It was a pretty typical urban scene. The setting: a weekday morning at rush hour in a Metro station in an upscale neighborhood in Washington, DC. A young guy in jeans, a long-sleeve tee shirt and a baseball cap finds a spot where there’s good foot traffic, takes out his violin, puts the case open for tips and begins to play.
He plays, extremely well, for about three quarters of an hour. Approximately 1,100 people, mostly mid-level bureaucrats on their way to their government jobs, pass him, hurrying to work.
What would you do? Stop and listen? For how long? Risk being late to appreciate a street musician? Drop a coin or a dollar in the case and keep walking? Ignore him? Does it matter how good or bad he is, how well he plays?
It turns out the whole scene was arranged by the Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?
The violinist was the world-renowned classical violinist Joshua Bell. The songs were some of the most celebrated masterpieces of classical music. The violin is one of the most valuable in the world today (A Stradivarius estimated to be worth $3.5 million). The acoustics in the station were surprisingly good.
Any guess about what happened? Do you think a crowd gathered? How much do you think he earned?
In the 45 minutes the Joshua Bell played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for awhile. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk at their normal pace. When he finished playing and silence took over. No one applauded nor was there any recognition. He collected $32.17 (“Actually,” Bell said with a laugh, “that’s not so bad, considering. That’s 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn’t have to pay an agent.”)
As I was trying to think of some clever ending to this piece I stumbled on this quote, which is exactly what I wanted to say. “There’s beauty all around our paths, if but our watchful eyes can trace it midst familiar things, and through their lowly guise.” –Felicia D Hemans.