how many things are we missing?

Now, we all hate cheesy forwarded emails. We did enough forwarding in sixth grade (sometimes even with snail mail! Remember chain letters claiming that six of your relatives would die unless you sent a new, clean pair of underwear back to the sender of the letter and forwarded the letter on to 13 people?) to last a lifetime. But occasionally a worthwhile FWD:  comes down the pike.  My real best friend from home, Kelsey,sent one to me yesterday (and yes, I passed it on). The text read:

Perception…something to think about…

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 the Washington 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?

My first reaction was “Yeaaah RIGHT. I totally would have heard about this if it were true.” But with a little Google investigation, I realized that this story was, in fact, true. It was orchestrated by Washington Post Staff Writer Gene Weingarten with the help of Bell (obviously) and Amanda B. Kearney, senior property director for JBG Companies, which operates the arcade area outside the L’Enfant metro stop, where Josh played. (Metro regulations prohibited Josh from actually playing inside a station.) Before the story ran, Weingarten asked an expert what kind of reaction he thought Bell would get from the people walking by him in the Metro station:

Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked [what he thought would happen]. What did he think would occur, hypothetically, if one of the world’s great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?

“Let’s assume,” Slatkin said, “that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician… Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe…but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”

So, a crowd would gather?

“Oh, yes.”

And how much will he make?

“About $150.”

Slatkin, of course, was very wrong. Hardly anyone recognized Bell’s talent. Nor did they notice that he’s quite pretty:


That’s sad in some ways, but mostly it’s just fascinating. I know for certain that I wouldn’t have recognized Bell as anything more than a street musician. I don’t know my music, classical or otherwise, well enough to distinguish between someone who can play a Bach piece pretty well and someone who is a musical genius. There are times when I appreciate the quality of the music I hear on the street, but I doubt that I would have been any more observant than the other frazzled commuters in L’Enfant that day.

This morning, as I walked out of Union Station, sweating profusely because I will NEVER get used to humidity, I looked around at the usual group of men crowded outside the exit. That man handing out The Washington Post Express…could it BE Gene Weingarten? The guy selling roses for $5…an award-winning florist?! The dude with the boombox playing some sort of religious program…JESUS HIMSELF?!

All kidding aside, it really does make you think. What could you be missing?

[Posted by Mallory]

Leave a comment

Filed under music, news, random, the arts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s