A concert at the train station

On a cold January morning at the L’Enfant Plaza Station in Washington DC, a man, non-descript and dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and baseball cap, pulled a worn violin from the case at his feet and began to play six classical pieces. picture-7

It was about three minutes into the performance when a middle aged man briefly slowed his pace and then hurried up to stay on schedule.

Another moment went by before a woman threw money in the open case, his first tip.

A man leaned against a wall to listen, glanced at this watch and moved on.

It was a three-year-old boy who appeared most fascinated. But he was hurried along by his mother who pushed hard as the child turned his head, struggling to hear the music.

The violinist finished playing. There was no applause. No recognition. The metro station was silent—or at least as silent as a metro station can be.

By actual count, 1097 people listened as they hurried past the 43 minute concert, most on their way to work. Just six people stopped. About 20 gave money totalling $32.17.

joshua_bellWhat wasn’t apparent was the identity of the player. It was Joshua Bell, notably one of the world’s best musicians, who performed some of the most intricate and mesmerizing violin music ever written for the focused commuters. He played an instrument made in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari and worth a reported $3.5 million. Only two days earlier, he sold out a Boston performance where tickets averaged $100. Bell, who usually commands $1000 per minute in concert, would have averaged about $40 per hour that day.

The story behind the story is this: It was a social experiment organized by the Washington Post. Bell, performing incognito, was a test about perception, taste and priority. What would happen if you put a classically trained and dressed-down virtuoso in a train station at an early morning hour? Would the preoccupied commuters perceive his talent? Appreciate it? Would people recognize a gift when it presents itself in an unexpected context?

The experiment raises manifold questions. One that comes to mind is this: Would you or I have stopped to listen or would we have moved on quickly and passed up a nearly priceless seat at the concert-cum-social experiment?

Note: Versions of this story (some more accurate than others) have appeared on the Web. The complete account, a Pulitzer Prize winning article from The Post, can be found here. The video is cool, too.

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