Do you have a moment… for pure genius?

Posted on Tuesday, May 17th, 02011 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Long Term Thinking   chat 0 Comments

Somehow I missed this story when it came out (even though it won a Pulitzer),  but today I came across it at random on of all places Jeff Bridges website who wrote a fantastic synopsis.  But as they say, the Dude abides:

Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx. 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. 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: a woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes:

A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

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..

45 minutes:

The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

1 hour:

He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this, but 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 worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where 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 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?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:

If we do not have 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.

How many other things are we missing?

  • WOW. just WOW… must read

  • Jay


    Very possibly true.  

    My intuition is still betting on status signalling, but maybe I'm just cynical.

  • Aarohini

    given that the philadelphia orchestra has filed for bankruptcy one wonders as to how many are actually paying 100$ to listen to good music these days. its mostly hip hop that gets mass attention. if there were some people playing hip hop in the metro i am sure they would have got more attention.

  • I love this experiment, and agree with the questions raised and the possible conclusion above. I would also like to add, however, that by situating this experiment in Washington, DC, the experimenters were setting themselves up for perhaps the most extreme result they might have found in any U.S. city. The coldness of the people in this town is numbing and rather shocking to many new arrivals, and even after 20 years here I have not become fully accustomed to it. Also, this is a town with little interest in the arts, in spite of a lot of artistic activity. Everything here is subsumed to the power game. Everything. If it had been Obama's daughter playing poorly, she would have been attended to by hundreds of people and been noted in the Washington Post. The game is everything in this one industry town.

    If this experiment had been done in a town with more basic humanity, which includes almost everyplace I have ever been in the nation and the world, it might have been a little different.

  • Larry Seltzer

    When we go to a theater we have carved out time to sit there and watch/listen. People in a train station necessarily have places to go no matter how beautiful the music is. If they had done this on a street they would have had many more people stop and admire it

  • ¿Qué más nos estamos perdiendo?

  • Yukari Bailey

    I've never noticed, but I suppose I've rarely stopped for anyone. I'd like to think that if I heard one of the most amazing pieces of music performed so beautifully I'd stop, but now I'm not so sure. British singer Jessie J, who is an absolute gem, performed at Times Square station and only a handful of people stopped. Can we really be so dull to ignore beauty at our fingertips?

    This has been an amazing, insighful experience. Perhaps this will cause me to become more aware of my surroundings and appreciate everything. It's a shame, really. We associate with names, faces, but not the real beauty if it is unknown (with the exception of hipsters who enjoy exclusively indie bands, but this is ignorant as well). When true talent stares us in the face, most of us hide. Why?

  • lennyt3

    I understand your point about people being busy and on a mission to get somewhere. I'm pretty certain you're wrong when you say that 'most people cannot tell world class playing from a good amateur.' Perhaps you can't, but I assure you that most people (those not familiar with classical music) would recognize the difference between a violinist like Joshua Bell playing Bach and a good amateur playing Bach. But perhaps what you mean to say is that most people just don't care enough to listen and watch for the few seconds in which they'd be able to make such a distinction. I'd understand if you said that (even though I may not like it myself).

  • Perhaps most people just don't care for the violin, however well it is played? I know my personal music collection contains almost none of the so-called 'greatest music ever made'.

  • Interesting

  • I agree. I think the better location would have been in the middle of the third street prominade in los angeles, where street performers are constantly staging shows.  Some go noticed and so unnoticed. That might be a better experiment.

  • Barbana67

    I've stopped to listen to musicians in Grand Central Station, New York, at ground level. Not sure I'd feel safe stopping for long in a subway station. I've seen people stop and listen to all kinds of music and speakers on the sidewalk in NY City.

  • Erica Van Etten

    For an 'experiment' you would need controls, such as someone with the a violin case open to receive money and not playing anything.

  • Love.

  • I would hope I would stop to listen…I would hope.  I can understand the parents who were hurrying their children along.  I do that so often.  This is a good reminder to stop and listen and see art all around me.

  • Worth the read…

  • This is how I feel when I I'm bathing in the privacy of my own bathroom, and no one's there to see how great I look naked.

