The Fast And The Furious

Washington D.C. Metro station on a bitterly cold January morning in 2007:

Near the entrance, a young white man in jeans and a baseball cap stands playing his violin…He plays 6 Bach pieces and during that time 1097 people go through the station, most of them on their way to work…3 minutes into his performance (63 people have passed him by), a man notices there is a musician playing…He slows down, looks at him and then hurries on to meet his schedule…Half a minute later, the fiddler receives his first donation; a woman throws a dollar into his hat without stopping…It isn’t until 6 minutes into the performance that someone actually stands against a wall and listens…But he soon looks at his watch and starts to walk again…Clearly, he has to get somewhere soon…

A few minutes later, a 3 year old boy stops to listen but his mother pulls him away…She’s obviously in a hurry…The kid stops and looks at the violinist again but his mother pulls him harder and he walks on…This action is repeated by several other children and all of them are pulled away by their parents…

The musician plays for 43 minutes and then silence takes over…In those 43 minutes, only 7 people had stopped for more than a minute and 27 had ‘donated’ money, most of them on the run, for a total of $32.17…Only 1 woman had recognized him and had stopped to chat (she gave him $20)…1070 people had passed him by without giving him a second glance…

The violinist is none other than Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world…He played some of the most intricate and beautiful music ever written, with a handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin worth millions…Two days earlier, Bell sold out a theatre in Boston where the seats averaged $100 apiece…

Joshua Bell playing incognito in a Washington D.C. metro station was organized by The Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities…[Full Story]

Gene Weingarten, the author of the piece in The Washington Post, describes the crux of the experiment:
“Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?”

Points to ponder:

  • Are we so busy and caught up in our daily routines that we do not have the time to stop and listen to one of the finest music ever written, played by one of the best musicians in the world, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made? How many other things are we missing out on?
  • Do we appreciate beauty only when the environment and time is right?
  • Is beauty a concept created by a group of snooty elitists? If  nobody appreciates Joshua Bell in a station, then is the applause he receives in concert halls contrived? Do people love the price of a ticket more than the music itself?
  • Do we only notice things when they are expected?
  • Is the concept of a person listening to music for the pleasure of music itself an outdated idea? Is the personality more important than the art?
  • Does this experiment really tell us anything? After all, people in a metro station are going somewhere and trains don’t stop for good music…The fact that children stopped to listen (they didn’t have schedules to keep or meetings to attend) tells us that people do recognize beauty but don’t have time to appreciate it…Where do beauty and the arts rank in life’s competing priorities?
  • Do we have to recognize a musician before we can admire the music he plays?

(I first received this story by email a few months ago…I came across it again a couple of days back and it got me thinking, hence the post)

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21 thoughts on “The Fast And The Furious

  1. Wow!!! A very intriguing post.
    Appropriate questions though I might not have the answers to them but a sense of how internalized the world has become.

    Loved the post absolutely.

    Welcome and thank you!

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  2. I had similair thoughts when I had read this(had recieved it through e-mail too). Two things which I felt, and you have clearly pointed out too are, that looks are of prime importance in today’s world. No matter what a person’s qualities, its the looks/present-ability that really push him forward. And secondly indeed, we are a lot of ‘brand’ conscious people. Name, success and popularity grab our attention like none other.

    Joshua Bell is a looker! He was dressed down for this experiment…I agree with you…I know people who wear designer clothes because they are designer clothes and not because they like the clothes…Idiots, I tell you…

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  3. Sraboney some kind of beauty is cultivated taste – I know I would enjoy some light music 0 semi classical to something really beautiful – it won’t even be beautiful for me 😦

    I saw another video on Sandhya’s blog where a group of artists played Do Re Mi and started dancing at a busy railway station.. I found that amazing, because I could understand what they were doing… If AR Rahman or anyone who played popular music was to stand in rags and sing on a railway station I have no doubt he would attract crowd, even if nobody recognises him. I feel popular music and art is underrated.

    I agree with you…I’m sure if they had asked 50 Cent to rap instead, more people would have stopped…

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  4. Interesting post bones.. We are so caught up in out lives and schedules that we dont even stop to enjoy the smaller and interesting things around us…

    “Do we appreciate beauty only when the environment and time is right?”– i guess unknowingly we always do it..

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  5. Received this in a mail some time back and yes, I do think we’re too busy to stop and smell the flowers. But apart from that, I also think something as unexpected as a celebrated violinist playing at the station would go unnoticed merely because it is SO unexpected!

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  6. Pingback: The Fast And The Furious 4

  7. I have read this story earlier, and was fascinated by the way people reacted.

    All the points to ponder that you have listed play their part.

    I wonder why someone has not yet thought of trying a reverse experiment. Why not have an unknown artist play in a theatre masquerading as a famous one, without anyone getting to know. Or, publish a column in a leading paper/magazine written by an unknown writer in the name of a famous analyst or writer. I think the result will mirror what happened at that Metro station

    That will give us many more points to ponder.

    I think you are right…For example, many people like Arundhati Roy’s articles because they’ve been written by her and not because of the content…

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  8. REally Interesting… what if A R Rahman were to something like that at VT station !! 🙂

    If Rahman sang Jai Ho at VT station, there would be a stampede! Even people who don’t like the song will stop because the person singing it is Rahman…

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  9. I received this in my mailbox too a few times.
    I rationalized on the same lines as your point no 6.
    It is also true that in today’s busy life most people allocate some time for entertainment and they don’t have the time to stop for anyone performing outside that time. And concerts are not just about listening to music these days – it is about the ambience, the crowd, the company and so much more.
    And may be people today need to hear music above a certain wattage level to really appreciate it – a solitary violin player at a train station would naturally go unnoticed.

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  10. there are so many like this …going on in many railway stations in NY — in grand central you will find umpteens. if you do not have to pick up your kid from the baby sitter at 6.30 and do not want to miss the train at 5.30, many will stand will listen and dance too

    i would . it is a free treat – listen and dance too.

    Yeah, I remember when I used to travel by the NYC subway, I used to listen to the musicians…Most of them are very good…

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  11. I got this as a forward and also read on Mad Momma couple of months back.

    Yes! as we grow older, we don’t appreciate small things because we have to worry about bigger things. Who would love to jump mud puddles and have fun?

    The place and time of this experiment is not right. I mean everyone who is going into or coming out of the station is in a hurry to stop and enjoy or look at the guy playing it.

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  12. Excellent post Bones…i always feel sad for musicians that have to peddle their wares unrecognised , whether on the streets or in hotels and restaurants or wherever ,…i do try and pay attention whenever i can…as much as money its also the acknowledgment that’s important…some of these guys are brilliant …..three ‘performances’ are etched in my mind : a baul singer on a calcutta-shantiniketan train journey , an all-vocal group in central park NY and this incredible guy at covent garden in london who sang the beatles’ “blackbird” better than the original – to be fair , the last did get just about everybody’s attention but the other two were lost to the world’s daily rush….all three were incredible and unforgettable for me

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  13. Sadly, the answers to all your questions at end seem to be a loud and resounding YES.

    In our busy daily lives, we have no “time to stand and stare”.

    I feel it in my own life. Weekdays….it seems a blur and weekends are just trying to recover breath.

    I wonder if we would ever see a movie or drama or a music recital without first knowing the names of the performers.

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