A Courageous Experiment that will Make you See Music and Beauty Differently

“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…

Joshua Bell in Vienna

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

An Evening with the British Association for Music Therapy (BAMT), in London

“The brain that engages in music is changed by engaging in music.” ~ Michael Thaut, Professor of Music and Professor of Neuroscience at Colorado State University

music solutionWe all know, on some level, how essential music is to human existence. We can recite instances when music has evoked powerful memories and emotional responses in us. Even if our involvement with music is only to the extent of listening to the radio now and then, to the more obsessive playing of our CDs, iPods and MP3’s on a constant loop, it has a major impact on the quality of our lives. Further up the scale, (sorry!) amateur musicians find joy and fulfilment from the pressures of everyday life by playing an instrument, and the more gifted of us make their living from bringing this lofty form of entertainment to the masses. Then there are those who specifically use the medium of music to reach out to segments of society that are suffering, either mentally, emotionally or physically. In the UK, there are over 700 of these caring and talented individuals who make up the membership of BAMT, which supports this network of highly trained and committed therapists.

I jumped at the opportunity to find out more about their valuable and pioneering work in this field when I was invited by Beth Britton to attend their exhibition: Music Therapy – The Art and Science, hosted by the Barbican Music Library in London on 10th September.

music factThe exhibition itself was full of amazing scientific facts about how music therapy has been successfully employed in the fields of neurology, child development, adolescent’s issues, autism, adult mental health, dementia, cancer and the challenges of old age. There were wonderful anecdotes and case studies from both therapists and recipients, as well as the history behind music therapy, not just in the UK but around the world, dating back to ancient times. Hippocrates, known as the father of medicine played music to some of his patients.

With a glass of wine in hand and a tasty selection of hors d’oeuvres on offer, I had had a lovely chat with a lady called Catherine; who is based in the north of England, working with seriously disturbed and mentally ill individuals. She told me her first instrument was the cello, but that she mainly used the piano and guitar in her sessions due to the sometimes unpredictable nature of the participants, as well as plenty of singing. She explained how singing was great to establish a rhythm and get patients moving, and she actively encouraged them to sing and dance.  I think she found her career very rewarding, but due to the intensity of the work and the time input she felt her own musical creativity was not being broadened.

The presentations were extremely interesting. Donald Wetherick,Chair of the BAMT Trustees, music therapist at Nordoff Robbins London Centre and music therapy tutor at Guildhall School of Music and Drama, highlighted the role of the charity in the UK, and explained about their work in the areas of research and collaboration in Europe and beyond. They are a point of contact for the public, for therapists and other professional bodies. You can find out more about them on their website. Or connect via Twitter: @musictherapyuk

“Currently provision of music therapy is uneven across the UK. We want to work with all those who champion music therapy to help change this, so that everyone who needs a music therapist can get access to one. Funding for large-scale research, such as the field of music therapy and dementia, is also vital if we are to harness the full potential of music therapy.” ~ Donald Wetherick

He introduced Richard Jones, the librarian of the Barbican Music Library, who gave us an overview of their set-up, They are only one of two music libraries in London (along with Westminster Music Library), and they have hosted various musical events from classical to jazz to rock. It seems appropriate that they are based on the second floor of the Barbican, which is also home to the London Symphony Orchestra and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama.

For more information click here. You can also follow them on Twitter: @BarbicanMusic

Donald then introduced my cousin, Beth, who is a Dementia Campaigner, writer and consultant, to talk about her experiences of how music helped her father, who lived with vascular dementia for the last nineteen years of his life. Discover more about her brilliant work here and on her blog: http://d4dementia.blogspot.co.uk/ and on Twitter: @bethyb1886

“Even as other abilities decline, music engages the brain through an extensive set of processes that are preserved and remain functional.” ~ Dr katrina McFerran, University of Melbourne

Yehudi Menuhin quoteThis explains why people who can no longer find the words to speak, may still be able to sing and play instruments. Beth related the story of her father humming and singing the last few words of his favourite songs as she sang to him, long after his ability to speak had gone. By encouraging and supporting active involvement in musical interaction and socialisation, music therapists can help clients living with dementia reduce feelings of apathy, anxiety, restlessness and depression, potentially lessening the need for medication.

These two videos express the essence and benefits of music therapy better than I ever could in words:

How does music therapy benefit children with special needs?

Music therapy, the empowering tool:

The final speaker was Professor Helen Odell-Miller, Head of Therapies at Anglia Ruskin University and Director of Music for Health Research Centre, who gave us a fascinating history of the origins of Music Therapy in the UK, and how the early pioneers established the framework of common practices and professional and personal qualifications that Music Therapists need, (a Master’s Degree in Music Therapy as well as having an advanced level of musicianship and skill, and also being registered with the Health and Care Professionals Council). Music therapists work in hospitals, schools, pupil referral units, day centres, hospices, care homes, therapy centres, prisons and in private practice across the UK.

