Joshua Bell : Busker?

April 7, 2007 at 05:16 PM · Pearls Before Breakfast

From the Washington Post: Can one of the nation's great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let's find out.

Replies (100)

April 7, 2007 at 05:35 PM · Dammit, I wish L'Enfant was part of my daily commute. But NOOOOOO!--I had to live close to Metro Center!

April 7, 2007 at 05:39 PM · The author of the piece, Gene Weingarten, will answer questions about the article in a chat session at 1 pm (ET) Monday on

April 7, 2007 at 05:44 PM · I have to say, what an article! Really well done, and I love that Josh is such a sport. I wish I could have heard that Chaconne!

April 7, 2007 at 06:14 PM · It's really great that he did that! I found some flaws in the experiment, though. The people didn't really have a choice whether to stop or not. They were on their way to work and risk losing their jobs or listen to music is not much a decision. Maybe if he played on the city streets... Also, I think he didn't play the right stuff. No offense to Bach, but before I was inducted into classical music, I would not have found his Chaconne something I had to stop in my tracks to hear. I adore it now, but I didn't understand or appreciate a few years ago. If he had played pieces like the Four Seasons or Flight of the Bumblebee which are more familiar to a fair amount of people, he probably would have gotten more attention. That's just my two cents.

April 7, 2007 at 06:29 PM · Wow. Interesting article! Haven't read the whole thing yet but I'll finish it later.

April 7, 2007 at 09:38 PM · Yeah, it would have been tons better to do it at lunchtime maybe, to give him at least a chance, instead of first thing in the morning. Maybe they wanted an outcome that was good for a cynical spin? Dunno.

When he wrote about changing the speed of the video, it reminded me of an old film that used to make the rounds that was entirely things greatly speeded up, to put them out of context and make statements that really weren't being made. As for who is the "ghost" the answer has to be Joshua Bell is a ghost of a street musician. I wonder what it would have been like to hear Robert Johnson playing on a street corner, making a living. I think even in this situation he would have had a spellbound audience.

April 7, 2007 at 07:04 PM · If I had a Strad I think I'd be a little more than paranoid playing it in public...

April 7, 2007 at 07:09 PM · "If I had a Strad I think I'd be a little more than paranoid playing it in public..."

Don't worry, you'd be completely ignored.

April 7, 2007 at 07:27 PM · One thing that touched me was that (in the Washington Post article) all the children wanted to stop and listen. They knew. But their parents kept them moving on. Sadly it reminds me of an occasion when children wanted to stop and listen to Christ but his disciples didn't let them.

April 7, 2007 at 08:01 PM · Wow... that is such an interesting article. It's really quite sad, though, that only one person recognized him. I think it's interesting that a lot of musicians constantly criticize JB for moving too much when he plays, saying that it's too distracting, when the people in the article, who have little or no classical training, admire the fact that he "moves with the music." Very insightful.

April 7, 2007 at 09:03 PM · I think the key to successful busking is picking a good location-- outside a Starbucks on a sunny afternoon on a street filled with shops where people are meandering. Or after work, when people aren't as stressed to be where they have to be. It also helps to be little and cute, and the little days are over for Josh.

My kid once made over $300 in about 40 minutes of busking on a day with conditions described above when she was well under 5 feet tall.

April 7, 2007 at 09:00 PM · This is an great article. Thank you for posting it! So interesting to see the outcome of this experiment. I agree that perhaps the timing of the experiment is a little inconvenient, but then what is inconvenience when you have the chance to listen to one of the greatest violinists in the world right now, for free!? Especially when anyone could realize how beautifully he was playing... Time shouldn't matter.

At any rate, I also was surprised to find only one person recognized him! Wow.

April 7, 2007 at 09:17 PM · That was an amazing article, and so true. It's sad to think that so few people can recognize great music, whether it's the lack of musical education, the self-centeredness of the average American, or the lemming phenomenon where people just blindly and stupidly follow the person in front of them. I fear for future of the US, if people cannot differentiate between what is really good, and what other people *tell them* is good. (such as in certain political situations)

April 7, 2007 at 09:53 PM · Diane, you're drawing conclusions from a stupid little stunt.

A stupid stunt in a lot of ways. It's just going to be parlayed into how deficient Americans are. Halfwit Leonard Slatkin saying he'd have a larger busking audience in Europe, and giving us numbers. Maybe if Europeans didn't need to keep their jobs, they'd stop and watch. Thanks guys!

April 7, 2007 at 10:39 PM · Interesting article, but not impressed.

Let’s turn the coin around, say, if there were a couple of Nobel prize winners discussing their grand theories at the same place and same time next to Bell, would they have received any more attention others, or for that matter, from Bell himself?

The point is, there is the time and place people have to be focused on doing what they do and where they are going, or to stop and discover something great. Morning rush hour in a federal government building may just not be the right time and place for the latter great experience.

