Seven years ago, The Washington Post attempted a social experiment. In a banal and busy setting, would people take time to appreciate an unexpected moment of extraordinary beauty? Their accomplice was Joshua Bell. Amid the DC morning rush, Joshua Bell (incognito under a baseball cap) would play classical masterpieces on his $3 million violin in the entrance of a Metro station. No promotion. No fuss. He would look like any other street performer. It was, as the Post put it, “art without a frame.”
The experiment’s question: how many people would stop to listen?
The unfortunate answer: Very few.
Bell fills symphony halls, of course. His name is paired with descriptors like “master,” “genius,” and even “superstar.” Interview magazine said Joshua Bell’s playing “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.” But on the day he performed anonymously in a DC subway station, 7 people stopped to listen. The number of people who scurried past him? 1,070.
This article has haunted me ever since. As a DC-area native who logged many years commuting via Metro, I knew that I likely would’ve been one of the harried commuters scurrying past Bell and his music. It would’ve taken no less than Bach himself dropping a harpsichord on my head to slow my morning rush. So I’ve spent the subsequent years atoning for my busy ways. I remind myself to seek unexpected beauty, to search for the extraordinary amongst the ordinary. Perhaps it’ll be a song, a sunset, a great laugh… or, God willing… Joshua Bell unexpectedly playing violin from a nearby doorway.
While I have appreciated many random moments of beauty, I have not – alas – happened upon Joshua Bell and his violin. Yet.
If you live in DC, however, you can have another shot at your Joshua Bell moment. Bell has given DC an opportunity to redeem itself – he will play in Union Station during the lunch rush on September 30, 2014. Not only does this grant DC a wonderful do-over, it promotes a cause: music education. Nine students from the National YoungArts Foundation will be with him. DC folks, for the love of all things beautiful, go. Stop. Listen.
For those of us not in DC, we can learn from the original Joshua Bell experiment in the video below. It can be torturous to watch and even more torturous to ask yourself the hard question: given the same scenario, would you have stopped to listen? Or would you be among the 1,070 people scurrying past?
And then go out and notice something beautiful. Art without a frame. It’ll be there. It’s just up to us to slow down to notice.
Read the excellent Washington Post piece about the original experiment: Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out.
Update, October 1, 2014: Joshua Bell was far less lonely performing in a DC train station this time around. Watch his incredible performance in Union Station, filmed by PBS NewsHour: