What does this say about our society?????

January 27, 2011 at 06:44 PM ·

Have you all heard about this?


Can't begin to express what this says about US society in general.


Replies (45)

January 27, 2011 at 06:47 PM ·

 It's been four years (and one Pulitzer!), so we've had a number of discussions about it, but there's no harm in discussing it again.

January 27, 2011 at 06:54 PM ·

 i would definitely have stayed to listen, even if i did not recognize who he was,  because i am just interested in seeing how people play or how a particular person plays under that circumstance.  i might even go up to joke with him by asking: is that a strad? :)

but,,,people have things to do, places to go and subways to catch.  

for instance, i would like to ask the op:  would you miss a flight to listen to someone playing in the subway?

or, would you miss a flight to listen if you actually recognize it is famous player?

i won't. 

January 27, 2011 at 07:33 PM ·

 It says nothing about our society at all.  

People go to subways because they are travelling from A to B.  They are not there with the intention of listening to buskers - they are travelling, often against a work related deadline.  

There are other reasons, to do with social preferences etc, but the extremely poor choice of time and location was certain to produce the headline grabbing result.  


January 27, 2011 at 07:59 PM ·

Here is the original Washington Post article, which contains videos and an audio recording of the busking event.  It is still a great read after these years.


As Laurie alluded to, Gene Weingarten won a Pulitzer for this article.

And yes, I would risk missing a flight to watch him play.

January 27, 2011 at 08:07 PM ·

I have to agree that it doesn't really say anything about our society. When I see buskers I rarely stop to see them because I'm usually on a deadline. But that doesn't mean I love classical music any less than a person who stops because they have a few minutes to kill.

January 27, 2011 at 08:31 PM ·

It says that people need to get to work when they are walking through a subway, and that as much as they may like music, their boss will not like it if they are late.  If I'm due someplace for a business meeting, I would not risk a flight to hear him, and neither would anyone else with a good-paying job.  If you say you would ...well, I'll believe it when you're at the ticket counter rescheduling for another $500.

Set a quarter down on top of an up escalator, and see how many people stop.  You can't conclude from that that people dislike saving money.

Check out what the Opera Company of Philadelphia has been doing at the Reading Terminal Market -- a far friendlier environment where people are coming to spend some time, eat lunch, and have the chance to listen and be delighted and surprised by music without having to get from one place to another.

Seriously -- go to YouTube and check them out.  What you see there will light a match to this article, then pucker up and blow away the ashes.

January 27, 2011 at 08:41 PM ·

 It says this about our society: Companies discourage employees from being late to their jobs...

It also says this: if you're an artist and you want to expose your art to an attentive and receptive audience, the subway station is probably not the best place to do it.

January 27, 2011 at 08:48 PM ·

There's also people heading to doctor's appointments, people picking up their kids from school or daycare or dropping them off, etc. etc. etc.  There were probably 100 reasons why the people in the subway were hurrying past.

And I think a lot of people who would insist that they would surely be the ones to sit there and listen would still be rushing past on their schedule, watching everyone else rushing past and saying to themselves, "No one is stopping to listen to that young man, what a shame, what is our society coming to, wish I could stop too but I'd be late to the knee specialist," or whatever.  It reminds me of the old cliche when people walk into their first thermodynamics class, look around, and go, "What a bunch of geeks."  That's what the guy coming in after you is going to say, too.

I'm sorry, but I've seen and heard of way too many art and performance flashmobs getting jubilant receptions to take this article seriously.  Waste of a Pulitzer IMO.

