No Time To Listen?

Joshua Bell playing at L’Enfant Plaza Metro, 2007. (Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Joshua Bell playing at L’Enfant Plaza Metro, 2007. (Photo: Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

The setting was an arcade outside the metro station in Washington, DC. on a cold January morning. A young man positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt, and topped by a Washington National’s baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play. He played six classical pieces for about forty-five minutes. Since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After about three minutes . . . a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried off to meet his schedule.

At about four minutes . . . the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the violin case and without stopping, continued to walk.

A few minutes later . . . a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly, he was late for work.

At ten minutes . . . The one who paid the most attention was a three year old boy. His mother prodded him along, but the child stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother kept him briskly moving and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced their children to move on.

After about forty-five minutes . . . only seven people had stopped and stayed for a while. He collected just $32.17 for his efforts, contributed by a mere twenty-seven of 1,097 passing travelers. When he finished playing and silence took over, only one woman realized what had transpired. It was right at the end. She recognized Bell, watched the last two minutes of his performance, then went up to him to say hello.

Except for that one woman, no one knew that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest musicians in the world. He played some of the most intricate pieces ever written on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Three days before his playing in this subway station gig, Joshua Bell’s concert sold out at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where the seats averaged $100.

Now, this is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The experiment raised several worthy questions. For instance, in a commonplace environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? If so, do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be this: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the finest musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

Former Poet Laureate of the United States, Billy Collins once observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. I suspect that it may be true with music, too. There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, that child tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the child away.

The Welsh poet, W. H. Davies has written: What is this life if, full of care/ We have no time to stand and stare. (from “Leisure”)

So, enjoy life NOW! After all, life has an expiration date.

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