Perception, Taste and Priorities

A Violinist in the Metro

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.
A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition. No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best 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 his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats averaged $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context? One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: 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?


  • 22 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
  • Wow.. cool story. I lived in a beautiful part of the Central Californian coast for several years and never fully appreciated it. When I moved here, I made the conscious decision not to repeat that mistake.
  • I always tip buskers... whether they play well or not, they deserve kudos for having the heart to try.

    Now mimes, on the other hand... I usually just make exaggerated motions pretending to drop money in the jar. I think they admire my tribute to their craft, but I'm not sure - they don't come out and say as much.
  • Frank, I've been trying to figure out how to mime HB, and it's not working. This is the best I can do:

    :-0 hbtu 0-:
  • Is that really a true story?
  • Good question, ritaanz. Snopes says it is indeed true, and, acc. to a quick Google search, here is video proof from the [I]Washington Post[/I]. tk

  • says it is

    In 2007, [I]Washington Post[/I] writer Gene Weingarten enlisted renowned violinist Joshua Bell, a winner of the Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music who regularly undertakes over 200 international engagements a year, to spend part of a morning playing incognito at the entrance to a Washington Metro station during a morning rush hour.
    [I]The Washington Post[/I] won a Pulitzer in the feature writing category for the story about the experiment.
  • I am a huge fan of for checking on stories like this.

    I wonder how many people read the article in the Post and realized they were part of the crowd that didn't appreciate the renowned violinist and what their reactions were.
  • Not to be a cynic Celeste, but anyone who was there and saw the article probably said something like, "Oh yea, I saw him. He didn't impress me much."

    Hmmm. I am being very negative, huh? I guess I need to hit the chocolate. :)
  • I've been involved in the arts a long, long time. In fact, I got into human resources from a music connection (it's a long story), so things like this are pretty dear to my heart.

    A friend of mine sent that video and article to me several years ago, and it actually changed the way I think to some degree. I think we all have a bit of cynic in us (or in my case, sarcastic shrew), but what I really took away from the story was the importance of stopping and smelling the proverbial roses.

    I think about how quickly I rush around - always searching for the fastest route home, the quickest walk to the subway, the most efficient use of my time. Now, I try to always be mindful of my surroundings - there's a lot of beauty in the everyday goings-on of the city, whether it's a public art sculpture, an interesting building facade, a beautiful sunset, you get the picture.

    It's a rather Zen/Buddhist view of things, and you are free to mock me, but living in the moment is priceless, and I've noticed it does wonders for my stress level (not to mention the occasional taming of the sarcastic shrew).

    I realize I'm on a bit of a soapbox, but I truly hope everyone takes a moment from time to time to live in the present, and appreciate what's in front of them every day. While you might not walk past the next Itzhak Perlman or Joshua Bell, you could be walking past someone simply trying to enrich the lives of those around them with a little music, beauty, or art.
  • I have made a habit for many years of stopping to appreciate the beauty around me. I live in a gorgeous part of the country, and although I've lived here my whole life, I still stop every day and really look at what's going on around me. It may be just looking out my office window at the way the sun is striking the ocean through a gap in the clouds or how the view from the route we normally drive home every day looks like a picture on a postcard (well, okay, it actually IS a picture on some postcards). I still get excited when we go on a drive past one huge tree that has an eagle's nest in it and the young eagles are sitting in the nest with the adults on branches nearby.

    I have to admit, when I travel and use public transportation like the subway, I'm a bit less relaxed because I don't do it very often & I get nervous about getting on the wrong train or something, so I might be less apt to stop and enjoy something like the violinist, but I'd be willing to bet that I at least would have noticed his playing and said something like "What the heck is somebody that talented doing playing in the subway?!!"
  • I completely agree with your post, Coffee... but I hope that doesn't mean I can't mock you anyway!

  • Man, that sounds awesome. What part of the country are you from?
  • My favorite site is the view from outside a plane window when landing at home. I see all the trees and water and mountains and realize what a beautiful area I live in.
  • [quote=ritaanz;720565]Man, that sounds awesome. What part of the country are you from?[/quote]

    I'm in the southern part of S.E. Alaska. On a daily basis, we have the opportunity to see such beautiful scenery and I am constantly in awe of it, even though I've been looking at it all my life.
  • In Nashville we're probably also guilty of ignoring our violin players when they're out in public playing for free. Well, actually, we don't call them "violins." They're fiddles, and the players are world-class. In assorted drinking holes down on Lower Broad (the downtown honky-tonk district), you can walk in off the street, no cover charge, and hear great live music every night. Well, except when the joints are flooded, as was the case back in early May, when the nearby Cumberland River overflowed its banks. But now everything is pretty much back to normal. And we still don't drop in as often as we should. We take the artists for granted, and we shouldn't. Whether you're a tourist or a longtime city resident, it's a great place to hang out. Heck, I'm outtahere -- heading that way now! I may even stop by the Wildhorse and give free line-dance lessons. ::pb&J::
  • Tony, that's one of the reasons I don't watch American Idol. I haven't seen a contestant on there who would be anything better than average as a Nashville Cat. There's so much world-class talent in that town, it's probably easy to take it for granted.
  • Thanks Frank! Now I can't get the song "Nashville Cats" out of my mind.
  • That's why I did it. I'm glad you enjoy it, though.
  • :back to topic: I am notorious for picking up pennies. It embarrasses most people when I am with them. But to me it is like finding a little treasure every time. There are little treasures to be found every day and I, for one, enjoy the hunt most of all.

    I'm not surprised by how many people hurry on past and don't pay attention to what is around them.
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