Something to think about

This isn’t FA or HAES, but it’s something to think about.  I recieved it in my email this morning, fact-checked it through, and thought I’d pass it on.


Joshua Bell, world reknown violin virtuoso

Joshua Bell, world reknown violin virtuoso


Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.
4 minutes later:
The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk…
6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again…
10 minutes:
A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
45 minutes:
The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour:
He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed.. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but 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.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by theWashington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people ‘ s priorities. The questions raised: in a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
 One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:  If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made … How many other things are we missing?


16 Responses

  1. Thanks for sharing; this was really interesting.

  2. I find myself profoundly saddened by this. Especially by the fact that those children knew that what they were hearing was special, but their parents were teaching them not to listen.

  3. Fascinating! A man who in his normal circumstances is highly respected and holds a great deal of authority, but place him in a different setting and see how dependent that respect and authority is on his perceived social status. Thanks so much for posting this!

  4. This is the only email forward I’ve ever gotten that passed the Snopes test!

    I’ve worked for a couple different opera companies, and neither one would give away free tickets because they said that when people don’t have to pay for art they don’t value it. Which I feel kind of applies to this experiment as well.

  5. This is why I love blogs. Every once in a while you get hit by something you would never have had exposure to.

    Great. Thanks.

  6. Man, I love street musicians (well, when they’re playing classical or Irish or another style I like–I’m not going to magically love jazz because it’s free) and free theatre in the park and that kind of thing. And I know there have been free plays in Central Park where you had to camp out for tickets two days in advance.

    I think people *can* value free art, and sometimes do…but it really depends a lot on context and other factors. Interesting to think about.

  7. Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

    I saw this piece when it came out, and it seemed to me then, as it does now, to be rife with unexamined class snobbery.

    Please note that this was morning rush hour, and a cold morning at that, when people are less likely to want to linger on a frigid train platform. Gene Weingarten (who authored this piece) probably does not know what it’s like to have to punch a time clock, or has conveniently forgotten. But those of us who are (or have recently been) ‘time clock class,” we know. We’re short on sleep if we’re not morning people, get chewed out or written up for being even a minute late, we’re freaked because our zipper broke as we were running out the door and we had to change our pants, or the dog threw up, or the kids forgot their lunches, or something. And jobs don’t grow on trees.

    Working people in this country are unbelievably pressed for time just so they can survive; that they didn’t slow down to hear Joshua Bell may very well mean they wouldn’t have slowed down for anything, even a medley of Beatles songs performed live in the Metro by Jesus, John Lennon, and Elvis. Because they can’t. And also that working people, by and large, have virtually no time for cultural enrichment, especially single parents.

    I could get behind this article if it was a plea to change our workaholic society to the point where nobody has to fear becoming homeless for being a minute late to work. But that’s not where he’s going here; it’s all about those dumb working stiffs not being as good as he is. Screw that.

    • Been there, done that. I’ve heard street buskers playing while on the way to some appointment with my mind full of other things. If nothing else, I would at least look in their direction. Even if I thought the peice was atrocious.

      Yes, most of the people probably couldn’t stop, or couldn’t stop for long, rushing for their train, or rushing off the train to appointments, work, what have you.

      But most people didn’t even acknowledge by a look the presence of something totally alien to their normal daily drudge. Whether it was beauty or not? As Chris G said, beauty isn’t universal.

      But, for me at least, it makes me think about stories that make it to the newspapers, and the ones that don’t, about people being attacked and nobody even looking at them when they are screaming for help. Or, like a friend of mine, who did a number on her knee on the commute home one day, and the only people who helped her where two homeless people. She blacked out from the pain, had to have numerous surgeries due to what she did to her knee, etc. And the only people who helped this woman who blacked out were two homeless people.

      This is the message I saw in this experiment. Not what the author of the email was conveying, but how do we (general we here) respond to anything foreign in our environment? Most people don’t pay any attention. Because, after all, that busker or that woman who blacked out, isn’t worth getting written up for.

      And yeah, I DO know the fear of being written up because of being 1 minute late. While right now I have a life that doesn’t include working outside of the home, I’ve not always had this luxury. And I may have to be taking a job outside of the home soon because of changing circumstances and stuff not going as far as it used to (especially when there’s one more mouth to feed than there was).

    • Seriously Meowser? Beatles songs by Jesus, John Lennon and Elvis?

      I dont care how busy I was, I would be watching that, just like I would be watching it if it were sung by the spice girls naked.

      Without doubt, there is a little snobbery here, but to suggest that they wouldn’t have slowed down for anything is unreasonable. Most people (as Chris G suggests) will slow down for something that appeals to them.

      If the article says anything, its that classical music, or a damned good classical violinist is unappreciated by the majority of Joe Public.

      This is undoubtedly true, since most of us can tell the difference between the average busking guitarist and Eddie Van Halen, even if Eddie had the swine flu, and had trapped his fingers in a mousetrap the day before.

      You can bet your life that if Eddie stood there, people would notice, people would look, people would tell him to wear a shirt dont you realise you’ll catch your death if you stand around on street corners without a decent wolley jumper on!