Also to me, to be a great artist is the ability to

“To see a world in a grain of sand,

And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, …”

(William Blake)

I wonder what did Gene Weingarten and Bell see that day other than boring bureaucrats and stupid shoeshiner?

And quoting Kant like that? Gene, give me a break!

April 7, 2007 at 11:04 PM · Jim, no offense, but just WHAT is your problem with Europe and Europeans? (I won't even mention calling Leonard Slatkin a "half-wit"?

April 8, 2007 at 12:13 AM · Maura, if you think what I said is anti-European. Well, that's just funny. And if you agree with Slatkin's analysis, that's funny too. What do you think about what transpired?

Yixi, fine analogy. I see nothing except a dozen kinds of pretentiousness, from the invalid experiment and concocted anti-American ammunition, to the quotes and the impossible to read florid writing, to having everyone's favorite billionaire musician masquerade as a street musician, so we can all feel disdain. I wish I could see it as a harmless entertaining goof, and on one level maybe I can, but there's more to it.

April 7, 2007 at 11:36 PM · Jim, all I have to say is... American Idol?

Seriously though. It's not just us classical musicians. Many other regular pop bands have trouble getting onto mainstream radio. It's not because they're not good, it's because people don't know them. It's self propogating. People only hear what other people (in this case, radio) want them to hear (usually because of financial pressures). Therefore, they think that that's the best and demand the radio to play more of them. If more people could judge things for what is good, versus what's popular, the world would be a better place.

April 8, 2007 at 12:03 AM · Yes, Diane, Americans drop everything at 7:55 on their way to work to watch American Idol.

April 8, 2007 at 12:03 AM · Jim,

Well, I'm glad I provided you with your daily dose of comedy. That's what we Hungarians do best.

April 8, 2007 at 12:06 AM · But I don't want to laugh. I want you to make brilliant sense to me! Whether I agree or not :)

April 8, 2007 at 12:06 AM · Well, the outcome hardly surprises me. I think the article was very fair, in that it did not take the stance that Americans are culturally dificient. The experiment itself, on a superficial level, might suggest just that.

However, to call Slatkin a halfwit is in and of itself, a halfwit remark. Any man or woman capable of what he is, cannot possibly be a halfwit. His accomplishments far outweigh almost anyone's here.

I know no sane person who has actually been to Europe, and spent some time among locals, not the historic parts but perhaps modern downtown Frankfurt or some place like that, who would disagree that an artist of Bell's calibre would receive more attention. That is something I've always been impressed by. It's one thing for some violinist to impress a lot of people in some public tourist trap in Salzburg, and a whole other thing for a busker to make decent money in the downtown Paris metro. It happens, it's a fact, accept it.

However, I still do not think that the fact that some Europeans might be more inclined to stop or contribute means that Americans are significantly less culturally inclined. The problem is far more nuanced and complicated than that.

April 8, 2007 at 12:25 AM · Pieter, my skills in my field may be good as Slatkin's are in his field. At any rate, I'm not shocked and awed into not having an opinion. Anyway, I wasn't talking about his musicianship - which is where his accomplishments are. I was talking about his contribution to this.

April 8, 2007 at 12:35 AM · So Pieter, what do you think is the key point of this article? The author called those working people ghosts at one point. I wonder what fair message are we supposed to get from reading it?

April 8, 2007 at 01:00 AM · Does anyone know what fraction of population listen to classical music on a regular basis? If you know, should we be surprised that about half a percent of passers-by paid any attention? If people don't listen to violin music much in their daily lives, why shouid they stop to listen on the street?


April 8, 2007 at 01:18 AM · I'd like to think that people can recognize great music when they hear it, no matter the genre.

April 8, 2007 at 02:13 AM · Interesting article. Thanks for the read.

Maura, you're probably asking for too much. How many times have you heard someone say, "I didn't like that piece much the first time I heard it, but once I got to know it I came to love it" or something similar?

Ihnsouk, a partial answer to your question is in the NEA Arts Participation Survey (PDF). Each year, about 12% of American adults go to a classical music concert of some kind, although presumably a rather smaller percentage goes regularly (and that group is probably skewed towards people over 50 years old.) About 25% in each of the survey years listened to a classical recording, with similar caveats applying.

April 8, 2007 at 02:10 AM · I suppose it is humbling, isn't it, to all of us?

To me it shows the great need for music education. Many of the people who stopped had at least some familiarity with the violin.

And the children were all curious. Did you notice, in one of the videos, the little girl who just keeps looking, even while her mom is pulling her out the door?

April 8, 2007 at 05:58 AM · The children would have been curious about anything, dancing clowns, anything Barbie pink color. And unlike the parents, they didn't have anyplace they had to go :) It's goofy to read anything into this. I can't imagine what the "chat session' will be like.

