“Spontaneity is a meticulously prepared art.” ~ Oscar Wilde
At 7.51 am on Friday 12th January 2007, an unassuming lone male figure dressed in a long sleeved T-shirt and baseball cap played the most spiritually uplifting violin music there is, on a £3.5 million Stradivarius, to oblivious passing commuters at the L’Enfant Plaza on the Washington Metro.
The subway experiment:
Normally classical music fans, and in particular, violin aficionados pay around $100 to attend a Joshua Bell concert, for the chance to listen to one of the greatest living violinists.
I saw Joshua Bell in a performance of Schubert with Jeremey Denk in Vienna a few years back. It was very special. I got to meet him briefly afterwards, and I cannot think of a more down to earth, approachable and lovely person as he. It also helps that he’s pretty much flawless on the violin too…
The experiment was thought up by Joshua Bell and Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post journalist, curious to see if someone of Joshua’s fame and reputation would elicit large crowds and a hefty amount of coinage in his case.
The outcome of the 45 minute busking session was shocking – of the 1097 people that passed by Joshua that morning, only 7 people stopped to listen for a minute or longer, and the ones who tended to want to stop most were children. Joshua had received little over $32 for the entire session.
I’m not sure many other professional violinists would have undertaken a similar experience…
For lesser virtuoso’s that kind of reception would likely have cleaved a severe dent in their ego, but Joshua Bell, I think, was able to look objectively at what happened. It had no bearing on his skill on the violin.
It had everything to do with perception, placement and people’s capacity to enjoy something despite its context and their preconceived ideas.
Buskers, although many are highly talented, are not usually in the same league as a concert soloist. We tend to disregard them unless we like what we hear. No matter their skill level my children always stop for buskers.
It was early in the morning and people were naturally rushing to work so they weren’t really focused on anything else. The dismal results highlight how often we can live in a kind of manic, 21st century stress bubble.
Our schedules are crammed to the hilt; we don’t appear to have a nanosecond to enjoy the finer things in life. But such a blinkered attitude means we miss out on what’s really around us.
“Some of the most thrilling things in life are done on impulse.” ~ Syrie James (The Missing Manuscript of Jane Austen)
It’s time to open up our awareness and take a deep, abdominal sniff of the roses – really smell and devour their glorious scent – make it a part of us. Let that divine aroma mingle in our blood as it pulses around our body and nourishes our cells.
Stop and listen to the music if you can, it’s highly beneficial for human beings. Pause and appreciate a work of art, read an excerpt of a classic text and truly digest what message, what heart-felt passion and skill went into its creation.
One of the best violinists in the world was playing music that speaks to the soul on a Golden Period Stradivarius, and barely anyone could truly appreciate it. This wasn’t just any old music played on a shoddy instrument by an amateur – this was mastery – mastery of composition, of violin construction and musicianship.
It makes you think what else we might miss if our radar isn’t attuned to art, nature, beauty, literature and music, our whatever it is that elevates our soul. The universe is ‘speaking’ to us all the time, but are we listening?
Many opportunities for joy may pass us by if we are in a kind of awareness stupor, only concerned with the banalities of life. To be fair, maybe some people didn’t recognise or know who Joshua Bell is; but surely the heavenly music would have roused them from their cultural cocoons for just a minute?
It’s a sad day when a person’s life is so devoid of feeling or joy that they cannot spare such a short time to enrich it.
Here’s the article that Gene wrote after the experiment in the Washington Post.
The Man with the Violin
The experiment prompted children’s author Kathy Stinson to write a glorious book about it: The Man with the Violin. Kathy put herself in the shoes of one of one of the children who may have passed Joshua that cold wintry morning and wrote it from a young boy’s point of view.
When I discovered this book I had already seen the experiment and knew that my daughters would love it. They do, and so do I, because it reminds me to pay attention to what my children pay attention to, and to live in and enjoy the moment.
It’s beautifully written with a beautiful message and evocative illustrations.
One of the lessons of this enlightening experiment was context. It turns out that time and place matter, that expectation has an impact on our experience and enjoyment. When we have paid a considerable amount of money to sit in a concert hall and hear the amazing acoustics of a hotly billed soloist we are in the right frame of mind to get the most out of that experience.
Spontaneity is not something that the majority of people who passed him seemed to possess. It also demonstrated that people tend not to value something unless they pay for it.
His follow-up performance at Washington Union Station in 2014 was much more successful! It helped that the event was publicised, so people knew in advance what was happening.
Joshua Bell is very eloquent when he talks about the experience and classical music in general:
I love his passion for children to have a musical education and how that impacts on their lives as well as their test scores. Music (of any kind) is not a nice to have, it’s as essential as maths and literature. It’s fundamental to our well-being on a mental, emotional, physical and spiritual level.
So whatever floats your boat, be it music, literature, art, or being in nature, take time to enjoy it and let its beauty infiltrate your life and revitalise your soul.
“No matter how many plans you make or how much in control you are, life is always winging it.” ~ Carol Bryant