A man stood at the entrance to a Washington DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in 2007. He played six Bach pieces in about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately two thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
After three minutes, a middle-aged man noticed there was a trained musician playing. He slowed his pace, 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 to listen, continued on her way.
6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to the performance for a moment, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.
10 minutes: A 3-year-old boy halted before the musician, mesmerized by the music, but his mother tugged him along impatiently. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time to look back at the man. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced them to keep moving along.
45 minutes: The musician played on. Only six people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk at their normal pace. He collected $32 in all.
1 hour: He finished playing, and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any sign of recognition. No one knew that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest musicians in the world. He had 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 theatre in Boston , where the seats averaged $100 each.
This is a real story. The decision to have Joshua Bell play incognito in the DC Metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, artistic taste, and people’s priorities.
The questions raised: In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize exceptional 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, then how many other things are we missing?