If you want to see a more honest version of this, put him in a park on a warm Saturday afternoon, not square in the middle of morning rush. In fact, I bet one could even sell tickets........

Now here would be an experiment, how would the attention differ with knowing who he is vs. not.

And there's nobody here who'd stand outside in a rainstorm to watch. In reality, that's less constraining than having to get to your job. Why is the first thing excusable and the second not?

April 8, 2007 at 03:06 AM · I'd stand out in a rainstorm....

April 8, 2007 at 03:09 AM · I'd be too afraid of the rain damaging the Strad's varnish, personally.

April 8, 2007 at 04:00 AM · Haaaa. Not even Sidney would. Ok, she might. On second thought the Beatles did ok at Shea Stadium in the rain. Or which stadium was that?

Armand, he and the Srad would be in a gazebo, of course.

April 8, 2007 at 03:18 AM · Well, maybe I wouldn't stand in the rain for JB, he's not exactly my favorite. Barnabás Kelemen, on the other hand...

April 8, 2007 at 03:44 AM · I'd stand in the rain, stop, drop, roll, steal the Strad, and run a very long ways away.

All in a day's work for Armand.

April 8, 2007 at 11:28 AM · The crowd didn't stop because they didn't want to be called as witnesses against somebody running out the door with the Strad.

April 8, 2007 at 05:30 AM · I don't know that I would call it a stunt or an experiment. That depends on the perspective and motivations of whoever set it up.

I have busked and played at markets a lot. It is hard work and no one is obligated to pay or even pay any attention. Some do; most don't.

I would bet that Mr. Bell learned a few things about himself, assuming he has not done this sort of thing before. I rather think he probably has but I don't know.

Anyway, I found the video of the Chaconne being played beautifully by a superb musician, and being almost totally ignored very very sad.

It portrayed Mr. Bell, who has played with our symphony before, very obviously as wonderfully human as everyone else.

Without judging any of it in any way, I found it to be quite thought provoking.

April 8, 2007 at 07:30 AM · Washington DC is just a mean ole town! As an outsider when I've ridden the Metro's on both DC and Baltimore there is little recognition or eye contact with others, so it would seem natural that music would be blocked-out as well - people encased in their own existence. NY for all of its reputation for cold-ness is much more friendly.

April 8, 2007 at 08:16 AM · I had a response to all this but somehow it cannot be posted.

April 8, 2007 at 09:02 AM · It could have been worse.

Imagine if Bell had played the bagpipes.

-Or even dare I say it, the viola! (g)

He might have cleared the place.


But seriously, results might have been different if they did it on a Sunday afternoon and different local, as others have said. But remember, people didn't just not stop, they didn't even turn their heads. Some didn't even remember hearing music at all.

I think perhaps better results would be had if they used quartet. Solo violin is not to everyone's liking, even in the best of circumstances.

There, I said it. Blast away, but remember that the avg listener doesn't appreciate technique and subtlety because they don't have any reference point for what it is. Hearing the fiddle with accompianiment would probably have a better visceral appeal for the average passerby.

Also, as Sydney said, Bach might not be the best choice for reaching into Avg Joe's heart. Maybe some Barry Manilow tunes ... (I'm KIDDING! well, sort of)

April 8, 2007 at 11:04 AM · interesting article and interesting setup...

the writer is a good tease, makes the read fun.

the experiment, if you can call it such, is bold. what is amazing, unlike even 90% scientifc researches that i read, is the detailed follow up on those who have stopped and listened. it gives meaning to the numbers, however pitiful they are.

just goes to show how people look first for a label when they pick up a violin...

too bad we will never know if there are people who had indeed recognized bell, were in fact big fans of violin, but had gone on their ways for fear of being late for work. haha:)

April 8, 2007 at 12:29 PM · Peter - Thank you. People in the survey must be including half a concert they attended 10 years ago to push the number to 25%.


April 8, 2007 at 12:23 PM · Although it's understandable that, on this board, a discussion about the article has veered to a focus on classical music, I don't think the experiment / stunt is specific to classical music at all.

I think the author gets to the meaning of it all here:

"In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L'Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said -- not because people didn't have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.

'This is about having the wrong priorities,' Lane said.

If we can't take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that -- then what else are we missing?"

This analysis also accommodates the view, with which I agree, that morning rush-hour is not a "fair" setting to draw conclusions about people's appreciation for music or beauty. It's probably the place and time where "the surge of modern life" is the most overpowering, with afternoon rush hour when you're running late in picking up your kids from daycare a close second.

April 8, 2007 at 12:34 PM · To put this in a bit of perspective, I used to belong to an ensemble, and one of the violinists, who was not very good, went busking on the Mall in DC on Memorial Day near the Washington Monument for about an hour and then, the next Saturday evening, went busking in Bethesda, a high end suburb, for about an hour playing the stuff we played in the ensemble. He collected $400 for his efforts.