  • Inekelim

    the subway is by definition a place of movement, not reflection on the beauty of a particular sound.  On the other hand, I have witnessed a similar situation at a local market where two very talented violinists played duets that only caused people to stop once they started to play in the style of popular 'fiddling', referencing the 'country' context of the market.

  • MB

    If I'm in a hurry, or on a time crunch, I wouldn't have stopped to listen either. We have no idea what was going on with the people in the subway. It's entirely possible that someone playing music there is a daily occurance. If he were doing this in a grocery store, at a bank, or somewhere else where everyone wasn't rushing to grab the next ride to their next destination, it would've probably had more of an impact. Those who stuck around probably had a few minutes more to spare than the people rushing by them. The children aren't in a hurry, they're on their parents schedule and probably didn't understand why they couldn't stay and listen to the music. I don't think these children thought to themselves, “Oh, what amazing music. This stirs my soul. I must stop and soak in the beauty of the moment.”

    On some level I think we'd all like to step back and appreciate the beauty that's around us which we miss constantly because of the rush rush lives we lead. I understand what the point of the story is, I just think the way the people behaved was out of normal, daily routines and this “guy” was just another sidewalk musician.

  • Davide Bocelli

    I like this experiment. But I think that the romantic side (a genius plays in a metro station) is covering the illogical side (a genius plays in a metro station). Few people are able to find the genius in unexpected places. And I wonder if the genius can be shown everywhere and regardless of the place. Especially in a metro station. Many important artists have had the same result. And I have a question on the economic comparison : would you pay 100$ to listen to the same artist at the Metropolitan Theater in New York with same noise of a metro station in background? Isn't “absolute beauty” a matter of environment and opportunity and (as in the case of classical music) some preparation of the audience? The room we leave to this kind of epiphanies is really packed up with other priorities that hide many possibilities.

  • Tvarisch Byele

    Here in the epicenter of self-righteous elitism, the barbarity of the modern soulless drone is exposed through mere casual indifference.

  • Babs

    Everyone seems to be racing through life…to get where?  What is so important that they couldn’t stop to allow their child to listen to the music?  Perhaps the parents were concerned that they would feel obligated to make a “donation” for having experienced such beautiful music.

  • Raine

    Hmm… I stop for those sorts of things… There was someone doing a magnificent job of playing a French horn in the Paris metro the other day.  I didn’t stay long term, as I was going to an important meeting.  But I definitely noticed and paid attention…

  • catyB

    mmmmm ponder – obviuosly most peopl miss bueaty and mispel or sutin

  • Degregorio5

    wish i could have been there. wow. 

  • Reading this gave me goosebumps! The intriguing questions made me reflect on what I might be missing in my own life.  Thank you for writing this for us to read and learn from.

  • Llany

    Unfortunately everyone is in such  rush that you miss out on different types of beauty wether it be music, sky, birds and loved ones.  Everyone needs to stop stressing so much and figure a way to reduce the every day hustle and bustle.  I understand easier said then done but sometimes it’s just a simple as leaving your home 5 minutes earlier.  Life is to short and precious to let it slip away from stress and responsibility besides money is not everything in life.  It might make your life easier but brings other complications.

  • Efreitas

    fantastic… World is wonderful

  • Couldn’t have said it better. No I don’t have to think up how to word what you wrote there, lol.

  • And if it had been a complete hack dressed in tatters, playing “Who Let the Dogs Out?” on violin, children still would have taken note. They’re CHILDREN. That’s how it works. If adults weren’t of some mind to tune things out enough to make appointments and honor deadlines, those children would starve. Is it all a lamentable byproduct of our modern societal constructs? Absolutely…but necessary all the same.

  • If you were running late to work already and your boss had given you the impression that if you were late again you might lose your job, and you were desperate not to have that happen because you had no fall-backs? No, you DON’T “know”you would have stopped. Really, you’d have been foolish not to tune it out and keep rushing along.

  • Every real “city” is like that. It has to be by necessity.

  • Pingback: How Many Things Are We Missing? | thinkibility()

  • FutureViolinist

    I have to say, I am a very young violinist , going into my teens next year. I love the violin and a lot of people say I’m talented, but I feel no one cares about the passion of playing an instrument. I feel alone. Any advice?

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