I’ve heard this story at least three times in the past few months from at least three different artist friends, and just today I realized how perfect it is for this blog.
The story goes like this: a busker plays a number of Bach pieces on his violin in downtown Washington. A lot of people pass by. A few stop briefly to listen or contribute money. It turns out that the busker is Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world, and that the violin is a $3.5 million Stradivarius. Say WHAT!
The stunt was a social experiment conducted by the Washington Post a few years ago to see whether busy people would recognize beauty and talent in an unexpected context, and whether they had (or would make) time to stop for it.
You can also read it in its chain-email form, which I finally received a few days ago (I didn’t bother to correct the grammar):
In Washington, DC, at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man [note: there was a photo of him in the email] with a violin played six Bach pieces for about an hour. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.
About 4 minutes later:
The violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.
At 6 minutes:
A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
At 10 minutes:
A 3-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent – without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
At 45 minutes:
The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.
After 1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.
No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $200 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.
This is a true story. Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.
This experiment raised several questions:
*In a common-place 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 possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made . . .
How many other things are we missing as we rush through life?
(Who writes these emails anyway?)
What are we missing as we rush through life? It’s a good question despite being posed in such a cheesy manner. This stunt was nothing more than a reenactment of the proverb “stop and smell the roses”—but it was also nothing less than a reenactment of the proverb “stop and smell the roses”. Stop and consider the proverb.
I recently wrote a bit about busking in the post “Taking to the Streets”, and I stand by my assertions that art should be out-and-about, participatory, and joyful.
I don’t think that one’s ability to recognize “good art” in the morning subway rush summarizes one’s relationship to art; I like going to the symphony, I appreciate buskers and street art, and yet I probably would have stopped only briefly for Bell’s performance because I also like being responsible and keeping my word about work-related and personal commitments. Still it does shed some form of light on North American society, in that it reminds us that we do sometimes move too fast too appreciate (or even encounter) “the finer things”.
Goethe said “the soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone”. Perhaps that helps to explain the rushing morning masses and the few who stopped to hear the violin.
When I lived in Haifa, Israel during my time of volunteering at the Bahá’í World Centre, I often spent time in the gardens surrounding the Shrine of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. The pathways in the gardens are paved with stones (red in some areas, grey and white in others) rather than cement, and I found myself wondering whether stones had been chosen not only for aesthetic value but also because they slow you down—and slowing down lets you experience the beauty and wonder of the place; it is an act of reverence.
An architectural study of the Bahá’í gardens reinforces my theory:
The gardens … constitute the way to approach places which are considered sacred. As such, they contribute to the spiritual experience, transforming a simple path into a process that enables the pilgrim to prepare him or herself to enter the holy place. In most cases, the gardens allow the visitor to choose among different routes, and some offer the option of circling around the sacred spot without necessarily entering it, an act which has its own spiritual significance.
The matter of the approaches to the shrines, which is discussed in detail in the text dealing with the gardens in Haifa and at Bahjí, is highly significant for the Bahá’í pilgrim who has traveled halfway around the world for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to approach the most sacred spots, the places toward which he or she has been directing his or her prayers since childhood. For such a person, the process of approaching the shrine stirs thoughts and feelings which may be no less important than those experienced while visiting it.
I had the bounty of making a pilgrimage to the Bahá’í holy places in Israel in 2007 (before I went to live and serve there). I remember clearly the feeling of walking toward the Shrine of the Báb for the first time. I did walk slowly, and I could hear nothing but the crunch of my shoes on the red stones—a sound that I now fondly associate with these places.
There were roses there, too, which I—and please note that this often wrongly used term is applied correctly here—literally stopped and smelled.
I hope we are all finding ways to do it figuratively in our everyday lives.