April 8, 2007 at 02:03 PM · Evidently more people here know who Joshua Bell is than.....during rush hour

This is just too funny, there's a lot I could say but....

This is just VERY funny.

Well, maybe if you consider what it might be like to be a composer and know a part of the mind that no one seems to be interested in (and they would most likely call it crazy) although music would NOT exist without it, then you wouldn't be too surprised that people go rushing by oblivious.

Also, Joshua Bell is a completely unassuming, even quite insecure guy in real life. When he's himself he's more like a sweet guy than a superstar...when he's himself that is

April 8, 2007 at 03:49 PM · Good article - but it's SO typical of Washingtonians. (after living there for 27 years I feel I can say that and get away with it - I also used to commute through that station)

April 8, 2007 at 05:01 PM · Tom - Just curious, do you know how that $400 split between Washington Monument and Bethesda?


April 8, 2007 at 05:43 PM · January isn't a good month for busking - what which most people still paying off their christmas bills.

The experiment highlights the value of marketing, and of providing a backdrop appropriate for the expertise of the performer.

There must be a message here for all players - don't undersell yourselves!

April 8, 2007 at 05:54 PM · If I'm in a hurry to get to work I'm not stopping for Jimi Hendrix or Szell and the Cleveland Orch.

Martin Mull and Steve Martin, both of them good writers/actors/comedians/musicians, once toured together (The Steve Martin Mull tour). Supposedly they once left an audience begging for more, ducked out back and played for the same people as they walked to their cars. As the story goes, no one paid them any attention in the parking lot.

Perception, hype and spin are everything in this world.

April 8, 2007 at 06:13 PM · HAPPY EASTER, everyone!

April 8, 2007 at 06:49 PM · I second the remarks here about bad timimng and bad location. There were so many times that I had to rush to get to work on time because the DC's trains were singletracking. It is such stress when they slap you with at least 30 min delay pretty much out of nowhere. It is an aging, overburdened metro system. Consequently it is an unfriendly place most of the time.


April 9, 2007 at 07:31 AM · This story brings encouragement to those of us who have ever played our best performance and gotten a cool response. I liked how I could relate to JB's insecurity. I imagine he sounded glorious in that station, but perhaps the overpowering musical expression may have been a bit frightening that early in the morning.

April 8, 2007 at 10:22 PM · Ihnsouk - I think it was about 50-50.

April 8, 2007 at 10:37 PM · Insouk, i worked in marketing communications for 7 years and 0.65% of the population listens to classical music regularly. The numbers Joshua Bell got in that station are in line with classical music's demographics at media outlets and at the major record labels.

April 8, 2007 at 10:36 PM · I want to see a piano busker.

Performing on a concert grand.

That would make me happy.

April 8, 2007 at 10:40 PM · I love that the children always paid attention. So much for classical music being 'elitist.'

The funny thing is that we as adults live as if we're the smart ones and children are foolish. I personally think that in a lot of ways the reverse is true.

April 8, 2007 at 10:45 PM · I'm with Jim on this. Anyone drawing conclusions from a rather silly little stunt and the resulting newspaper article needs their head read. Oh well good to see sensationalism is still what it always was, although I'd suggest gullibility may be at an all time high.

I think the best rebuttal and explanation I've seen is here (Careful you're venturing into viola land, but don't worry they'll speak slowly so you can understand.) :)


April 8, 2007 at 11:04 PM · Neil,

Now that's an article written by someone (Teske that is) knows what he is talking about. Thanks for the link.

April 8, 2007 at 11:08 PM · "Some agencies, notably have larger orchestras...."

I wonder if need a higher clearance to be a 1st violin than 2nd?

April 8, 2007 at 11:41 PM · Neil, i respectfully disagree. People will notice a thing they value regardless of where you put it.

eg. If you were in that same Metro station and there was a $100 bill lying on the floor where Joshua Bell stood, i seriously doubt you'd look past it because 'you were late for work.'

eg. If you were rushing to get to work and you saw a stunning blonde in a tight tube-top and miniskirt walking slowly down that same hallway, i seriously doubt you'd look the other way because you were 'late for work.'

People have their priorities and their values. Just so happens that in modern America, classical ain't one of them.

April 9, 2007 at 12:46 AM · Noticing or appreciating great beauty or profound ideas requires certain type attentiveness (sometimes hard work and cultivation) from the audience that $100 bills and conventional good looks don’t.

April 9, 2007 at 12:52 AM · ... or in an OR where an open-heart surgery is in operation.

April 9, 2007 at 12:50 AM · Man, you and your analogies. You have a knack for them.

April 9, 2007 at 12:57 AM · I can barely catch up with you Jim.

April 9, 2007 at 01:11 AM · Tom - Thank you.

