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)