January 27, 2011 at 09:07 PM ·

 since no one who walked away was stopped and interviewed, it is tough to guess their reactions.  pity,,,would be an interesting study.  

some people were probably so preoccupied with their stuff in their heads that they possibly did not even hear it:)   what violin playing?  oh, that guy!

then there is this  behavior:  if 10 people already stopped and listened intently, it might be easier to draw in the 11th, like in a herd.   to be the very first to stop and listen, in this creepy world, sometimes takes guts.  it is not only just a time commitment,, but also an inter-personal investment.    some folks just cannot afford to make that.  they use computers.

some also can "safely" assume that the player is probably no good that is why he is playing in the subway.   possibly a weirdo:)    good players play in a concert hall...

a few probably thought he was playing a banjo and they did not like banjo:)


January 27, 2011 at 10:12 PM ·

I agree that it doesn't really say anything about our society -- i.e., anything that most of us didn't know already.  The media have long manipulated events to promote their viewpoints and agendas and boost ratings -- and they sometimes manage to win Pulitzers in the process.

Check out the 4-7-2007 thread titled Joshua Bell: Busker?

January 27, 2011 at 10:40 PM · Someone recently made a point in a thread about busking that a big part of it is entertaining and interacting with the passersby, playing familiar songs, and taking requests. In that spirit, what Josh Bell did can hardly even be described as "busking." Just the opposite... If he was broke and needed to earn his next meal, he wouldn't be playing the Chaconne unless he had a request and a huge tip....

January 27, 2011 at 11:27 PM ·

I gotta say this: I had enough trouble actually hearing Joshua Bell in San Francisco's Daves Symphony Hall some years ago that I can imagine even myself walking by if Josh was playing in the subway. I saw that video years ago (1st run TV news).

Of course if I could have heard him there in the passageway I certainly would have listened to him -as long as he played (as i have listened to nameless musicians in  metros, undergrounds, and public squares in Paris, London, and Madrid) - it certainly brightens the day.

On the other hand if you have an appointment or call of nature, perhaps you would just keep going.


January 28, 2011 at 04:50 AM ·

Ok, so it was a redundant , outdated and maybe obvious question. My apologies. So consensus is people are too busy, have something else on their mind, etc. Not sure I fully agree but let me restate the general responses.......

Thousands of people are too busy at that time/location to appreciate world class violin playing, world class musicianship...that is what we are saying. So if they were less busy, they would have stopped to listen.

January 28, 2011 at 04:55 AM ·

 >if 10 people already stopped and listened intently, it might be easier to draw in the 11th, like in a herd.   to be the very first to stop and listen, in this creepy world, sometimes takes guts.  it is not only just a time commitment,, but also an inter-personal investment. 

Omigosh. You pegged me, Al. : ) 

Seriously. I wouldn't stop if it meant drawing any attention to myself in the least. When I hear a talented busker, if there's no crowd, I tend to walk out of the way, find an invisible spot, and only there will I stop, stand, admire.

Who's to say how many ppl did that in this situation? Dozens, maybe. But they made themselves invisible. It's a good skill in a big city, frankly.

January 28, 2011 at 05:59 AM ·



'What does this say about our society?'

They wanted to hear Jascha Heifetz or David Nadien instead? :)


January 28, 2011 at 06:02 AM ·

Arnie, it's a safe guess that, quite possibly, more people would have stopped to listen.  I found this statement from the original article significant:

"… the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent.  Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch.  And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away."

Of course, who knows how many of these parents wished they could stop and listen -- and let their kids listen -- but knew it wasn't an option at that hour?

I've already served on two juries -- one criminal, one civil.  When the prosecution or plaintiff begins its argument, it can sound, oh, so convincing; but when the defense gets its turn, many a case falls apart.  And both cases I heard fell apart.  In the criminal trial, we acquitted the defendant; in the civil one, we held for the defendant, not the plaintiff.

At first, the Post's presentations can sound, oh, so persuasive; but then the reader feedback starts coming in, like what we've seen here in this forum.  Then we start getting a bigger picture, being forced to consider factors not touched on in the published articles.

There have been many cases of the media attempting to manipulate public opinion this way to further their agendas.  One example: this month's Arizona shootings.  No funerals had yet taken place; but already -- much as with the 1995 OKC bombing -- the blame game had begun: Blame Sarah Palin.  Blame the conservatives.  Blame talk radio.  Blame the gun owners.

