Too Busy to Marvel : A Subway Virtuoso

On January 12, 2007 at 7:51am a man stood at the entrance to L’Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington DC.  For about 45 minutes he played six Bach pieces on his  violin for the early morning commuters . Since it was rush hour, thousands of people went through the station on their way to work. As he played, three minutes went by.

He might as well have been invisible.  Nary a glance was given.  Finally, a middle-aged man seemed to take notice that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace, stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried off. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip.  A woman threw the money in the till as she walked by.  A few minutes later, a man leaned against the wall to listen to him, but soon looked at his watch and started to walk away

Those that paused, even for a moment,  were in the minority.

Most didn’t make eye contact.  Many pointed their stare to a mobile device, newspaper, or simply the ground in front of them that led them to their daily grind.

The only exceptions were the children.  During the 45 minutes, every single child who passed craned and pulled against the drag of parents to watch and listen to the music.  Still, each time, a parent tugged hard and the child continued to reluctantly walk … focused on the music until the musician was out of sight.

In total, only six people stopped and stayed for a while.  About twenty gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. In all, he collected $32.17 contributed by a mere twenty-seven of 1,097 passing travelers.  When the violinist finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it.

No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world.  He had played some of most intricate classical pieces of music ever written on a 1713 Stradivarius violin for which Bell reportedly paid 3.5 million dollars.

Three days earlier, Bell had played to a full house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where fairly good seats went for $100.  This Grammy-Award-winning violinist has recorded multiple albums, performed with almost all of the world’s major orchestras and conductors, and plays over 200 engagements each year.  If the world of violinists has “rock stars,” Joshua Bell is undoubtedly one of them.

This is a real story.

Joshua Bell played incognito in this metro station as part of a social experiment arranged by the Washington Post about perception, busyness, and priorities of people.

They wanted to see if people, amid the hustle and pull of daily regiment and schedule, have time to truly perceive beauty?  If so, do they even have time to stop to appreciate it?

They set out to answer a crucial question of life in today’s culture: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing in the world around us?

Check out the video below taken from a hidden security camera in the corner of the subway lobby that morning and ask yourself - what beauty are you missing because of life's busyness?

Pay attention. Don't be numb. Listen to your life.