Dion - So, one could have predicted the outcome before carrying out the experiment. 0.65% population listens to classical music regularly. It seems natural to assume that those will be the ones to notice someone playing violin solo at the metro station. With one quick phone call, one can learn that about 1000 people passes by during that time. That would mean 6-7 people showing any sign of recognition. That's in line with what they found. What's the news now?


April 9, 2007 at 01:54 AM · Jim - Thank you for shining a bright light on your immensely high level of intelligence.

April 9, 2007 at 06:53 AM · I'm here to make you look good. It ain't easy.

April 9, 2007 at 02:33 AM · Come now, it's not fair to say that Americans are all ignorant.

The vast majority are, however, a cardiac arrest waiting to happen, but we'll leave that discussion for another time.

Hmmm, do any of you have experience busking? I am thinking of giving it a try one of these years when I am more confident in my own playing. What are the average hourly wages for people who pick good spots and can play decently?

And do wooden violins work well, or do most buskers use electric?

April 9, 2007 at 03:16 AM · "EX-CEL-LENT idea, observation, and writing. I'm a professional violinst &c., and have spent much time busking underground in Philadelphia. Every detail of the article resonates deeply with my consistent experiences. Nice work! -- Gabriel Kastelle"

[except that in philosophy I tend toward Wittgenstein rather than Kant.]

I tried to post that comment at the Post before reading here on [haven't seen it up yet]. Now reading so many thoughtful comments and analyses here, I feel compelled to elaborate.

It's nice to only busk on pleasant spring days, on the weekend, in urban parks next to the rich high-rises, across the street from a coffee shop-- and to be short and cute, I suppose. One afternoon like that is worth two weeks of double rush hours underground in the winter.

But poverty doesn't respect seasons-- actually prefers winter-- and if you're just so much short for rent, or that transit pass, or dinner, you do what you can where you can, and it worked best for me to just find the best acoustic and the times with the most people. I found very little correlation between time or attention given as compared with money. The quickest passers-by often gave surprising much money. Though, the dynamic mentioned of people who do stop and listen, such obvious resisters of the tide flowing around them, feeling obligated to donate something-- that is for real. But, often, I'd recognize "regular" listeners who would stop briefly several times in a week that I repeated a similar time and location, but who would donate only sometimes, and plenty of others who would stop and listen, then go, and that was all. Also, there never seemed to be any relation between what I played or how well or poorly in my estimation, and money recieved.

So overall I'm kind of with the numbers quoters here: genuine listeners of whatever genre are scattered very thinly in the population, and on average, we should all have more efficient ways of earning money than by busking-- what's the news???

And yet, there is more-- I can't begin to tell it all here. If you really care about anything, and happen to need some money with no delay, go busking and there will be a flood of contradictory, unexpected emotions. Young children are the best, with any other still listeners a good second best. I loved the contrast from the concert-style separation of performer and audience. Standing together on the same floor, six feet away rather than sixty or six-hundred, and going for it has some great features. Fine fleeting intimate moments with strangers mute under the music; skin-thickening toughness training from the general inattention; incredible meetings; good opportunity and setting for improvising; moral and emotional education (for me, I mean-- no kidding); necessary pondering of deep, timeless thoughts and unavoidable cultural analysis; friends passing by "Hello!"; others: "Hey!-- aren't you ..... What are you doing down here?"; cool coins from foreign countries, gospel tracts, empty and full candy bar wrappers, little notes and thank-yous and compliments, change and bills-- occasional bigger ones, all sorts of surprises found in your case; being able to stop and conversate.... people walking up and telling you stories you've somehow sparked; hearing immediately from listeners who have been moved by music-- that was always very nice; getting hired for other gigs; meeting other musicians, who usually NOTICE.

Playing strengthens in some ways, more generally suffers. Overall I'm more satisfied with different practice and performance contexts, but busking work is honorable-- or should be seen more that way.

But mostly it's just a numbers thing-- wherever there's sufficient population density passing by with some realistic chance at stopping for a moment, and with moderate "weather" and space and not impossibly loud "background noise", there will be busking, and it will be met with general disregard, yet provide public and private pearls of serendipity as well. I knew that was true, and found consolation and satisfaction in that even if my money take in a particular trip was disappointing or a hardship.


I AM surprised Bell took his Strad into the midst of a commute-- concern for the equipment is a really big deal busking as a violinist. And the more you actually need to busk, the more obviously catastrophic it would be if ANYTHING happened to violin or bow....

Why didn't the article subtract his cab fare-- both ways-- from his earnings? If he's gotta do it that way, that's a cost of the endeavor and cuts in to his net. And why discount the money given with recognition? Recognition always helped me underground in Philly, and the money given is the same spendable green as money donated due to any other factors. Just curious.

April 9, 2007 at 03:28 AM · < Why didn't the article subtract his cab fare-- both ways-- from his earnings? >

Money wasn't really what the "stunt" was about. The idea was, would people stop and listen.