So predictable.  Eventually, though, "that dog won't hunt."

January 28, 2011 at 11:10 AM ·

$32 in 43 minutes -- that's a pretty substanial pay cut, compared to his usual, what does he get, maybe $50,000 per concert?  While I agree, most people won't stop for anything if they are in a hurry to get to work; but out of those 1000 or so passersby, there had to be at least a few that were NOT pressed for time.  I know this is not going to be a popular view, but I think the experiment does illustrate the lack of interest in classical music among the general population.  I subscribe to satellite radio, and it is a shame that out of hundreds of stations, only two are dedicated to classical music.  I don't know how many rock stations there are (I don't listen to them), but one thing is for sure, there are a lot more than two.

But Al and Terez have a point about people and a "herd mentality."  It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if they planted 10 people as spectators.  I wonder if more people would have stopped to join the herd.


January 28, 2011 at 02:09 PM ·

 > It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if they planted 10 people as spectators.  I wonder if more people would have stopped to join the herd.

Great point!

January 28, 2011 at 03:05 PM ·

 here is another thing:

i remember seeing another clip where a lady later approached him having recognized who he was.  a fine citizen of this society as we would like to say, haha.

so, that means that it is possible that all others did not recognize who he was.  mr bell is clearly a celebrity, but just not the type that a regular person is familiar with.  he is not a brand name in that context.

and i can identify with it.  i travel with my kids often and when meal time comes, there is always this search for where to go.  i am sure there are local establishments that are excellent and possibly offer new and exciting entries, but guess what,  to stay with something that we are familiar with,, very often we end up going to those national chains that we recognize.  they sell the comfort zone that we are familiar with, certain standards, low perhaps but standards nonetheless.  we go in not really for the food but a familiar routine-chicken salad with a diet coke please.  fried or grilled?  grilled, thanks and oh, dressing on the side please.  it is indeed irrational but safe and lame.  or is it really safe?  

those subway people are looking for things that they can go gaga over:)  they have a standard you know:)

another point:  notice that in the original article the writer mentioned that most people there were on route to a govt job.  was that a suggestion that those jobbers were not on some serious mission, that they could afford to waste time listening to a fiddler if they wanted to?     

January 28, 2011 at 04:15 PM ·

What does this say about our society?

It says people need to get to work, lest they want to be written up or fired. ;)

New York City, of all places + rush hour, of all times = the world doesn't stop turning for any one person. I'd like to see Bell repeat this experiment in the downtown area of a much smaller city or college town at lunch time. What might those results say about society?


January 28, 2011 at 07:51 PM ·

It's heartening to see so many responses that make so much sense.  I'm surprised, and a little disappointed, with the Pulitzer award.  I've spent a couple of decades as a radio and tv reporter chasing down stories that I thought would wow my boss and our viewers.  I know what it's like to come up with ideas like that, and sometimes to carry through on them and create the story.  And that's what it was--a created story.  If it had been presented as a little joke on the public, or an April Fools day story, rather than some sort of commentary on classical music, violinists and how "boorish" all those commuters are, it would have been more accurate.

I'm the opposite of Joshua Bell.  With three or four years of self-taught Suzuki books and a small handful of Irish tunes under my belt, I found out I could busk in Washington DC, sometimes at the top of the metro stairs.  Without a Washington Post reporter clearing the way, I was never allowed to actually play in the subway.  I always made about ten bucks an hour when I was playing for commuters,   When I'm playing for tourists (more like $20/hour) almost all the kids do  notice and want to stop, but quite often the parents will stop and drag their kids up to me.  I spend a lot of energy trying to make eye contact with every single person that goes by.  I try to guess what tune might get their attention, based on their clothes, demeanor, age, etc.  I found most people to be surprisingly friendly and supportive.  Even interested in classical music, thanking me for playing Bach, Beethoven, Lully, ...whatever it was...I didn't even really know.   One friendly fellow even stopped to reassure me that I shouldn't be nervous, even though many professional musicians used that metro stop on their way to Kennedy Center, and that they were in favor of what I was doing (even though I'm so amateurish, he meant, but tactfully did not say).

