January 14, 2009 at 05:55 AM ·

A man sat at a metro station in  Washington  DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best 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 his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in  Boston and the seats average $100.00 each.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing some of the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?



Replies (18)

January 14, 2009 at 05:59 AM ·

I actually was sent this recently, with this exact wording. Interesting how it turned into this sort of Reader's Digest didactic thing over the last two years, but not a bad message. Here's the original Washington Post story

January 14, 2009 at 05:17 PM ·

You know, I've seen this story making the rounds--famous soloist plays in subway and no one recognizes his wonderfulness. But I just don't see what the big deal is. Most people don't listen to classical music and don't know good violin-playing from bad. And they wouldn't recognize most classical artists. So what exactly is the point? Would the "experiment" be as interesting if it had been a well-known ballerina? National Geographic photographer? Chef? 

It would be more interesting if Mr. Bell were to play every day in the subway for free on a regular basis. But a one-time appearance seems more like a self-indulgent stunt to me.

January 14, 2009 at 05:43 PM ·

It is too bad that Mr. Bell's regular concert fee was not compared with his busking earnings.  Now THAT would have sold a few more birdcage liners...

January 14, 2009 at 06:07 PM ·

People do not stop to listen to anything in a DC metro station, on the way to work, the type of music had nothing to do with it. Had Mr. Bell performed in the summer, in an area which attracts people on vacation, he would of had an audience.

January 14, 2009 at 07:18 PM ·

Seems like the experiment was set up to fail.  They picked the worst possible time for busking.  Almost nobody has time to "stop & smell the roses" during morning rush hour, and people are usually not in a receptive mood at that point in their day (tired, rushed, thinking about all the stuff they have to get done).  Evening rush hour might have gotten a more encouraging result, but that wouldn't have fit in with the "nobody listens to classical music / nobody appreciates great artistry" premise.

January 14, 2009 at 07:47 PM ·

Two experienced buskers that my wife talked to claimed that if Bell had really known what he was doing, he would not have chosen to stand where he did and would have made a lot more $$$.  Of course, nothing like he gets paid when he shows up at the Kennedy Center.

January 14, 2009 at 07:51 PM ·

Anyone else notice that half the people they talked to work for the USPS?  I agree that where he was standing wasn't a comfortable area - between two sets of doors during traffic.  People naturally don't want to block the flow of traffic and want to get out of the way.  I'd say that that the number of people who stopped and watch increased with a) the time (supposition being that people who arrive at work later are in less of a rush to get to work) and b) the number of people passing through (natural inclination to keep moving drops as it gets less crowded).  But still, I'm flabbergasted.  I'm moved by the playing just watching the video.  

January 15, 2009 at 12:54 AM ·

I remember reading the original story when it happened.  It's a valid experiment but quite possibly set up to fail.  We as musicians would like to think that beautiful music would stop us dead in our tracks.  But under the circumstances of running to catch your train you probably wouldn't stop unless you knew it was a great performer for sure.  We automatically believe that since it's in the subway it's no one but a busker no matter how good they are.  If you walked past a famous Monet painting in the subway you wouldn't stop to look because "Monets are in the Louvre, not in the subway, so it can't be an actual Monet."

January 15, 2009 at 02:38 AM ·

 It wasn't an experiment. Putting a musician in the subway and seeing if anyone stops to listen isn't an experiment in any sense of the word.

January 15, 2009 at 04:34 PM ·

It was a publicity stunt.  The only real message was that if you don't mind being -late to work- so you can hear Josh Bell , then you aren't as snobby as the author's pretending to be. 

You know, what is your job compared to the wonder the glory the power of the Josh Bell one? And didn't it win a Pulitzer?  Seems like it.  lol. 


January 16, 2009 at 10:36 AM ·

Just a public service announcement for anyone who attends a Joshua Bell concert and is inclined to ask him about this incident: DON'T DO IT.  He totally didn't expect all the fallout from it and is completely sick of talking about it.  Give the poor guy a break.

(I'm not Josh's friend, just an ardent fan who reads a lot of his interviews.  Apparently asking this question now leads to eye-rolling.)

Personally, I think it was a cute idea and made a good story, but it's ridiculous how so many people viewed this as some sort of revelation on humanity.  I even got this letter from a Spanish audiomagazine I used to subscribe to:

Dear Fellow Language Lover,

The Washington Post recently reported on Joshua Bell, one of the world's greatest violinists, who, on his Stradivarius, slyly played the role of street musician one morning at the downtown L'Enfant Plaza Metro stop.

