joshua-bellI remember seeing the article about this when it took place three years ago, and was reminded of it when a friend sent me this email. It’s a story worth repeating.

It was a cold morning in January 2007, in a Washington DC Metro Station. A man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time about 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After three minutes a middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.

4 minutes later:: The violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw the money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

10 minutes: A three-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.

45 minutes: The musician played continuously. Only six people stopped and listened for a short while. About twenty gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected $32.17.

1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

Only one person had recognized that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest 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 Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.

This is a true 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 people’s priorities.

This raises some questions.

  • In a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
  • Do we stop to appreciate it?
  • Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this. If we don’t have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made, then how many other things are we missing?

The April 2007 article, Pearls Before Breakfast, won a Pulitzer Prize for author Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post.