As one of my many tangents, I have decided to comment on some old news. It’s old because it happened over a month ago, but it’s an important statement made by some brilliant journalists and one musical prodigy.
For the sake of getting to the point, I will summarize the astounding article, Pearls Before Breakfast written by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post. It starts off as a cultural experiment devised by the Post, but not long into the experiment the internationally-known violinist Joshua Bell begins to experience unlikely side effects.
The experiment: To have one of the world’s best violinists play in L’Enfant Plaza in Washington D.C. Who will notice? Will he draw a crowd? Or will people ignore him on their way to work?
The man: According to his website, Joshua Bell has loved music since the beginning. His rise to fame began when he was 14, and he performed with Riccardo Muti at the Philadelphia Orchestra. It is no secret that he is a talented, multifaceted performer. He is known as the poet of the violin and “classical music superstar”. So as you would imagine, an acclaimed violinist playing in public would be quite the experience or so Bell thought.
As I continued to read through the article, the Post interviewed music directors, bystanders, and Bell himself. He was excited to do the experiment as it is a far cry from hundreds of people seated in an auditorium. What the Post found to me was appalling and intriguing. I expected no one to really pay attention. With my limited experience of subways, I can’t say for sure whether I would join the masses in ignoring street performers. My affinity to music is something I cherish so I imagine if there was anyone attempting to entertain with music, I would pay attention.
When I visited Boston for the first time, I rode the subway in a state of awe at the new experience. If I hadn’t been rushed by the others in my group, I know I would have stayed to listen to the guy playing his guitar. Why? Because the passion it takes for an entertainer to stand in the subway all day to make a few bucks humbles me. While I’m going to school I don’t really step back and take a look at people who spend their entire lives devoted to music.
Now in Bell’s case, he was used to being paid $1000 for a minute of performance. He performed a little under an hour and the results of the experiment were astounding. Out of 1,097 people, only a handful paid attention. Fewer actually stayed more than a couple seconds. One person had actually recognized him giving the $20 of the $32 that made up his earnings for the day.
It may seem conceited for me to say, but I don’t care. WHAT IS WRONG WITH THIS COUNTRY! In the article, there is a comparison made to the reaction of people in other countries. In Europe, there would be hundreds stopping to listen to him instead of the ignorance experienced in D.C. Even one of the shoe shiners (Yes, they still have those, folks) admitted that normally she doesn’t like the street performers, but in her native country (Brazil) there would be throngs of people surrounding him. Maybe it’s me, but this is a problem on a cultural level.
Not only did people not stop to notice one of the most talented classical musicians of our time, but the most appalling aspect comes next. Although there were only a handful of people that stopped, there was one group that would not stop paying attention to this magnificent music being made. Children being shuffled off to school were so enlightened by the violinist that they stopped dead in their tracks to watch him. It reminded me a bit of the Pied Piper because the children seemed entranced by the music. Each child was forced away by their parents in a rush to get to their destination, but that didn’t stop the kids from turning back and locking onto the classical prodigy.
How is it that children who probably won’t know what classical music is for years, can understand the value of its beauty more than the adults? I know that children are magical in a way. They perceive so many things that we older humans forget over time. To most, something as simple as a musician playing in a subway shouldn’t make us turn our heads and stop. But to children and lovers of music would demand we pay attention. Music tells of the history of the world. It represents a beauty that can’t be put into words.
For those who recognize it, they know how important it is. For the ones who don’t recognize it, I feel bad because I think they’re living half of a life. Music is the cultural glue that binds us all. In other countries it is the centerpiece of daily life, celebrated throughout the land. It is important for us to remember what music means in our lives because without it the world would be an ugly, silent place.
The truly amazing part of the experiment is the effect it had on Bell. After hundreds of performance in front of thousands of people, something changed inside him. It tells so much about the life of an artist when they are privileged to have people recognize the beauty in music. Bell was for the first time, nervous. He said he had butterflies because he didn’t know if his performance was enjoyed. When people pay to see you perform, the musician already knows the audience appreciates his work. In this setting, anxiety and awkwardness replaced the joy of playing for a loving audience. There is something heart-wrenching in all of us when we’re ignored.
However, when a musician is ignored it can be earth shattering. Sometimes, we go through life ignoring the little things that can change the world. Ignoring the beauty of music, to me, is ignoring one of the most beneficial cultural attributes ever. Since the beginning of time, music has been the outlet for people to express themselves and come together to bond. It should be recognized even in the most mundane of settings. For Bell, he will be forever changed by this experiment. He learned that people are less likely to notice beauty when it’s not thrust upon them or chosen by them. It is also a change for those who read the article. It is eye opening to think we can ignore such beauty every day. Stop for a minute and take a look at the world around you. When you go to work, don’t ignore the beauty of the drive or the music of a street performer. If you can’t find the beauty in the world around you, then you don’t have room for beauty in your life.