Sunday, March 15, 2009

Listen to the Music...

Violinist in the Subway

A man sat at the L' Enfant Plaza subway 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, starting with the difficult Chaconne in D-minor. 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 a 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 violin case and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes after that, 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 something.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy.
His mother tugged him along but the kid stopped to look at the violinist and listen anyway. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time to look back.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 $32,17. When he finished playing after 43 minutes and silence took over, no one noticed.
No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the musician was Joshua Bell, one of the foremost violinists in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written... with a Stradivari once played by Fritz Kreisler, worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the ticket prices averaged $100 each.

Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the subway, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities. The outlines were this: In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we even perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

White guy, khakis, leather jacket, briefcase. Early 30s. John David Mortensen is on the final leg of his daily bus-to-Metro commute from Reston. He's heading up the escalator. It's a long ride -- 1 minute and 15 seconds if you don't walk. So, like most everyone who passes Bell this day, Mortensen gets a good earful of music before he has his first look at the musician. Like most of them, he notes that it sounds pretty good. But like very few of them, when he gets to the top, he doesn't race past as though Bell were some nuisance to be avoided. Mortensen is that first person to stop, that guy at the six-minute mark.

It's not that he has nothing else to do. He's a project manager for an international program at the Department of Energy; on this day, Mortensen has to participate in a monthly budget exercise, not the most exciting part of his job: "You review the past month's expenditures," he says, "forecast spending for the next month, if you have X dollars, where will it go, that sort of thing."

On the video, you can see Mortensen get off the escalator and look around. He locates the violinist, stops, walks away but then is drawn back. He checks the time on his cellphone -- he's three minutes early for work -- then settles against a wall to listen.

Mortensen doesn't know classical music at all; classic rock is as close as he comes. But there's something about what he's hearing that he really likes.

As it happens, he's arrived at the moment that Bell slides into the second section of "Chaconne." ("It's the point," Bell says, "where it moves from a darker, minor key into a major key. There's a religious, exalted feeling to it.") The violinist's bow begins to dance; the music becomes upbeat, playful, theatrical, big.

Mortensen doesn't know about major or minor keys: "Whatever it was," he says, "it made me feel at peace."

So, for the first time in his life, Mortensen lingers to listen to a street musician. He stays his allotted three minutes as 94 more people pass briskly by. When he leaves to help plan contingency budgets for the Department of Energy, there's another first. For the first time in his life, not quite knowing what had just happened but sensing it was special, John David Mortensen gives a street musician money.

One of the possible conclusions from this experiment could be this: 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?

[Source: Washington Post?]


Sarah said...

This is the very reason why I finally agreed with hubby to uproot the family over 3 years ago from a metropolitan city San Francisco Bay to a small down in Central Oregon. People became invisible...People don't stop to smell the roses. We long for the good life--simple living for our children like we once had.

Laura said...

Thank you for that wonderful comment, Sarah. That is why we moved into the country as well. And never regretted it.