April 9, 2007 at 04:05 AM · Armand, I don't know why certain things were discounted or not included. That's the problem with the entire thing though.

As for busking for fun and profit, the last busker I saw was a guy sitting in the post office parking lot, probably living at the homeless shelter.

But, the guy who's got to be the best busker going, formerly anyway, is this guy -> link who for me has been a kind of lifelong musical inspiration since I first saw him playing on the street when I was about 10, and he maybe 20. Oddly enough he's Emily G.'s neighbor now, decades later.

April 9, 2007 at 07:09 AM · If I am awake or out and about before 8 in the morning I rarely appreciate music or anything else, besides coffee, as much as I usually would, especially if I'm on my way to some mundane event. If he came and played outside my window at 7:30 a.m. I would probably shut my window and go back to sleep, and I certainly wouldn't feel what I do at a formal concert.

I am sure we have all walked past great musicians and music before without even noticing it. In "Music from the Inside Out" there is a scene were about 30 members of the Philadelphia Orchestra stop and listen to an accordian player give an incredible performance of Vivaldi. It seems that the other 70 players either filed past or decided to stay in the restaurant instead of hearing this truly wonderful account of some great music.

April 9, 2007 at 08:20 AM · Didn't read all your comments, but just wanna say: in Belgium they did a similar experiment. Our own Yossif Ivanov, who had just won 2nd prize in Queen Elisabeth Comp. was asked to play alongside the beach, in summer. People were NOT rushing to work, and were NO Americans. Result: He got just enough money to buy an icecream!

April 9, 2007 at 08:49 AM · Maybe somebody will tell Leonard Slatkin.

April 9, 2007 at 11:42 AM · I was thinking about why I listen to buskers in the T, or don't. It has very little to do with them and a lot to do with me. I have my commute pretty closely timed and usually don't have even 3 minutes. I also don't see what's so wrong with the guy who walked by wearing ear buds, why that's so bad. I'm often listening to classical music on my earbuds, and as a result don't often stop and listen to the busking flamenco guitarist who frequents the stop I go to most mornings.

Commuting by subway can get pretty intense: you're really stuffed in there like sardines, there's a lot of sensory stimulation, much of it unpleasant, and it's important to keep up the illusion of personal space if you're going to keep doing it. Having the iPod and the indifference to your surroundings is really, I think, a mental health survival tactic.

On the other hand, I do listen to the flamenco guy sometimes, and I would have noticed a violinist just because he was a violinist.

April 9, 2007 at 11:56 AM · may be i am biased:) but if the music was from a very attractive lady, i would think more people would have stopped and listened. ok, all straight men:)

even those who did not stop, trust me, they have paid attention! hehehe.

April 9, 2007 at 02:14 PM · I was fascinated by this article! What an interesting idea! I was shocked that only one person recognized Joshua Bell. I think the morning rush hour is not the best time for busking. Yes, people are rushing to get to their offices on time. And in Washington, DC, where there are frequent delays and breakdowns on the metro, there really is no time to stop and listen and appreciate good music played by a fine musician. I think if Joshua Bell had busked at another time, maybe during the afternoon lunch hour when things are more relaxed, and at another location, the result would have been different. And I think his case would have filled up with money. I think Joshua Bell's decision to play the Bach Chaccone was an excellent choice, however, I think maybe he could have also included a short piece from his Gershwin and/or Bernstein album because Porgy and Bess or West Side Story probably would have been more recognizable to more people.

April 9, 2007 at 02:35 PM · Gabriel - Where in Philadelphia do you play busking?

About that taxi thing, the guy was going to take that Strad out and play for 40 minutes in public, and yet it was too precious to walk three blocks to the metro stop with it in the case.

About not recognizing him, do you recognize your own mother in public if you don't expect to see her?


April 9, 2007 at 04:01 PM · Where DID I busk in Philly-- it was some years ago, mostly between seven and ten+ years ago (!!), and structural and social remodeling were both intense in Philly when I left, so take all this with sufficient grains of salt:

Most consistently best if weather forced me underground was across hall from steps going down at Market and sixteenth (17th?), framed by the pretty window into below-ground courtyard. That's the southwest corner of the half square with the big diagonal hallway between regional rail and City Hall stops-- anywhere along that diagonal hall is OK. Sometimes I did OK, and sound was nicer, in the far opposite corner (Northeast)-- also accessed with stair beside the municipal building north of City Hall, base of the parkway-- basically under LOVE park, 15th and JFK. Market East station I managed briefly, sometimes, but both SEPTA police and Galleria security had issues with busking, and usually caught up before it was worth the trip. I didn't much try individual platforms-- wind and noise and additional risks make it not make much sense, I think, the way Philly's are designed. Oh yeah-- under Broad St, anywhere between City Hall and about Walnut, is workable, but has disadvantages as well. Above ground, besides parks, center city blocks of Chestnut were often used by buskers-- advantages and disadvantages.

