Joshua Bell is a violinist, one of the world’s greatest classical musicians. The Washington Post a few years ago did an experiment where they put him in a DC metro station wearing a pair of jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. Like a street musician. He’s got an open violin case in front of him so people can put money in.
It’s about 8 a.m. on a Friday, morning rush hour. He plays for 45 minutes, and 1,097 people pass through the area where he’s playing.
Before watching the video, you may want to consider out of that many people — more than 1,000 — how many will recognize the quality for what it is? How many will stop and listen? How much money will he make?
Before you answer, keep in mind that he’s not going to play popular tunes that a lot of people will recognize. He’s not going to play Star Wars, he’s not going to play Disney songs. That’s not the experiment. These are enduring masterpieces.
The piece you’ll hear at the beginning is “Chaconne” by Bach. It’s like the Stairway to Heaven of violin solos. Brahms, also a famous composer — not as famous as Bach but still pretty famous — said: “If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”
The violin he’s playing is a Stradivarius handcrafted in 1713. Price tag? $3.5 million. So he’s got a good fiddle. That’s not the problem.
Americans . . . we’re busy, busy, busy. It’s amazing, funny and dismaying at the same time.
In 45 minutes, seven people stopped what they were doing to listen for at least a minute, 27 gave money for a total of $32.17. That leaves 1,070 people who completely ignored what was happening right in front of them.
As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell. She enters the video around the 1:35 mark. For the record her name is Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department.
“It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen,” Furukawa said. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”
Well, she lives in one of the (allegedly) most cultivated cities in America. This is not Bakersfield . . . it’s not Des Moines, Iowa. No offense to people from Iowa but in Iowa they’d just call the cops and have the guy thrown out of there.
What I was hoping you might contemplate is — what might we be missing in our haste to catch the subway, get to work, meet expectations, prove that we belong and keep up with all the minutiae of life?
What might we be missing that’s right in front of us and we’re failing to see the beauty of it?