My daughter shared a link with me about a social experiment the Washington Post set up in 2007. To summarize, a man with a violin played for over 40 minutes in a Metro station. During that time, approximately 2,000 people passed him. Most ignored him or glanced at him with pity, then looked away. A few slowed their pace to listen and drop money. When the musician finished, no one noticed; no one applauded. He had collected just over $32.
The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 to sit and listen to him play the same music.
The experiment raised several questions. Can we perceive beauty in a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour? If so, do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
Not wanting to spread anymore untruths over the internet, I looked this up to see if it was real. It was. The link to the Washington Post story, “Pearls for Breakfast” is HERE. I found these points intriguing:
- Children—no matter race or gender, consistently tried to stop to listen to Bell as they passed; and every single time, a parent scooted them away. The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.
- Many never noticed Bell because they were on their phones or listening to iPods. The articles states that: “…the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.”
- Adults who stopped to listen and appreciate had been exposed to music lessons as children.
One who stopped that day was John Picarello. He hit the top of the escalator just as Bell began his final piece, and stopped dead in his tracks. He searched for the source of the music, then took up a position near the shoeshine stand and didn’t move for almost 10 minutes.
When called later and asked if anything unusual had happened to him on his trip into work, he was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist.
“There was a musician playing at the top of the escalator…”
Haven’t you seen musicians there before?
“Not like this one.”
What do you mean?
“This was a superb violinist. I’ve never heard anyone of that caliber. He was technically proficient, with very good phrasing. He had a good fiddle, too, with a big, lush sound. I walked a distance away, to hear him. I didn’t want to be intrusive on his space.”
“Really. It was that kind of experience. It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day.”
Picarello had learned the violin as a child. He was a fan of Joshua Bell, but didn’t recognize him from far away. But he knew this was not a run-of-the-mill guy out there, performing.
The newspaper worried about what would happen if people recognized Bell during this experiment. As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn’t arrive until near the very end. Stacy Furukawa had been in an audience three weeks earlier at Bell’s free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what was going on, but she wasn’t about to miss it. With a huge grin, she positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center.
“It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” Furukawa says. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”
When it was over, Furukawa introduced herself to Bell, and tossed in a twenty. Not counting that — it was tainted by recognition — the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.
“Actually,” Bell laughed, “that’s not so bad, considering. That’s 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn’t have to pay an agent.”
If you have time, go read “Pearls for Breakfast” or listen to the video of Bell playing. It’s beautiful. Then consider whether you would have stopped to listen if you had passed through the station that day. How many joys do we overlook in our life? I’m guessing a lot. Maybe it’s time to change that.