Zombies Don’t Eat Breakfast

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.

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17 thoughts on “Zombies Don’t Eat Breakfast

  1. Awesome post! I saw that report and video of the experiment. I’m one of the ones who might miss my connection if there’s music being played… music fills up my soul like nothing else! Did you notice that the children were the ones who wanted to stop and listen? And their parents dragged them away? May everyone find a way to return to their child-ish ways, and learn to stop and smell the roses or listen to the music. Thanks for the reminder and the links 🙂

    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! Maybe we get too wrapped up in our problems and responsibilities. It would do us good to let go of these things even if for a moment. 🙂

  2. Fascinating. One of the things I loved about Europe was the ubiquitous street musicians, talented people earning their daily bread. I’m pleased to see more this type of thing happeing in American cities. In some, like New Orleans, it is nothing new; for others, it’s still a novelty that I hope continues to grow.

    1. Thanks for the comment. The sad reality is that it’s not enough to make a living. Struggling artists are everywhere, as much on the street playing music for pennies as in rooms writing pages and pages that will never get published. I wish there was a way for art to be nurtured better than is being done now.

  3. I remember reading about this and being stunned at how few people even noticed, let alone listened. It reminds me of something I read in a Paulo Coelho book. He was talking to his wife when they were sitting in the window of a cafe and he asked her what she noticed about the people walking by. She didn’t really know what to say, and he explained that they were almost all looking down, very few looking forward let alone up, and that is the norm for most people. I always look up, always have, but it’s interesting to look around and see how many don’t and miss some wonderful and beautiful things in the world.

    1. Thanks for the comment. It’s one of the side effects of the iPod revolution. I also see it as a growing apathy for the rest of humanity that aren’t part of our individual lives. We’re now amazed when strangers stop for people on the street who need help. It’s the norm to walk past others in need because of the perceived inconvenience of helping out, or the possibility of getting entangled in other peoples’ problems. I’ve done this before. The effect is a mixed feeling of relief and guilt.

    1. Thanks for the note Emjay! I didn’t know that he did an encore. It wasn’t incognito this time though. 🙂 Were you at Union Station for the performance?

      1. Sadly no, I was not there – I heard about it on my way to work and considered going over as it was during the lunch hour but I couldn’t quite get out of the office. Next time….. 🙂

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