I’ve been in too many of them. Train stations, airport terminals, subway stops – places filled with people going somewhere, human beings in a hurry to get to where they want to be. In most cases, people don’t pay attention to the things around them. Many have the now-iconic earbuds blocking out the world. Some go to greater lengths and have full-size headphones shutting out everything around them. Most people stare blankly ahead, or worse, fixate on their phones while taking furtive glances to avoid falling onto the subway tracks. These might as well be scenes from The Walking Dead.
In 2007 I read a fascinating article about a social experiment carried out by the Washington Post. This was the question that they sought to answer:
What would occur if one of the world’s great violinists performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience of 1,000-odd people?
So they did it. After the experiment, they asked the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra what he thought would happen.
“Let’s assume,” Slatkin said, “that he is not recognized and just taken for granted as a street musician . . . Still, I don’t think that if he’s really good, he’s going to go unnoticed. He’d get a larger audience in Europe . . . but, okay, out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”
He was off. Way off.
The violinist played for over 40 minutes at Washington’s L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. The pieces he played were classics; perhaps not familiar ones like say Bach’s Air on a G String or Pachelbel’s Canon in D, but Bach’s Chaconne and Schubert’s Ave Maria aren’t exactly obscure. The violinist was playing magnificent instrument. Made in 1713, his Stradivarius-crafted violin had a price tag of $3.5 million in 2007 dollars.
Who was the musician? Joshua Bell, one of the greatest living violinists, whose performances are compensated at around $1,000 per minute. The experiment was called Pearls Before Breakfast. It’s still a fascinating read, seven years later. (I would guess that the results would remain the same today.)
The idea that a world-class musician could play for almost an hour in a busy subway, and have SEVEN people out of 1,070 that passed through stop and listen for at least a few seconds, was eye-opening to me. These days I no longer have earbuds on while travelling, nor do I look at my phone while walking. If I must take a call, I’ll pull into a quiet corner to talk. Experiencing the world as you walk past it is a pleasure in and of itself. Try not to miss all of it.
If you have any interest in the music at all, here are Spotify links to Joshua Bell’s recordings of Schubert’s Ave Maria…
… and Bach’s Chaconne.