So, I've got a different take on this story than the Pulitzer Prize folks.  It's a good story, but I find it hard to call it great journalism.

January 28, 2011 at 08:18 PM ·

We, classical musicians, have decided to keep the conventions of our genre almost exactly like they were in 1800. We have created this attitude that classical music is so much better and so much more meaningful than other types of music. We expect people to pay to come see us, yet they have to dress their best and remain quiet for two hours. We expect them to hear us play music that sometimes even we can't really understand, and remain in their seats admiring this great work of art.

There is a time and a place for everything. We have determined that the time and place for classical music is in a fancy concert hall on an evening when you are formally dressed and ready to put any physiological needs on hold for two hours. So why, then, should anybody care about one violinist playing in the subway station? This is not the time or place for classical music.

January 29, 2011 at 03:00 PM ·

We had a funny experience in the Metro when visiting D.C. this year.

There was almost no one in the subway and my husband took his violin out of the case to play for maybe 20 seconds, just to see how it would sound in the space.

Someone came by and dropped a dollar in the case while he was playing.

January 30, 2011 at 01:31 AM ·

I was in DC last year, and I heard a very good violinst playing in the subway.  I think he was a homeless person;  however, he sounded quite good and I figured he had some training somewhere.  As I was going to the National Symphony that night, I made a point of telling one of the NSO violinists about him. 

January 30, 2011 at 05:03 AM ·

"Thousands of people are too busy at that time/location to appreciate world class violin playing, world class musicianship...that is what we are saying. So if they were less busy, they would have stopped to listen."

As another musician, I have to say that I am glad when I'm busy.  If I'm busy it means people want to pay me for my artistic services.  The alternative is scary (in more ways than one).  So, I'm not surprised if thousands of other people feel the same way.  If I'm on my way to a gig, I might give some gesture of solidarity, but I can't linger.

January 30, 2011 at 06:36 AM ·

It does say something about the reality. There is nothing wrong with the society. Reading this news, I have the following ideas:

  1. Classical music was created for the upper-level of the society. In early days, many composers created their pieces for the royalties and the upper society. Sometime the composers were inspired by some folk music from lower-level of the society. As a result, they created classical music pieces. However these pieces were not meant for entertaining the lower level. You do not find many upper level persons in metro station.
  2. Classical music were performed in certain venues such as concert halls, chambers of certain nice places and churches. In such environment, you could appreciate the true beauty of classical music. However the metro station is not an appropriate place for performing classical music by a fine artist with a great violin.
  3. Although people from middle or lower level of society might have reasonable understanding or appreciation of classical music, they account for a small proportion of the society. For this small portion, it is hard for them to notice the difference of a great player from a regular play.  Regardless of the level of player or the quality of the violin, it is unlikely to draw the attention from passerby who were busy to make a living.
  4. Let's take an analogy. When the most expensive steaks and regular burgers are offered free of charge in a busy metro station, the steaks may not draw more attention than the burgers in proportion to the difference of their values. Perhaps there would more passerbys picking up burgers rather than the steakes.
  5. It might be very dangerous to bring a violin of $ 3.5 million into a metro station. Criminals could shoot down someone for $ 350. With a value of $3,500,000, the violin is better not be recognised.

January 30, 2011 at 07:18 AM ·

You do not find many upper level persons in metro station.

Um ...



Sorry.  Still doesn't make sense.

January 30, 2011 at 09:15 AM ·

The social level evolves over time. Today the definition is different from the past. There is alwayd exception for any observation or generalization on the mass population.

I borrowed the upper level of society from Wikipedia regarding classical music. It is not a personal definition.

I meant no offence for passengers on public transport.

I would also belive it that someone spots a celebrity or hugh political figure or royalty or a billionaire in metro stations. However these figures do not represent the general profile of passengers in public transportation.

