October 15, 2008
Violinist in the Subway
The Washington Post decided to do an experiment. Put Joshua Bell, one of the world’s best violinists (literally a child prodigy and a modern virtuoso) underground at a DC Metro station dressed as a street musician and have him play some of the most beautiful music ever created. Leave him there for 45 minutes at the height of morning rush hour and see how many people notice, how many people stop, how much money he makes. Bell is tall and handsome and looks like a rock star -- some people, it was thought, might even stop to gaze upon his pleasing view.
“[It’s] an experiment in context, perception and priorities, as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?” posited the Post. Bell was game and said he would play the same instrument he plays at all his concerts, a Gibson ex Huberman Strad handcrafted in 1731 by Antonio Stradivari. It had cost Bell 3.5 million bucks. The newspaper set the date for the experiment in January of last year. Before the Metro one-act play began, the Post asked Leonard Slatkin, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, what he thought would happen.
“Out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.” “[He’ll make] about $150,” Slatkin surmised. Bell began playing at 7:51 AM.
His first piece was “Chaconne" from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. It’s one of the most difficult pieces to master and was written for solo violin. Four minutes went by before a woman hurriedly threw in a dollar and kept walking. No one stopped until six minutes into the performance; a man lingered and listened while leaning against the wall. All of this was being captured by video. The Post writes: “Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run, for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look. There was never a crowd. If you take a painting by the great master Cezanne and hang it on a wall in a greasy diner, no one is going to give it more than a second glance. Perhaps some will think it’s a damn fine knock-off of a Cezanne but that’s as far as it will go. In other words, as the Post quickly figured, context matters. So the original question of whether beauty would transcend the banality of the setting morphed into a deeper question. Writes the Post: “Let’s accept that we can’t look
at what happened on January 12th and make any judgment whatever about people’s sophistication or their ability to appreciate beauty. But what about their ability to appreciate life?" That is the crux of the matter. And it is a matter of attention.
“If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that, then what else are we missing?", writes the Post staff writer, Gene Weingarten. Simply put, if we cannot learn to pay attention to the sound of a musician, to the color on a wall of a hallway entrance into a subway, to a hawk circling above, to the sensations of our own bodies -- we are missing our very own lives. We are hurrying past the ordinary beauty of our existence.
Not that we can notice everything. To live a purposeful live we must, at times, become quite focused and use blinders when needed. But somehow we’ve left the blinders on 24/7. We narrow our attention to our own thoughts, to planning about the future, fretting about the past, to a space a foot around us and no more. Yet paying attention is as natural as a bee landing on a flower. The next time you’re out on a walk pick a color and try to find it wherever you go, count the number of different birdsongs, see if you can see the shape of a violin in the clouds.
John Kain has been associate publisher of Tricycle magazine and his articles on Buddhist teachers, teachings and other subjects have appeared in Tricycle, Shambhala Sun, Yoga Journal, and on Beliefnet.com. His book A Rare and Precious Thing: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Studying with a Spiritual Teacher is available at all fine bookstores or through his website at
He lives in Ashland, Oregon.
Although I had never heard a Stradivarius up close, I heard them on records and television, and I wondered what magical resin or lacquer had gone into their manufacture to produce their uniquely sultry richness. The most precious instruments in the world are still the violins made by Stradivarius. Researchers at Cambridge University have found a unique thin layer of pozzolana -- a volcanic ash from Cremona, Italy, where Stradivarius lived. He probably applied it as a simple strengthening agent for his instruments; since it was commonly used as a cement, it probably never occurred to him that it could effect their tone. . .
Many violinists and violin makers insist that violins grow into their beautiful, throaty sounds, and that a violin played exquisitely for a long time eventually contains the exquisite sounds within itself. In poetic terms: the wood remembers. Thus, part of a master violinist’s duties is to educate a violin for future generations.
(A NATURAL HISTORY OF THE SENSES)