Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Making Time for Beauty

My friend Pat, who has spent more hours on the road taking her children to concerts, plays, operas, and ballets than any person I have ever known, forwarded me an e-mail. I paid special attention because in the eight years or so that we have been friends, Pat has never forwarded me anything before. She always writes luscious, newsy letters. The e-mail was about a 2007 experiment with beauty involving violinist Joshua Bell playing incognito in a D.C. Metro station. How many commuters would stop and listen?

What follows is the content of the e-mail with the addition of an underlined link I inserted that will take you to the original news story and video:

Washington DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time approx 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 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 till 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 3 year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly, as 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. Every parent, without exception, forced them to move on.

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.

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

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best 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 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 people's priorities. The questions raised: 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:

If we do not 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 ....
How many other things are we missing?

My own conclusion is that we are missing a lot, and that it is symptomatic of the destruction of our Christian culture. As Gary Potter explains so well in 'The Greatest that Ever Lived' (The Apotheosis of Michael Jackson), great music, great art, and great literature were all enjoyed by the common people at the height of Christian civilization. It was not lost on me that the people who walked by Joshua Bell were, for the most part, Washington D.C. bureaucrats.


Nicholas said...

I heard this story! It rocked the music community, as you may imagine. Joshua Bell has to be the best violinist in the world, along with Hilary Hahn. This was sad. What has our modern world come to?

Wendy Haught said...

Thanks for writing, Nicholas. Yes, it was sad--embarrassing even.

I'm so glad that you play violin and are continuing your music studies at the college level. The world needs you.

I had a Joshua Bell piece on my Mixpod playlist, but I noticed the other day that it is no longer playing. There must have been a copyright infringement. Hopefully I can find another to replace it.

Mrs. Haught

Nicholas said...

Have you heard Joshua Bell's performance of O Mio Babbino Caro? I think it is one of the best performances of that song and one of Joshua Bell's best performances as well. :)

Wendy Haught said...

Dear Nicholas,

Thank you for your thoughtful recommendation. I listened to it and enjoyed it very much. I added it to my playlist.

I've liked listening to your playing as well. I hope some day to hear it live.

You may e-mail me ( if you would prefer that to comments.

With all good wishes,
Mrs. Haught