It’s pretty easy to hoax people. We all want to be deceived, but only up to a point. Some hoaxes are fun and pleasant, others malicious and unpleasant. We’d like a way to tell the difference (Robert Carroll).

Feb 27, 2010

Joshua Bell Plays in Subway

Email forward claims that virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell performed incognito at a metro station in Washington DC playing on a violin worth millions of dollars but his performance received very little interest from passersby.

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Copy of the wide-spread email message:

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 top 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 average $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station

was organized by the Washington Post as part of a 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?

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The story may seem a little far-fetched, and many commentators have suspected that it is just another hoax. However, the information in the email is true. Joshua Bell is recognized as one of the greatest violinists of our times and, in January 2007, Bell did indeed perform incognito at the metro in an experiment organized by the Washington Post. For 45 minutes on the morning of January 12, 2007, concert violinist Joshua Bell stood incognito on a Washington, D.C. subway platform and performed classical music for passersby.

According to an April 2007 Washington Post article about the experiment, Bell played on a violin handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713 - an instrument that he bought several years ago for a reported price of $3.5 million. 

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In spite of the fact that he used his outstanding ability to the full and performed some of the most intricate music ever written, the public reaction has been simply unbelievable. More than a thousand people entered the Metro station as Bell worked his way through a set list of classical masterpieces, but only a few stopped to listen. Some dropped money in his open violin case (for a total of about $27), but most never even stopped to look.

A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

The article notes:

No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities -- as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?

Journalist Gene Weingarten was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his outstanding and thought provoking analysis of the experiment. Weingarten discusses the ramifications of Bell's subway experience. What role does context play in our artistic perceptions? To what degree is our perception of beauty influenced by our mindset at the particular time we perceive it? He notes:

It's an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?

Check the video clip capturing the famous “underground” performance of Joshua Bell:

And now check soul-touching Joshua Bell’s performance Ave Maria:

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