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

Maxim’s Masterclass

On 11th April 2013 I was fortunate enough to attend my first masterclass run by world renowned violinist Maxim Vengerov, in conjunction with Oxford Philomusica. We gathered at the iconic (Grade 1 listed) Sheldonian Theatre, designed in 1664 by Sir Christpoher Wren.

I huddled excitedly into my wooden pew along with my fellow spectators, vying for a glimpse of one of my living musical heroes.  Vengerov did not disappoint.

Looking back now at my sketchy notes, the first thing that jumps out at me is his declaration that the violin should replicate the human voice; and he elicited much laughter from the audience by bursting into an impromptu song. He was warm, confident, knowledgeable (as you would expect), and he genuinely seemed to care about the students from Oxford University who were performing for his expert feedback. His insights into the music were unparalleled. He told the first student, who played Mozart’s Adagio in E Major, ‘Know where you are going in relation to the phrasing – have a goal.’

What impressed me was that he was able to impart a lot of relevant advice to the violinists in the short time he had to evaluate them. He was able to spot almost immediately where they needed improvement. To me they all seemed brilliant, and they were, but with Vengerov’s help they could become world class.

The second player tackled the Brahms Violin Sonata No. 1 in G Major.  He seemed to feel that she was too controlling, and he told her simply to, ‘Let go.’ He then proceeded to show her how to balance her bow, using the forefinger for control and the little finger to balance it. All the time his manner was relaxed yet utterly erudite and eloquent.

He compared violin technique to breathing:  ‘The left hand is the heartbeat and the right hand is the lung.’

There were other technical gems about increasing finger pressure, bow speed and vibrato to achieve a crescendo, and he coached on the art of smooth changes in bowing style and speed.

The third violinist was shown where she was missing out notes in the furious tempo of the Grieg sonata, and he told her to lift her fingers off the string completely to improve accuracy, and to accent the first note of a group. He compared her rendition to a train passing through a station without stopping.

He had us all captivated with his unique blend of joviality and humour, mixed with just the right amount of constructive and affable critique. His joy in coaching was evident. His own playing of each of their pieces to demonstrate his points transcended the music.  To add to the experience the acoustics were fantastic, and even though it was a grey day light was streaming in through the high windows. I only wish I had been able to sit closer to the action. In short: he is an amazing ambassador for the violin and classical music.

Meeting Virtuoso violinist Maxim Vengerov after his Oxford MasterclassHe was totally charming and stayed behind afterwards to sign autographs and meet his numerous fans (of which I was one). Hence the slightly deranged coat-hanger smile! I comfort myself thinking he must meet gushing and overawed amateur violinists quite often and forgive them their nervous blabbering.

The day was capped off with a visit to the Ashmolean Museum and sighting of my very first Stradivarius violin, the best preserved of them all – The Messiah.

List of Stradivarius Violins & their provenance

One of my favourite Vengerov performances, Waxman’s passionate Carmen Fantasy:

To round off my point here he is in the documentary ‘Playing By Heart’