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Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007

A man in a baseball cap played six Bach pieces on a violin for about 45 minutes. The musical selections were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone. The acoustics in the subway were excellent. Though the arcade is of utilitarian design–-a buffer between the Metro escalator and the outdoors–-it somehow caught the sound and bounced it back round and resonant.

After 3 minutes

While the musician played, “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor (one of the most difficult violin pieces to master, consisting entirely of a single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound), 63 people walked by.  Finally, a middle-aged man noticed, slowed his pace, stopped for a few seconds and then hurried on.

After 4 minutes

The violinist received his first dollar: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.
After 6 minutes

A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at the time on his cell phone and walked off.  In the three minutes he listened, 97 more people walked by. 
After 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.

After 45 minutes

The musician played continuously.  Only 7 people stopped to listen for at least a minute. Of 1097 people who passed by, 27 gave money, most of these on the run. The man collected a total of $32.17 for his efforts. He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

The Wisdom of Children

Artwork by Mariagrazia Orlandini.  

This true story inspires me. It gives me hope that the intrinsic significance of the Project will be recognized one day. . . under the right circumstances. Right now, the Project is “art without a frame.”

Source:  Weingarten, Gene.  “Pearls Before Breakfast.” The Washington Post. 8 April 2007 (p. W10).

The Truth

The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He has won the Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music, and he regularly undertakes over 200 international engagements a year. Bell's been accepting over-the-top accolades since puberty: Interview magazine once said his playing "does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live."

Three days earlier, this internationally acclaimed virtuoso had played to a sold-out audience at Boston’s Symphony House, where merely good seats averaged $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements.

Yet on that Friday morning of January 12, 2007, Joshua Bell played without publicity at the L’Enfant Plaza Station of the subway line in Washington, D.C. He played for approximately 45 minutes, performing six intricate classical pieces on his handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin worth worth $3.5 million.

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?


As writer Weingarten described the crux of the experiment:  “Each passerby had a quick choice to make. . . Do you stop and listen?  Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of the cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet?  . . . Do you have time for beauty?  Shouldn’t you?  What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?”

In an interview, Bell himself said, "At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cell phone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

As this experiment showed, Bell in the subway was “art without a frame.” My thinking is this:  If people do not appreciate the astonishingly eloquent music of 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 . . . Why should I become discouraged that the importance of this project to help children has not yet been recognized?

By the Way . . .

One of the most fascinating footnotes to this story is this:  There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, Blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But 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.)

"Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."  – Steve Jobs

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