BAMT is conducting cutting edge research into the role of music therapy on human health and wellbeing, in addition to providing support and training to music therapists. Notably, they are sharing the results of their discoveries with other health professionals as part of a multi-disciplinary team of speech & language therapists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, doctors, paediatricians, teachers, social workers, consultants, psychologists and psychiatrists who are working to deliver the same aims in society.

Promotional video by Nordoff Robbins for those interested in training as a music therapist:

I hope the work of music therapy resonates with you! The BAMT exhibition is on display until 31st October at the Barbican Music Library in London.

Carry On Conducting: 10 Reasons why musicians need a Maestro

I’m aware this post is a bit on the long side, (I hope you’ll stick with me), mainly because the subject matter is quite in-depth. I opted for a slightly meatier article as I didn’t want to just pay lip service to a profession that requires huge amounts of skill and dedication.

music-conductor-handsCertain conductors are just as famous and revered in their own right as the soloists and orchestras they wave their batons at; with reputations alone that can fill a concert hall. Here are the cream of the crop listed by surname, both past and present, across the alphabet:

Abbado, Alsop, Barbirolli, Barenboim, Beecham, Berlioz, Bernstein, Böhm, Boulez, Boult, Britten, Bülow, Celibidache, Chailly, Davis, Dudamel, Elliot-Gardner, Eschenbach, Furtwängler, Gergiev, Giulini, Hogwood, Haitink, Jansons, Järvi, Karajan, Kleiber, Klemeperer, Levine, Liszt, Maazel, Marriner, Masur, Mendelssohn, Muti, Nikisch, Norrington, Oramo, Ormandy, Ozawa, Pappano, Previn, Rattle, Rostropovich, Salonen, Sargent, Sinopoli, Solti, Stokowski, Szell, Tennstedt, Tilson-Thomas, Toscanini, Wagner…  I could go on forever!

Classical music fans tend to have their preferences. For some it’s their interpretation of a particular work, and for others, nothing less than hero worship. Leopold Stokowski was known for his innovative orchestral arrangements; and his enduring performance in Fantasia for Disney, which brought classical music to a whole decade of youngsters and continues to do so to this day.

Documentary – Stokowski at 88:

Leonard Bernstein’s talks on music educated a swathe of music lovers into understanding the master composers, along with his legendary teaching abilities.

Daniel Barenboim and his close friend, the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said, jointly created the ground-breaking West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999.  WEDO is a youth orchestra made up of musicians from the Midde East, namely Egypt, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Spain, being based in Seville. They are an example to us all through their unity and their music.  I saw them perform Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies at the Royal Albert Hall for the 2012 BBC Proms. It was magical!

In Barenboim’s own words:

“The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I’m] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to – and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward died a few years ago – …create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.”

Herbert von Karajan, principle conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for 35 years, was just epic in every sense of the word… But not loved by all: Save us from the resurrection of that old devil

Composer/conductor Jean-Baptise Lully (1632 – 1687) goes down in history as the only conductor to be mortally wounded in the pursuit of his craft.  Death by baton occurred when Lully staked himself in the foot with his long conducting staff during a performance of his Te Deum to mark Louis XIV’s recovery from surgery. The wound became infected, but Lully refused amputation and died of gangrene two months later.

They all had, and have, their special attributes, their individual quirks, that players and listeners either love or loathe.  But regardless of their personalities (which do in part help to cement their reputations), it’s their innate skill to understand the music and bring out the best in their ensembles and orchestras that fascinates us as much as their ferocious expressions when a beat was missed or a note played out of tune.

Documentary – The Art of Conducting – Legendary Conductors of a Golden Era:

Over the years they have been sent up as bumbling idiots presiding over a rabble of musicians… Rowan Atkinson conducting Beethoven never fails to amuse!

In the third chapter of my novel, The Virtuoso, I briefly explore the role of the conductor from the protagonist’s view point (after all, she is married to one!) In my story he is a little unhinged, so I’m making un-reserved apologies now to all conductors: I’m not saying you are all egomaniacs like the character Howard Miller, who is derived solely from my imagination!

Throughout the evening Isabelle observed Howard intently. She had never really seen him in action before, as their schedules hadn’t been conducive to joint collaborations. It was one of the few times his normally furrowed face was free of lines, and just animated. He waved the baton rhythmically, first low by his waist when the music came to a quiet section, and then as the tension built and it came to a crescendo he was more forcible; also using his left arm, raising it, and sometimes shaking it slightly to indicate to the strings that he wanted more volume or intensity. It was certainly a skill that she greatly admired. No matter how good the individual players in an orchestra were, the resulting experience of the audience was also impacted largely by the role of the conductor. He was the sculptor shaping and carving the flow of time and the form of the music, living and breathing the notes with his orchestra. But it was a skill that involved so much more than beating out time. Part of his job was to embody the character of the music, as well as to deeply understand the tempo and phraseology of the work, and how the abilities and ranges of his musicians and their instruments could express the essence of the music in each moment.

