On April 8, 2007 the Washington Post ran a long feature article by Gene Weingarten in the Sunday magazine called “Pearls Before Breakfast” that won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Rarely have I been more intrigued with a story, and I think musicians will be and should be talking about it for decades to come.
The author was a writer for the Post, and convinced classical violinist Joshua Bell, considered one of the greatest virtuosos of this era and voted the best classical musician in America, to put on a T-shirt and a baseball cap and try being a street musician to find out what would happen. During a January morning rush hour, Bell opened the case to his $3.5 million Stradivarius and played in the subway station at L’Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. Bell was in town playing a concert at the Library of Congress, and agreed to participate in this unprecedented social and musical experiment. Would passers-by recognize genius and talent or just walk by? Would a crowd obstruct the commuter traffic? How much money would he make? Could hallowed music and “high art” make a mark or maybe shine some bright sunshine into the everyday world of commuters in a hurry?
A hidden camera documented what happened during a 43-minute period, while Bell played pieces by Bach, Schubert (Ave Maria), Massenet and Manuel Ponce. He opened at 7:51 AM on Friday, January 12, with Bach’s 14-minute Chaconne (Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor), generally considered to be the single greatest solo violin work and one of the greatest musical compositions ever created. It was played on one of the finest instruments the world has ever known, the so-called “Gibson ex Huberman” Stradivarius, made in 1713 at the peak of the legendary luthier’s powers. The subway location was chosen because it was a place where the acoustics were not bad, and the music would carry reasonably well. Bell even took a taxi 3 blocks to the subway to keep his instrument from even getting slightly cold.
The results of Bell’s experiment:“Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something. A half-minute later, Bell got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened. 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. “
$20 of that $32 was from the one person who recognized Bell, and who had just seen him play the night before at the Library of Congress, so the 26 givers among the 1096 commuters pitched in a whopping $12, including a lot of pennies. There was never a crowd, and the fears never materialized that there might be a need for extra security. So the moral or message of the story seems to be simply that commuters might have walked by the Mona Lisa also, and that you can’t expect “random people” to notice and appreciate great art on their own without some kind of guidance, commentary or marketing. How many times have we been told that people need to be taught to appreciate great art? It’s hard for people to believe there is something amazing going on when there is no crowd, and nothing telling you to pay attention.
If you are interested in watching the video of this interesting experiment, find it below:
In celebration of the International Women’s Day on 8 March, here we will take a…