The best thing is Rittenhouse Square, nice weather, Saturday. Even there, varies.

Careful and heads-up anywhere-- Philly police carried away no less than Bayard Lancaster, world-class saxophonist and sweet guy, and managed to 'lose' his saxophone, simply because he was busking on a sidewalk (around Sansom and 20th, Chestnut and 21st, something like that). One nice thing about the first corner I mentioned, years ago, anyway, is that it was a sort of boundary between SEPTA police and city police area, and neither really did much right there. Sometimes some city police stopped and listened briefly while zooming underground in their battery carts, occasional grin or nod or other appreciated cue that all was well. Further up by regional rail, SEPTA police regularly and promptly removed me (only two or three times were enough and I gave up there). Don't even attempt anything outside of the most normal commuting behavior in 30th Street Station. The federal Amtrak police there have a record of shooting first and asking questions later, and are astonishing characters. They have the honor of having killed a homeless guy there.

I don't know whether you asked, Ihnsouk, out of listening or playing interest, but I continue to provide the player's perspective that I have.

April 9, 2007 at 03:58 PM · Nice post, Gabriele. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

I agree that busking, or any playing in an informal setting, is a very risky sort of intimate experience. As opposed to a formal concert with all the expectations and rules and regulations.

Good music is good music. I wish more people took the time to truly appreciate it...wherever they might find it.

April 9, 2007 at 05:24 PM · It isn't busking, but my father once encountered Schlomo Mintz practicing in an airport departure lounge in the U.S. He stopped to listen for a long time, but was virtually the only one who did so. While some people were undoubtedly rushing to catch planes, plenty were looking for something to do.

April 9, 2007 at 05:32 PM · Great posts Gabriel!

Kant builds, Wittgenstein cures. Neither can be made easy by humorous journalism. I hope you agree.

April 9, 2007 at 07:49 PM · This seems to be more in the nature of a trick than a stunt. Who in their right mind expects to see anyone who can command $100 plus seats performing for free? Most people do not expect to get something for nothing. I am surprised Mr. Bell agreed to it. Free publicity? Does he even need it?

April 9, 2007 at 08:14 PM · "Kant builds, Wittgenstein cures." Excellent, Yixi. I'm stealing that. You know your philosophers. What about Epictetus? ("the Buddha of the West"?).


April 9, 2007 at 08:57 PM · There's a transcript of the chat up at the second link now. Too weird. For the record, I looked up Epictetus and tossed him a dollar.

April 10, 2007 at 02:37 AM · There used to be a time when people just listened to music, and they didn't feel distracted if anything besides traffic noises and the bustle of city life was in their ears while they were on their way to make enough money to take part in the present onslaught against nature which is called "society."

April 10, 2007 at 03:22 AM · This was an interesting little experiment. Many interpretations are possible, since there were no controls, of course. Here is one interpretation from a violinist friend with whom I play string quartets to whom I forwarded the story, and who has worked with a state teacher's association for many years. Since I didn't ask permission to quote the e-mail (I wanted to get this in before we hit the 100 post limit), I have deleted the name of the state, but I'm sure the friend wouldn't mind.

Unfortunately, I think the the mass of people in the U.S. are no longer being educated to appreciate, or even know about, classical music except in a relatively few schools and families. And it's getting worse -- the news clips I receive at work include regular reports of [state] school districts cutting their budgets by reducing or eliminating band, choir, etc. (orchestra was eliminated long ago in most places). The [state music educator's association] has documented a continuing decrease in the number of public school music educators. I'm sure this is happening nationwide. So it's no surprise that the younger generation apparently believes Sanjaya can really sing!

Let's face it -- we're dinosaurs... but happy dinosaurs!!

I reacted exactly the same way to the Bell experiment as my friend. I also sent the link to my adult non-instrument playing son. When we discussed the article, without prompting from me, he immediately commented that it would be different in Europe. He said on a recent trip to London he observed a violinist playing rather well (he thought) on a street corner. I asked him if anyone stopped to listen. "About 300 people, I'd estimate." Again, just one incident.

As we social scientists like to say, isolated incidents can't prove anything, but they are certainly suggestive (i.e., point towards various conclusions which need further substantiation).

One thing about Bell's little experiment was successful . . . for the Washington Post. When I forwarded the article to friends, at that point it was the Post's most forwarded article! :)

April 10, 2007 at 04:25 AM · Eric, really I think you should know better as a sociology prof. You're correct that single instances don't prove anything, but they don't imply anything either, except maybe what you want implied - if it was 300 ppl in Washington, and zero in London, you wouldn't consider that an implication. In fact it goes without saying that you could uncover instances of exactly that. I suspect you'd just call it an anomaly.

