What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
— from "Leisure," by W.H. Davies
The article was written in 2007, but I just saw it for the first time today, and was blown away. In January of that year, The Washington Post set up a little experiment in human nature in a DC Metro station. How many commuters would stop and listen to a world-class violinist posing as an inconspicuous street musician, playing the most beautiful and technically difficult pieces of music on earth on one of the world’s most valuable violins?
Joshua Bell, the former child prodigy who sells out concert halls all over the world for an average of $100 a ticket, stood against a far wall of L’Enfant Plaza during rush hour one winter morning and played a staggering repertoire of Bach, Schubert, Manuel Ponce and Jules Massenet on his $3.5 million violin for a full 45 minutes. Of the nearly 2000 people who walked by, only seven paused to listen for more than a minute. The vast majority walked by without as much as glance in the direction of the music. By the end of his concert, Joshua Bell had made only $32 and change.
It sounds unbelievable. Watching the videos of his playing in the Metro, it seems unreal—like a staged satire of American life too bitter and unforgiving to possibly be legitimate. I’d like to think that if I had walked by that morning, I would have stopped, drop-jawed and incredulous that no else was paying attention to such an obvious display of beauty and technical skill. But maybe I’d be taking a cell phone call.
I encourage you to read the fantastic article in the Post by Gene Weingarten. See what you think of the reasons given for why we Americans are too preoccupied and driven to appreciate beauty in an unexpected context. When is the last time you stopped to listen to a street musician, anyway?