      We hear alot more music with guitars, we are more aware as to what a guitar can do when played well. Most of us simply dont listen to classical music except on a tv advert.
      We dont look at art except if its been watered down and turned into a ring holder. We dont read unless they’ve made a motion picture about it.

      I believe we have grown into a society of individuals that rarely thinks for themselves. We appear to wait until something is packaged in a recognisable way and told it is good. I think this story is a good example. Without someone explaining to us why this is good, we simply dont have the skill set to assess it properly.

  8. I agree with meowser. I like Bartok. I like Charles Ives. But most people would find them unlistenable. Most people would, however, recognise a really rockin’ guitar solo and respond positively. Tastes change. Tastes vary.

    You drew the least charitable conclusion. There are lots of reasons why people wouldn’t stop, even if they knew the violinist was well-respected. We are privileged to live in a world in which virtuosic musical performances can be heard anywhere at any time – whether it’s through headphones or radio or whatever. That’s just not something that you should sensibly argue is a bad thing. But it does mean that we are a little spoiled for choice, and if people are rushing home to have dinner with their loved ones they should be forgiven for not stopping to listen.

    It’s also not the most conducive environment for acoustical music, for performing or listening. How long was the piece – more than ten minutes, anyway. To really listen to a longer piece of music requires attention and concentration – and it really *is* work. The audience does contribute to the music. And a train station is not the place for listening to serious, lengthy solo pieces.

    I could give you plenty of examples of music snobs ignoring or walking out of performances of amazing beauty. I saw Miles Davis perform in Melbourne, Australia in 1989 and maybe a third of the audience walked out. They were expecting ‘My Funny Valentine’, not loud, aggressive, electric music. Yet Miles was clearly so happy with his performance that he played a rare encore.

    Beauty is not universal. But there is a tendency, what they call the kitsch mentality, to try to define such things in concrete terms. Maybe Joshua Bell wasn’t playing that well that day, or picked the wrong piece of music for the venue (more likely). Some would say that a failure to connect with an audience is really the performer’s fault. I would say, in this case, that Joshua Bell was at fault, when other street performers with presumably less talent can attract big audiences.

    • I actually didn’t draw the conclusion. I put this up here with no editorial comments, other than I checked it out with Snopes, and it was a true story, and that it was something to think about.

      You are right that beauty is not universal.

      The thing that got to me was that only a handful of people even LOOKED at him. I understand being rushed and thinking a million different things, yet, when there’s music (whether it’s stuff I like or hate) being played someplace where I’m not expecting it, I will at least look over at the person as I’m passing by.

      *Shrugs* But that’s me, and one person does not make data, or even anecdata.

  9. i definitely didn’t take this as seriously as you guys did. i see what you’re saying about classism, but i think it’s just the sentiment that’s important. i didn’t see it as shaming people for not stopping, or scolding them; i saw it as merely reminding everyone that there are beautiful things in life we miss out on by not paying attention to them. that is universal, and i think a worthwhile message to remember, especially in these somewhat depressing times.

  10. […] to discuss other things I wanted to direct your attention to a beautiful (and a bit sad) social experiment that A Day in the (Fat) Life pointed […]

  11. As someone who has lived in NYC and currently lives in DC, I can tell you that I wouldn’t stop. I have places to go, especially in morning rush, especially as a temp. I’ve had buskers come at me in the past, so no matter how much I may or may not be enjoying their performance I’m not going to show it. I’ve had buskers comment on how much money I am or am not giving them ranging from good-natured to downright hostile. So I’m not taking the chance, no matter how good that busker is. I don’t even give anymore because I’ve had men yell at me over my decision to give them a quarter. I’ve had homeless people throw apples at my head because they were telling me how hungry they are and I gave them what I had, and I’m poor. I’ve been wheedled, I’ve been ignored, and my modest contributions have been thanked but the 10% chance that the man playing the violin is going to repay my kindness with violence is going to make me reconsider stopping or donating. That’s not even addressing the work, the temping or the half hour margin I give myself for getting lost on the way to the job.

  12. He was at the wrong Metro exit for people to stop. People stop for musicians in Dupont Circle, at Foggy Bottom/GWUniversity, and several other places. I’ve been seeing some of the same street musicians in those places and in Georgetown itself for decades; however, they are all performing in places that are between a Metro exit and a coffeeshop or school, not just in the midst of Federal government buildings.

    Also, since his performing was arranged in part by the newspaper, I suspect they were well aware of this and set him up, knowing as he did not that the people leaving that exit were government employees who did not have time to spare early in the morning. If he had been playing at lunch time — when the Smithsonian museums nearby are open, when people have a little time to stretch their legs — it might have been a much different story.

  13. Always give money to street musicians.I never,ever pass a St.”busker”you all are calling them.I have never heard that term used before,(learn something new every day!)without folding a bill their way.I think all street performers are Angels of the Universe testing me on how I treat people who are less fortunate than I.As well as some particularly “rough” looking homeless people.I try and help them as well.San Francisco is overflowing with talented people down on their luck.I love it here.

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