One thing that you can take seriously out of this is the following. Supposedly this caused a large reaction to the article. What would the reaction have been if it, for example, "implied" the U.S. no longer had the ability to get into space? I question whether we have the capability to do something like make a Saturn V anymore myself. You're talking about a preference in music causing the reaction. And if teenager kids started whistling Aida, classical music would branch into a different obscurity. That's its psychology I think. Having said that, I'm not sure classical music isn't more popular than its ever been in the U.S., to tell you the truth. There's nothing going on here that's not messed up ;) There's not even any reason to believe the reaction to the article occurred. It's not a news story. It wouldn't be unethical to make half of it up, for publicity.

April 10, 2007 at 06:32 AM · That was an interesting article -- and also very sad.

Tom, do you know whether busking near Metro stations or anywhere else in the DC area is legal? I almost never see anyone busking.

April 10, 2007 at 01:04 PM · Pauline - I see plenty of buskers, so I assume it is legal.

April 10, 2007 at 01:10 PM · Laura - The tone of your response suggests that you have questions/concerns about Bell's personality. I am not surprised Bell agreed to do it. He certainly did not do it for the publicity. I think he did for the hell of it because it sounded like an interesting thing to do. He seems like a nice, down-to-earth, interesting person from everything I have read about him.

April 10, 2007 at 01:12 PM · I've seen quite a few buskers in downtown Washington, DC. One violinist, but mainly drummers and sax and trumpet players. I also saw a busker near the intersection of Connecticut and Massachusetts Avenues one day who was shaking a container of change in perfect rhythm and singing in what appeared to be a blues style. There is also a flute player who's a regular down on the Mall where all the museums are. He plays all sorts of stuff. Lots of patriotic songs, like Yankee Doodle, and he gets the audience very involved, and I've seen them dropping money into his case.

April 10, 2007 at 01:50 PM · Anybody read "Dennis the Menace" in the morning funny papers today? :)

April 10, 2007 at 01:46 PM · I wish Josh Bell would tell us why he did it. I'll bet his publicist thought it was a great idea. If you look at all of the reaction from not only us, but laymen as well, Josh Bell was repaid by the publicity...and then some.

I would also say that Josh Bell is not a sellout. At the same time as getting some positive marketing for himself, he is getting positive marketing for classical music.

There is no such thing as bad Paris Hilton knows. (not to put Josh Bell in the same category as her other than regards publicity) So even if the publicity has more of a leaning towards the demise of classical music, it all counts.

April 10, 2007 at 04:26 PM · Bell probably would have gotten more attention if he played something more showy than Bach. Even in the good ol' days Bach was NOT often played on the streets.

April 10, 2007 at 08:16 PM · Well if it was Heifetz playing in that lobby, I think there might perhaps me more attention given.

April 10, 2007 at 08:34 PM · Yeah, seeing a man who's been dead for 20 years playing the violin would probably attract more attention.

April 10, 2007 at 08:38 PM · The lead author's comments Monday during the public chat, and many comments at the Wash. Post, make pretty clear that busking in Metro areas is against Metro's rules and most likely illegal. So where they set Joshua Bell up to play was actually just outside of Metro area in a privately-owned area where permission was given.

The legality of busking's being illegal in public spaces is questionable. I suppose Metro space is in some technical legal sense not public space. However, on genuinely public space, sidewalks especially (for example, where Bayard Lancaster was wronged by Philly police), there is a history of court precendents allowing "passive panhandling" in reasoning stretching all the way to Constitution / Bill of Rights, and as long as traffic is not obstructed and passersby may pass by in peace, busking musicians are generally considered to fall into this category of "passive panhandling". I kept a letter with me from the ACLU detailing all this when I was working sidewalks &c. in Philly, and I was also for a time an officially registered performer for the boardwalk of Atlantic City, with letter signed by the mayor and all that.

Now, a solo acoustic violin outside the doors of the colossi of gambling brings up again all the issues of context-- although people in Atlantic City are "at leisure" and looking for entertainment, they aren't generally looking for me and my violin, it seems. I was never able to make the busking trip to Atlantic City worthwhile, compared with the time and cost of the travel there and back from Philly.

But both here and in my earlier comments on this thread, I should explain and admit that I am a superb musician, but I'm not so much of an entertainer. For best busking one should be both. But being an entertainer is more important. There's a lot going on in entertaining and economically effective busking. New York City, and Seattle's Pike Place Market give some good examples.

April 10, 2007 at 08:39 PM · Karen wrote, "Yeah, seeing a man who's been dead for 20 years playing the violin would probably attract more attention."

Yeah it probably would.

April 10, 2007 at 10:25 PM · Heifetz was more of a celebrity for his time than Bell is today. Additionally, Heifetz would have played Beethoven :D

April 10, 2007 at 10:58 PM · Bruce Springsteen working the sidewalk in Copenhagen:


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