It was a delicate eco-system she mused: the conductor could have all the mechanics and knowledge at his disposal but without the attribute of being able to physically communicate his feelings evoked by the music to his players, through his meaningful actions of the baton, his arms, his hands, his fingers, eyes and the gestures of his personality, and have them respond accordingly, it would not elevate them all as group to an exalted performance. Most conductors were also proficient or virtuosic on an instrument themselves. These were the attributes that were needed to be a really great conductor.

She had been impressed to learn that Howard could listen to a score as he looked at it, hearing the printed notes in his head before a single note had been played. She knew he was fastidious about preparation and could anticipate where his musicians might make mistakes during a performance.  He had quoted Leonard Bernstein to her on one occasion. ‘Isabelle, conducting is like breathing; the preparation is the inhalation, and the music sounds as exhalation. I have to always be a breath ahead of them.’

What was it that set apart the big names from the ones who didn’t quite make it on to the world stage?  The likes of Karajan, Barenboim and Bernstein who had achieved their iconic status had an intangible magic about their relationships with their respective orchestras. She wasn’t sure if Howard shared their passion, he seemed to exhibit more of a cold ambition.

Respect on both sides was essential, but it had to be more than that. It had to be total commitment. Love for the music created an energy that brought it to life for the audience.

Interestingly, The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (named after the eponymous London church where they are based) was created by Sir Neville Marriner in 1959 as a small string ensemble that would perform minus a conductor, but has since evolved to a larger group now with a conductor.

Mendelssohn founded the first tradition of modern conducting based on the concept of precision by using a baton about 150 years ago.

Big Think gives us food for thought:

Maestro we need you!

  1. Co-ordination especially larger orchestras
  2. Understanding complex music
  3. Efficiency
  4. Preparation & Interpretation
  5. Perception of the inner meanings of music
  6. Powers of communication & inspiration
  7. Knowledge of the cultural background of the composer & context of the work
  8. Balance, dynamics, style & tempo
  9. Sculptor of time, not just the beats but the form, the whole phraseology of the work
  10. Intangibles – Conductor & orchestra bound together in the moment, creating a physical response in the listener.

London Symphony Orchestra conducting masterclass:

I love this eloquent extract from Leonard Bernstein as he describes a conductor’s role in his book, The Joy of Music:

“But the conductor must not only make his orchestra play; he must make them want to play. He must exalt them, lift them, start their adrenalin pouring, either through cajoling or demanding or raging. But however he does it, he must make the orchestra love the music as he loves it. It is not so much imposing his will on them like a dictator; it is more like projecting his feelings around him so that they reach the last man in the second violin section. And when this happens – when one hundred men share his feelings, exactly, simultaneously, responding as one to the rise and fall of the music, to each point of arrival and departure, to each little inner pulse- then there is a human identity of feeling that has no equal elsewhere. It is the closest thing I know to love itself.  On the current of love the conductor can communicate at the deepest levels with his players, and ultimately with his audience. He may shout and rant and curse and insult his players at rehearsal- as some of our greatest conductors are famous for doing – but if there is this love, the conductor and his orchestra will remain knit together through it all and function as one.

Well, there is our ideal conductor. And perhaps the chief requirement of all is that he be humble before the composer; that he never interpose himself between the music and the audience; that all his efforts, however strenuous or glamorous, be made in the service of the composer’s meaning- the music itself, which, after all, is the whole reason for the conductor’s existence.”

In some cases the composer himself is the conductor. Nothing new there. But – when his composition skills outweigh his conducting skills and he can’t hear, that’s a brave undertaking indeed!

Beethoven conductingIn conclusion, I am reminded of the words of the soprano Wilhemine Schroder-Devrient in 1822, recalling her experiences of singing the role of Leonore in a revived production of Beethoven’s Fidelio at the Kärntnertortheater in Vienna, with dear Ludwig himself conducting:

“At that time the Master’s physical ear was already deaf to all tone. With confusion written on his face, with more than earthly enthusiasm in his eye, swinging his baton to and fro with violent motions, he stood in the midst of the playing musicians and did not hear a single note! When he thought they should play piano, he almost crept under the conductor’s desk, and when he wanted a forte, he leaped high into the air with the strangest gestures, uttering the weirdest sounds. With each succeeding number we grew more intimidated, and I felt as though I were gazing at one of Hoffman’s fantastic figures which had popped up before me.  It was unavoidable that the deaf Master should throw singers and orchestra into the greatest confusion and put them entirely off beat until none knew where they were at. Of all this, Beethoven was entirely unconscious, and thus with the utmost difficulty we concluded a rehearsal with which he seemed altogether content, for he laid down his baton with a happy smile.”

The image this passage conveys always brings a smile to my face.