What are we missing?

In Life, Music by Emerson Jane Browne1 Comment

This interesting email (below) arrived in my Inbox the other day. When an email like this comes across my desk, the first thing I do is to Google it for authenticity.  That led me to the true source. 

Pearls Before Breakfast“; the full article is at that link.  The journalist, Gene Weingarten, won a Pulitzer Prize in Feature Writing for it when it ran in the Washington Post in 2010.

I was fairly wowed by the article.  Weingarten deserved a Pulitzer; he is a great writer.  But as the article sank in I started to question its premise more and more. 

First, here is the email:

A man stood in a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold, January morning. He played six classical pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, over a thousand people went through the station during that time period, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the open case without stopping and continued on her.

A few minutes later, someone 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.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard 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 them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

Three days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at Symphony Hall in Boston where the “pretty good” seats went for $100.00.

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 context, perception, and priorities. The questions were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing some of the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?


                  Joshua Bell

Interestingly the, “How many things are we missing?” which is noted in the above email is not one of the one of the main conclusions or questions mentioned in Weingarten’s article. 

Instead, Weingarten and the Washington Post set out to answer some different questions:

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape:

Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

Is that what is really being tested here? 

“It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour.

Though I know many street performers, I know of none who would perform during peak morning commute time, especially on a Friday!  So, the statement “in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape” seems slightly skewed.

Weingarten does touch on that point but only obliquely. In his analysis he comments that:

Context matters.

Kant said the same thing. He took beauty seriously: In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one’s ability to appreciate beauty is related to one’s ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America’s most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.

“Optimal,” Guyer said, “doesn’t mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don’t fit right.”

What if this same experiment had been repeated the following day and a few hours later in the morning?  Say 10:30 AM on Saturday morning?  How different would the answers be to the same questions as above?

                     Pete Sutherland

Then there is the question of the accessibility of the music.  The pieces that Joshua Bell chose to play are not pieces that would be “accessible” to the general public.  I love classical music but not all of it.  Some of the most difficult and impressive violin pieces are, shall we say, an acquired taste?!

The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.

I agree that the test was fairest if the music was not known; not popular tunes.  But what if Bell had played a set of celtic music or bluegrass reels?  Would more people have stopped?  On Friday morning in the middle of their commute to work?  On a Saturday morning?

Celtic and Bluegrass are classified as “Folk Music” for good reason.  They are the the music of the people.  Therefore would that music have reached more people? 

What if the violinist had been Jamie Lavelle (celtic), Pete Sutherland (mountain folk), or Woody Paul  of Riders in the Sky (cowboy folk)?  Those three “fiddlers” were all classically trained and in my opinion they are all incredible violinist and the cream of the crop in their respective genres; just as Bell is tops in his.

                                           Jamie Laval

There often seems to be a certain snobbishness that is inherent in the “finest” of arts: classical music, avant guard visual art, etc. Just because the musical pieces have “endured for centuries on their brilliance alone” does not necessarily mean that the pieces have endured for everyone.

As a visual artist I gag at the tastes and tone of many of the top art critics.  To me it is just another version of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.  Critics exclaim over the most absurd art because the artist “has a name” or a “name” art critic deems it “rave worthy”. 

I would far rather have a “commoner” see a piece of my artwork and be moved by it than please the hoity-toitiest of art critics.  

I cannot help but bring these thoughts back around to Bernie Madoff!  People were taken by Madoff because he was “the man”, he was the image, he was the personality.  Talk about the emperor having no clothes! 

    Context matters.

What if Bernie Madoff stationed himself at at L’Enfant Plaza and had tried to sell his funds ” . . . on Friday morning during peak commuting hours”?  Would anyone have stopped to buy?



Emerson Jane Browne
I am Emerson Jane Browne. I write about Brains, Apps, & Productivity, and many other aspects of Life. I speak to TBI support groups, speak and teach workshops at tech, music, and writer conferences. I consult with organizations on strategic planning and building a strong community.