricks (timing) and defy death (risky timing). Going further, the conclusion I’ve reached is that, beyond mastering the music, we’re not playing instruments so much as we are playing the AUDIENCE, THRU our instruments. Beyond a certain point, there is no calculus nec., as long as we get everybody soaking wet and laughing about it (excitement).

  2. I like what you say here, Rick. The mathematical equations were really just my attempt at irony…but I’m sure someone has tried to come up with a real equation to figure it all out!

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