January 30, 2011 at 06:28 PM ·

There are certainly different levels of appreciation which, I believe, do  evolve over time.  Many folks in the U.S. simply haven't had much exposure to classical music.   But when they're out on the corner waiting for a light to change, or on a more leisurely stroll at lunchtime, or visiting museums, and I play my little Suzuki-fied classical melodies for them, they really light up, especially if I play in tune and with any semblance of spirit and musicality.  Sometimes they ask me: "Is that classical music?"  I tell them it is.  They look as if they want more. 

They also seem intrigued that I can do this with no electricity, no speakers, no microphones.  I get the impression that they did not know one could make music without electric paraphernalia.   They stare at the instrument, and I realize how few people have ever stood within several feet of a real violin, while it's being played.   As for getting them to stop and listen in the first place, the best bet is a simple folk tune that might have found its way into the classical repertoire. 

This level of appreciation is very much "on the surface" of the deep and rich possibilities within the classical tradition, but it's a first step.  And one that many people are happy to take, given the opportunity.

January 30, 2011 at 10:39 PM ·

 Maybe they don't like Joshua Bell.

Do you reckon if it was Andre Rieu there may have been a different response?? ;-)

January 31, 2011 at 01:45 AM ·

I can tell you without hesitation that my mother, who is now 102 years old, would have definitely stopped for Andre Rieu.  About five years ago, as I was taking up the instrument, she made me watch some videotapes she had of Rieu while she sat there and swooned like a teenager.  In the early 1900s she was a working class immigrant child growing up in Cincinnati, Ohio, exposed to plenty of classical music, in the days when you could take a street car across town and listen to an opera for pocket change.  When she started taking violin lessons she realized she already knew all the classical tunes, because she had heard her mother, who was a seamstress with a fifth grade education, singing and humming them to her.

January 31, 2011 at 06:41 AM ·

I like Wei's steak/hamburger point.   Burgers are traveling food, convenient food; they were made for eating with hands.  Grab and go.  Steak, you need a knife and fork...and a plate, and a table...

Chaconne, at least as played by most, is heavy stuff to try to digest on the fly.  Like when I was working on my bachelor's, a layperson trying to read a psychology journal at 7:30 in the morning. HA! 

January 31, 2011 at 10:24 PM ·



here you go......A teen choir with Yo Yo Ma had a crowd for an impromptu performance at a train stop.

I don't think it had anything to do with:

 The kids started singing a variety of songs, It was a saturday afternoon at a tourist destination, Yo Yo Ma happened to be in the area and actively got the crown involved in performing, or that they did more than classical music..........

It was all due to the fact that Chicago has a greater population of culturally aware, and diverse people than any other city....:)

  I guess its obvious what part of the country I live in. The state government of course is a different story.

February 2, 2011 at 01:15 AM ·

I'm sorry, but people who say that classical music was made for the upper class should take care to remember who it was -- and often still is -- made by.  Hint: it's not usually the bourgeoisie.

Who was it who said that if he were to make of a child a virtuoso, first that child must be poor?  In order to be great at anything, one must be hungry, and the rich do not often feel hunger.

February 5, 2011 at 12:58 AM ·

I think it does say something about our society :

In few words, the vast majority of people couldn't care less about things like Guarnerius and Strad violins, classical music, violin music, Johan Sebastian Bach and his Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin, or Joshua Bell. The truth is that these things can be appreciated only by an elite of people, for good or bad. Had Madonna been there instead of Joshua Bell, most people would have stopped and watch.


February 8, 2011 at 01:16 AM ·

"… the vast majority of people couldn't care less about … classical music, violin music, … these things can be appreciated only by an elite of people, for good or bad."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Juan Manuel, I understand your viewpoint here; and yet, again, let me quote from the original article: "Every single time a child walked past [as Josh Bell played], he or she tried to stop and watch."