[...snip stuff about how famous Josh is and how they expected a huge crowd to gather and listen to him...]

You are one who appreciates quality. You, as one of our subscribers, are among those who pause to listen to the music---the music of language.

Upgrade Your Account Now!

Uh-huh, right.

January 18, 2009 at 05:29 PM ·

I was thinking that it's a mistake to believe it's meaningless unless people freeze in their tracks.  Under the circumstances, I wouldn't have stopped but would have listened as I was moving along, then at the train platform if I could still hear, with the whole thing in a natural context.  I was thinking the demand he was making that you do a particular thing is no different from the other demands that were being made on the people as they went by, as I already said. 

As for those who were completely oblivious, they and people who text while they drive worry me greatly  :)

January 18, 2009 at 07:43 PM ·

I did locate the video of him playing, submitted to YouTube from the Washington Post.  It's 2 min, 36 sec.

www.youtube.com/watch  - Clicking on this link opens a new browser window and brings you directly to the video of him.

Cheers, Valerie

January 21, 2009 at 12:51 PM ·

A social experiment or publicity stunt? Difficult to tell....

One thing is for certain. All the successful elements for any experienced "street performer" were absent from the scene. The area is too busy and Mr. Bell is standing in what could be the worst area to attempt anybody to stop, even if they had the time. It would be considered dangerous given common fire safety laws.The seasoned street musician would have picked a more relaxed environment, preferably one where people are on vacation. In that instance, one may not only stop and smell the roses, so to speak, but watch them bloom as well. I hope that the incident has not bruised the artist's professional or personal ego. Rest assured his bank accounts have not suffered due to the indifference of a busy and work focused society. All good things are best appreciated in their own good time.

Another element could be that most human beings are wary of street performers and consider them as common beggars. Most people who live in big cities are suspect of such displays. In the old days, a fiddler (or some other form of unusual entertainments) would perform away, distracting the listener, and have a confederate pick the pocket of the entranced listener. It was known as being "fiddled". In the modern world, it is usually against the city ordinances and is considered panhandleing in many cities. A licence can be given in certain circumstances and written permission to play in front of shops or parks, etc., must also be obtained. If musicians were able to play anywhere willy-nilly, the streets and public lobbys would undoubtly be filled with them. If I had been there to observe him in person,it would have struck me as odd if a security officer or policeman would not have been on the scene in a matter of minutes, given the strict and intensified security measures required in public places today. Who there, even if they were avid Bell fans, would have ever imagined that it was him? Most would have only seen him at a great distance while he was on stage.

January 21, 2009 at 01:29 PM ·

I don't know Jerald, that sounds a little severe to me.  If no policeman was stopping him then I would assume that the street performer had a license to be there.  In NYC the Music Under NY program (MUNY) is a very promiment way to perform.  You must audition for the program, and you get assigned a spot and a time.  People that have been in the program for a while and have good responses get the prized spots like Grand Central Station or Times Square where they will get the most exposure.  I'm willing to bet that all around the country if you see a busker in a high visibility spot then they have taken measures to ensure that spot legally.

January 21, 2009 at 08:26 PM ·

Please pardon my obvious severity on the subject. I really did not mean to come across so negative. I am aware of the program in NYC, and wish that other cites would follow suit as well. It alone would be a good thing for the arts in general. It can literally introduce something to those who would otherwise not be able to access, or did'nt know existed. It could open a door for children to get interested in the arts. It is a great tool for personal promotion of one's art and talent.

I am fearful that my rather bleak outlook on the present activity of (some) street performance practices stems from personal observations and experiences in the past. I am certain that such legal oppositions do not occur in all cases, as most performers are involved with some promotional aspect of an established organization, such as the one you mentioned. It is at that point the artist is under control and legally protected.

January 22, 2009 at 02:46 AM ·

What the article doesn't mention is that one person did recognize him and gave him most of that money otherwise he would have earned something like $10! 

January 22, 2009 at 02:08 PM ·

Jerald I agree 100%.  I'm baffled that musicians do not take measures to protect themselves in general.  When I wanted to become a violinist I had no intention of becoming a starving artist but there are many folks who think this is the way to be a musician.  I guess I take the MUNY program for granted and the realization that it doesn't happen all across the country when IT EASILY CAN is beyond depressing.  I mean think about it, this program costs almonst nothing for the city.  They don't have to pay the performers, they're busking!  The only cost would be the application and audition process, the website, the licensing, and it would probably not require more than 1 full-time staff position for it.

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