Monday, January 19, 2009

I am :: a man who appreciates music

My mom sent me to this today.

A man stood 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, 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 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 tugged 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, of the thousands that passed by, 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 violinists in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written for a violin on a violin that was 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 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 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 artistic talent in an unexpected context?

An interesting question drawn from this experience:

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

Here is the original article in the Washington Post.

In this example in D.C., had I been there, I would have been the only person who would have sat there, late for work or a meeting or whatever, and listened to the entire forty-five minute performance, and left everything I had on me as a tip.

That's the way I am.

I would like to believe that I don't miss much in this life.

And here is Joshua Bell playing Beethoven...


msHedgehog said...

I once gave a young violinist five pounds and told him it was because nearly all buskers are rubbish and he was great. He was, too. He was taller than me but still a kid. I couldn't stay, but it doesn't take long to spot the difference. It wasn't rush hour, though, I was only shopping. I might not have done it in a rush hour tunnel; too much offence to my fellow commuters.

On the other hand, I might, because the contrast was so striking.

Most of the buskers in London I really wish wouldn't, although I might sort of miss the Wailing Woman of Oxford Circus with her strange tights and echoing vibrato. She'd be good in a face-off with the Scouse Preacher at street level. Who would win, I wonder?

There was also a memorable busker - also at Oxford Circus, I think - who played the guitar and sang out of time with himself. I don't understand how that's even possible.

Attention blindness is pretty impressive, though.

ModernTanguera said...

I have seen some people recently bring up this story again. I read it when it first came out and had to agree with some of the comments that were made at the time. Namely, the comment that busking is not the same as performing in a concert hall. It isn't just about technical skill or virtuosity but about a certain kind of performance art. Any kind of performance has to take into account the performance space and audience and perform to those factors.

Just my two cents.

Mtnhighmama said...

I wonder if the responses from people would have been different if they had used visual art rather than auditory art for their experiment.

msHedgehog said...

The National Gallery in London did it with visual art. It went down quite well.