Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Joshua Bell Goes Unnoticed in DC Metro

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

-- from "Leisure," by W.H. Davies

Before I say anything more about this, please do yourself a huge favor and just read this article: Pearl's Before Breakfast- Washington Post. Yes, it is long. But if you're going to jump from this blog over to some other blog and spend the next half hour reading mindless stuff, mostly because it's now become your habit, then I strongly suggest you do something different. If just for today. Read the article; then, if you care, you can come back and read what I thought about it.

(Feel free to listen to Joshua Bell play while you read the rest of this post. This video just plays his music, nothing to see here.)

For those of you morons who ignored me and kept reading without going to that article, first of all- go read it! If you still won't, I'll briefly break it down. Joshua Bell, who is a world famous virtuoso violinist (and a native Hoosier), agreed to play in the Washington Metro for about an hour. It was an experiment set up by the Washington Post to see if ordinary people, in the midst of their ordinary routines, would have the capacity to recognize something truly extraordinary.

Bell brought along his 300-year old Stradivarius; the same one he uses in all his concerts and recordings; the same one that's worth just under $4 million. For forty-five minutes, Bell played some of the most powerful and demanding pieces of music ever written. The article quotes Brahms as saying (of one of the pieces), "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."

At the end of his performance, Bell had earned a total of $32.17. The more amazing thing was that for the most part, he went virtually unnoticed by the 1,000 or so people who passed him. Interestingly enough, every child who passed tried to stop and listen to Bell, only to be prodded along by their parents.

When I was traveling in Europe, I used to love all of the street performers. If I had the time, I would have stopped at every one to listen and frequently did. Part of this is because I live in a city where we don't really have any street performers. Except for that guy who plays Christmas songs on his trumpet underneath the Arts Garden at Washington and Illinois. So, I'm not really desensitized to it. I imagine that the main reason so many people ignored Joshua Bell, was because they were used to ignoring street performers. It does surprise me that his expertise didn't attract more onlookers, but I can understand why that happened.

The scary thing is to think of the many beautiful things in my life that I have become numb to. So much of my life is just routine. It's hard to enjoy a dull morning ride to work. It's much easier to just put everything on cruise control.

Yesterday at our Bright Monday Barbecue, The Tickler and I were stuck in line to get food. We were at the back of the line and going nowhere. He told me about a satirical sketch he had done with some friends, where the main characters would go stand in line for things (restaurants, clubs, etc.). When they finally made it to the front of the line, they would just leave and go stand in another long line. He made a comment along the lines of, "It's not the destination, it's the journey." We were talking about it jokingly, but it strikes me how true this really is.

The sad thing is that everybody already knows this. When I hear someone say, "be sure to stop and smell the roses," I don't even listen. I don't think about what that even means. Of course I know I'm supposed to enjoy everything, but I don't. I could be walking by a once in a lifetime opportunity to hear music that moves people to tears, and I wouldn't even know. That scares me.

Life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us.
-Billy Collins

Amazing fact about Joshua Bell:

He got his first music lessons when he was a 4-year-old in Bloomington, Ind. His parents, both psychologists, decided formal training might be a good idea after 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.

(Props to Gene Weingarten, for writing the article and Freakonomics for the hat tip)


Mymsie said...

*Just* read this story yesterday. Clever experiment and great piece. What a mind-blowing musician!

Mike S said...

I read this yesterday also. I even fwd'd the article to my daughter's violin teacher. Bell is an amazing performer. I'm stunned at how oblivious people get when they are tunnel visioned on something. Great article though. I guess context makes a huge difference.

tickler said...

Wow. I think one of the most interesting things in this experiment was the reaction of the children. Very interesting. And I still can't believe only one person recognized him.

Mymsie said...

P.S. Did you hear that Bell will be on faculty at IU now?

mike s said...

Arthur, I'm not sure if you knew, but he's going to perform at ISO in the not to distant future. My daughter plays violin, and we just ordered tickets from her teacher. I thought you'd like to know

Arthur said...


Thanks, for the heads up. We've got our tickets too and will definitely be there.