Here is an interesting account of something that should make you think. It’s about a busker at the Washington DC Metro Station, playing his violin to a rush-hour crowd at around 8am on a Friday morning. The date is January 12, 2007.
The violinist played for about 43 minutes, performing six classical pieces by Bach. A total of almost 1,100 people passed him by during those minutes. Many others would have heard the sound of his playing as it echoed through the subway corridors. They were almost all on their way to work.
This is an account of those who paid him any attention. 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 when a woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk. The musician had already placed some money in view, to encourage contributions from others.
Soon after a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
After 10 minutes, during what was arguably one of the most difficult pieces for a violinist to master, a 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped again to look at the violinist, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This response was repeated by several other children. And every parent, without exception, similarly forced their child to move on quickly.
For 43 minutes the musician played continuously, moving from one piece to the next. Only 6 people stopped and listened, and each only for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.
When he had finished the normal subway sounds took their usual place of prominence. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
What the passers-by did not know was that 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 valued at $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold out a theatre in Boston where the price of seats averaged $100.
Joshua Bell was a child prodigy. His psychologist parents decided to start formal violin training for their son when he was only four years old. They were prompted to this when they saw that their son had strung rubber bands across his dresser drawers and was replicating classical tunes by ear, moving drawers in and out to vary the pitch.
And “Yes” the subway concert really did happen. It was organised by the Washington Post, as an experiment to see whether people would appreciate the highest quality musical experience if they came upon it unexpectedly. It was part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. Do we perceive beauty when we encounter it in a commonplace context at an inopportune time? If we do come upon it, do we stop to appreciate it?
The response of the Washington crowd prompts the question, “If so many people can so easily ignore such excellence, not even taking 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, then what else are most of us missing every day?”
If your day is looking a little dull today, take a moment to slow down and smell the roses, feel the breeze, enjoy the sunshine, smile at others, and appreciate the efforts of those around you.