We’ve all seen them – musicians playing for spare change on the street corners all over the world. In most large cities you’ll find them anywhere there’s a large amount of foot traffic like train and subway stations and around popular tourist traps. On the morning of January 12th, 2007 the commuters in L’Enfant Plaza Station in Washington D.C. were in for a treat. This time there would be no amateur talent hammering their way through a barely recognizable tune. This time the musician would be Joshua Bell, the world renowned classical violinist. And his instrument – none other than a $3.5 million Stradivari.
The Washington Post wanted to know what would happen before they planned such an event. They asked Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, was asked what he thought would occur, hypothetically, “if one of the world’s great violinists had performed incognito before a traveling rush-hour audience?”
“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.”
So, a crowd would gather?
So they did it. And luckily, the entire thing was recorded by a hidden camera. For 45 minutes in this subway station, Joshua Bell would put on a concert for passersby. Pedestrians were later stopped by reporters, asked for their phone numbers and were called afterwards to discuss the event.
The first person to even acknowledge the playing occurred 3 minutes into Bell’s playing after 63 people had passed and did so with a simple nod of the head, not even slowing down. A little later, someone donated the first dollar of the day. Nobody even paused until 6 minutes into the playing.
“Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.”
In his regular environment, people pay hundreds of dollars to see Joshua Bell play. Royalty all over Europe line up to hear him. But in that subway station that morning, something much more fascinating happened.
“There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.” (emphasis mine)
How often are we too preoccupied with ourselves to notice beauty around us? How is it that the children were able to appreciate what was happening even without a frame of reference to base their judgments on? It’s as if we are born with an ability to recognize such beauty but we choose to let the demands on our adult lives get in the way as we grow older.
It’s not every day that the Joshua Bells of the world line up to play for us in the subway station. But are we missing out on other equally inspiring moments in our lives? Here’s the worst part – if we never recognize those moments when they happen, we have no idea what we’re missing.
“As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn’t arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, there was no doubt. She doesn’t know much about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks earlier, at Bell’s free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn’t about to miss it.
Furukawa positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell, front row, center. She had a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Furukawa, remained planted in that spot until the end.
“It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” Furukawa says. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”
You can find the full article here with the fitting title, “Pearls Before Breakfast”. It’s long, but a truly moving and thought provoking read. They point out pivotal events during this “experiment” along with clips from the video they took. Below is a sample of what took place with the woman who recognized him towards the end.
The point is this – what do we miss out on when we’re too involved in our next appointment or pressing concern? Would it be worth taking some time each day to savor the beautiful things around you? How much better would our lives be if we could truly appreciate what we seldom even acknowledge?
As most of us would admit, we could each benefit from slowing down to appreciate the blessings we have. If we don’t, we’re bound to react as did a Mr. Tillman upon learning what he had just walked out on.
“I didn’t think nothing of it,” Tillman says, “just a guy trying to make a couple of bucks.”
Tillman would have given him one or two, he said, but he spent all his cash on lotto. When he is told that he stiffed one of the best musicians in the world, he laughs.
“Is he ever going to play around here again?”
“Yeah, but you’re going to have to pay a lot to hear him.”
What about you? Have you ever benefitted from “stopping to smell the roses?” How as your life been better because of it?