The “stunt” was simple, but brilliant: Arrange for one of the world’s greatest musicians to play in a public place, during an inconvenient time, and see what happens.
The results of this social experiment were profound AND eye-opening for me.
I’m not exactly sure how or why this 2007 Washington Post articlerecently re-surfaced, and I’m not sure how or why it grabbed my attention.I stumbled upon it on my Facebook News Feed last week. (I’ve actually seen it posted a couple/few times since then.) The first post I saw teetered on the edge of uninteresting and pointless. It was a grainy surveillance camera photo (below) and the accompanying text read: “A man sat at a metro station…”
I wish I could say that my “friend” sold it with his supplemental comment, but all he wrote was: “This is so awesome. Please take a moment to read.”
For some baffling reason, I followed my friend’s passive call to action.
And I’m glad I did. It was awesome!
There was one poignant question – buried right in the middle of the 7,353-word article –that summed up the greatness of this experiment and the powerfulness of the editorial:
“If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that – then what else are we missing?”
The musician was Joshua Bell, and he played for 43 minutes in the lobby of the Metro station in Washington D.C. Three days before the “stunt,” Bell – considered “one of the finest classical musicians in the world” – sold out Symphony Hall in Boston. According to the article, decent seats for that performance cost $100.
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During morning rush hour in our nation’s capital, 1,097 people passed by Bell. The article explains:
“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?”
The Washington Post wanted to see if beauty would transcend in an ordinary setting at an inconvenient time.
• Seven people stopped what they were doing and listened to the performance for at least a minute;
• Twenty-seven people gave money,
• And Bell collected $32.17 (“Yes, some people gave pennies.”).
That’s the humorous part of the story. (Humorous, like if Kobe Bryant got picked last in a neighborhood pick-up game.)
Unfortunately, I found some tragic parts that don’t go anywhere near funny or ironic. Again, I lean towards profound and eye-opening. I had to share these:
A Ghost Story
Since the experiment was videotaped, you’re able to watch Bell’s 43-minute performance. The Post issues a warning, though: It is extremely sad. (Even sped up and bundled in a 3-minute montage, it’s distressing.)
The author writes: “Even at this accelerated pace, though, the fiddler’s movements remain fluid and graceful; he seems so apart from his audience – unseen, unheard, otherworldly – that you find yourself thinking that he’s not really there. A ghost.”
Then the most profound phrase of the article is written: “Only then do you see it, Bell is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.”
Bell expanded on this after watching the video. He said he understood why he didn’t draw a crowd – it was rush hour, people were focused on getting somewhere. “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all,” Bell said puzzled. “As if I’m invisible.”
It baffled him because: “I was makin’ A LOT of noise.”
What We Really Want
The second part of the story that I wanted to share wasn’t necessarily “tragic,” but it definitely slapped me across the face. It piggybacks on Bell’s comments above about being invisible.
In another part of the article, Bell explains that he had butterflies during the “stunt.” He said he was a little stressed. This was coming from a world-class musician who has packed concert halls and played in front of royalty across Europe.
“When you play for ticket-holders, you are already validated,” Bell explained. “I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence…”
Isn’t that what we ALL want? To be recognized? To be validated? To be noticed?
If your answer is “no” – then: You. Are. Lying.
Bell said it was an odd feeling being completely ignored.
Confession: That’s MY biggest fear of all-time, and I’m a long way from being world-class in anything.
This part of the article was a tremendous reminder that we’re all human beings with very similar wants and needs.
How many times can I use the adjectives profound and eye-opening?
Are You Kid-ding Me?
This is the part of the story that really got me. (It made me tuck my lips, shake my head and whisper “unbelievable.”)
Every time a child walked past Bell in the Metro station that morning, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.
The article shared a specific moment to drive this disturbing point home. It was about Sheron Parker and her 3-year-old son, Evan.
The article says: “You can see even clearly on the video. He’s the cute black kid in the parka who keeps twisting around to look at Joshua Bell, as he is being propelled toward the door.”
Evan’s mom, who said she was rushed for time, moved between her son and Bell– blocking her toddler’s line of sight. As they left the lobby, Evan can be seen “craning” to get a look at the world-class violinist.
The article referenced poet Billy Collins, who once expressed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the mother’s heartbeat is in iambic meter. “Life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us,” Collins said. The article was implying that it may be true with music, too.
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The article ends just like it started, very matter-of-factly. It definitely stirred something inside of me, though. I didn’t realize exactly what it was until I skimmed the editorial again in order to write this blog post.
It was the question The Post writer asked: What else are we missing?
Those five words capture the essence of this “stunt.” It is what makes it impactful and relevant. It makes me want to start answering that rhetorical question and start doing something about it.
That “something” is simply opening my eyes and ears and paying attention to the little things.
Not to completely dumb this down, but the infamous quote from Ferris Bueller has stuck with me since I was introduced to Joshua Bell (pop culture meets classical music):
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
I’m glad I didn’t miss this article.