I can relate to this.  Before I was preschool age, I was sitting in front of my parents' sound system, listening to classical music.  I liked what I was hearing.  I'm not the elite type -- just the Average Joe, Middle America type, like the rest of the family I grew up in.

As a player, I've found preadolescent kids to be some of my most appreciative audiences -- I can see it in their faces.  Likewise, during my teens, classmates would hang out nearby and listen.  Often I didn't even know they were there at first.  They'd say, "Oh, I've been sitting out here for about 10 minutes, just listening to it."

So my experience indicates that the potential audience for classical music is a lot broader than we might think.  This is why I feel that music education -- or, at least, exposure -- is so important in the early grades; but we can't assume that the money for it will be in the school budget.

That's why it's important now for players to keep finding creative new ways to go where audiences are -- even if it means giving more free time for the sake of exposure.

And get rid of the stuffy snobbery that surrounds concert halls and recital rooms.  I've harped plenty on this subject already -- e.g., here and here.

February 8, 2011 at 03:50 AM ·

Jim, I've enjoyed bar music in a chaotic environment, and also major symphony performances where audience conversation, or a loud candy wrapper corrupted the experience. Some things are so subtle and exquisite, that it doesn't take much to derail them.

I don't think it's unique to classical music. There are plenty of people who get annoyed about distractions during a TV show, or a movie. Or during the Superboal game. :-)

February 8, 2011 at 08:47 PM ·

David, it's a safe guess that, in an audience of any appreciable size, there will be some corrupting distractions.  Regrettably, some people have never learned any better.  That's part of why I ditched the movies for home theater some years back.  Thanks to today's technology, the home experience, for me, trumps the old way.  At present, my schedule precludes the concert hall experience.

My references to stuffy snobbery weren't about audience behavior, though, but about the stuffy formal outfits often worn by symphony players and concert audiences.  Again, see the input I made in the above-linked threads, if you haven't already.

A bit more on playing for kids: Show, don't tell.  Don't water down the music. And don't play down to them.  Just play what rings true with you and reaches your soul.  It works.  They'll respond.  It's quite easy to draw them in.

February 10, 2011 at 02:21 AM ·

"My references to stuffy snobbery weren't about audience behavior, though, but about the stuffy formal outfits often worn by symphony players and concert audiences."

Shoot, I was thinking maybe kids would be especially entertained by a violinist dressed up as a penguin. LOL

Just kidding, I get your point.

February 10, 2011 at 12:09 PM ·

"… maybe kids would be especially entertained by a violinist dressed up as a penguin."
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Actually, this is a great idea.  If the soloist and orchestra could do a performance dressed up in real penguin costumes -- and shuffle on and off stage in penguin fashion -- it would be a neat spoof.

February 10, 2011 at 12:26 PM ·

Joshua Bell plays for 45 minutes in a crowded US subway, no crowd of any kind develops......

Maybe they just didn't think he was very good ... (wink).

February 11, 2011 at 03:04 AM ·


I do not understand your comment regarding upper class and bourgeoisie. I check the Longman Dictionary on bourgeoisie.

I told my teen boys about mentioning social levels in the thread. They both said:"Man, you are in deep trouble!"


February 11, 2011 at 10:38 AM ·

 Along similar lines, but perhaps a better chosen spot - the Artemis String Quartet playing Beethoven op.132 in a Paris railway station: http://liveweb.arte.tv/fr/video/Fugues_episode_3___Beethoven_voie_17_-_le_Quatuor_Artemis_en_Gare_d_Austerlitz/

February 11, 2011 at 02:41 PM ·


Not sure I've heard that piece before..... thank you for sharing....All I can say is that I missed a conference call to watch and listen to that video. Couldn't bring myself to turn it off.

February 11, 2011 at 04:17 PM ·

Ha.  In the second video, I love the guy with the glasses whose eyes are blinking in time!

The Heiliger Dankgesang is something I would never have chosen for actual busking...but it just works somehow.  It's raw humanity.

Here's another flashmob:


I really want to invade a mall now.

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