Saturday, November 20, 2010

Stop and Smell the ... Violin?

This is not new, and I may be the last person to hear about it, but my mom just emailed me the story which I find verrry interesting. See here:


In Washington , DC , at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule.

About 4 minutes later:

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

At 6 minutes:

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

At 10 minutes:

A 3-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 the whole time. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent - without exception - forced their children to move on quickly.

At 45 minutes:

The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

After 1 hour:

He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.

No one knew this, but 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 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities.

This experiment raised several questions:

*In a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?

*If so, 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 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 as we rush through life?

Enjoy life NOW .. it has an expiration date

* * * * * *

I Snope's it and it's true (story here), and it makes me think a couple of things:

1) Classical musical literacy in this country is all but nil (myself included). We don't know great from good when we hear it. Heck, I scarcely know great from bad! This is sad. I wish I'd had an education in classical music. I know it's not too late, of course. It's all priorities. But ... our priorities, our educational system ... so much is lost. As a culture, we put our time into the most mediocre forms of entertainment, things that dull our minds instead of exalting them. Will this be a footnote in some alien textbook on the ruin of human civilization on Earth?

2) I want to be the person who stops and listens, even if I don't recognize it as great. When you think about what kind of person you would like to be ... what do you see? Suppose you were writing the *ideal you* as a character in a novel. In this scenario, my *ideal Laini* would not only stop, but would end up engaging the violinist in conversation and finding out -- what!? gasp!! -- that he was Joshua Bell, who even I have heard of. It would be meaningful. It would be cool. It would be a story I could tell forever, how I was the *only* person who stopped to listen that day Joshua Bell played incognito in the subway station. If I were *ideal Laini* I would have a ton of anecdotes like that, because I would be alert to life, I would be engaged.
Wouldn't you like to be that person? How to be that person? Think about it. Think about being *ideal you.*

3. I want to listen to more classical music. I want Clementine to listen to more classical music. Tonight Jim's beginning guitar class had a concert, and she was so engaged. It's awesome. She just drinks up live music. Her face is like light. More. More more more. Lucky to live in a city with music everywhere, free or cheap, and for all ages. Portland, I [heart] you.


Commander Kip said...

I find this fascinating because both of my parents are proffessional violinists, and my brother and I both play the piano at the competitive level. I'm growing up completely saturated by classical music, so much so that I can barely listen to pop or rock or rap without wincing. It's so sad to think that most people don't appreciate classical music anymore. Why doesn't everyone stop to hear the musicians in the subway stations, even if it's not Joshua Bell? How different would the world be if every person just walked a little slower and recognized the beauty of everyday life? Thank you, Miss Laini, for posting this!

Colene Murphy said...

This is beautiful. And makes me sad for myself and us all. We need more beauty in the world but when it is there, how many actually notice? Too shameful.
Loved this, even if it is tragic.

Lisa Schroeder said...

Wow, amazing story.

Does Jim take group guitar lessons? I want to do that! I'd love to know where he's taking lessons!

Jay Asher said...

Fascinating experiment! I definitely plan on taking my son to classical concerts, and hopefully I'll learn to appreciate the music right along with him. My wife was raised on classical, so she can point us toward the "good" stuff.

During my very first time in a NYC subway station, an elderly man was singing a Beatles song all by himself. I actually skipped two trains because he sounded absolutely beautiful! But I stood a little ways away to listen because no one else appeared to be taking the time to appreciate his voice and I felt embarrassed. So maybe people were listening to Joshua Bell, but the people conducting the experiment didn't notice because the listeners were too shy to stand right in front of him.

At least, that's what I'd love to believe.

lizardek said...

Great post, Laini, and great message, for all of us.

tone almhjell said...

I would love to be *ideal-Tone*. Before, in my previous life of acres of time, I used to soak up a lot of details in my neighbourhood. I used to stop and watch or listen. But now, I just woosh by, on my way to daycare or the shop or a coffee shop to grab ten minutes to myself. Not to mention how I hurry on home to write. Must write in the precious few hours I've got. But who wants to read the writings of someone with teflon eyes and ears?

I'm putting Brahms' Ein Deutsches Requiem on my Christmas wish list. I used to have a recording of this, but I seem to have lost it, and anyway it wasn't high quality. I don't know much about classical music, but for what it's worth, it's my favourite. I can play it for Magnus, who is also smitten by all kinds of music, especially when it's live music. Uncle Eiv plus guitar equals heaven on earth.

Dangerous With a Pen said...

I agree that it's sad that people didn't stop but it's all perspective... the article wants you to be sad. If you give the people the benefit of the doubt, though... they *were* in a Metro station in DC. Chances are they were on a timetable, since you can't drive and park anywhere in DC. :)

I also disagree that our educational system is lost, although that's what loud people in government would lead you to believe. Not too long ago, a superintendent from Singapore visited my school district in New Jersey and two others because, although his students grow up to be amazing memorizers and have the world's best test scores, he said they are not producing thinkers. At several of my parent conferences this past week, a parent from India said to me, "I wish they taught like this in India. There are so many people there that they mass-produce test-takers. Everything is rote and learned to be spit out. This is why India has never produced a Bill Gates or someone who has created something totally new." Don't believe the political hype. :)

I do think that social experiments like this are worthwhile and they do point out to us things that we might otherwise ignore. But remember that they are skewed to make you feel bad. ;)

jama said...

Great post, Laini. Quite interesting that the kids wanted to stop and listen, but the parents hurried them away.

You're right: we are too rushed as a society, what else are we missing?

Megsie said...

I hadn't heard about this, but wow. It really makes you think doesn't it? Thanks for the education :) And, as always for your wonderful words!

Laini Taylor said...

Hi Dangerous With a Pen! I'm curious what kind of school you teach at. Is it a regular public school? Is it representative of US schools? It would be nice if it were true! I'm certainly not saying we have no good schools, or that the average school in India is better than ours. But I do not think it is the case that the problem with our schools is a political fabrication. It's not just the US either.

The way I imagine an *ideal me* it's nice to imagine *ideal world* in which every human being had access to a great education (not to mention: loving parents, enough food, peace, and much more) and inspiration to creativity. It's a daydream. And I'm not idealizing some golden past either when everything was swell.

And I don't think there is an upside to the Joshua Bell story. Yeah, people are busy. I'd probably have hurried by too. But that's the point. Personally, I'm trying to take this as a reminder to be more alert and more alive in the time I have.

It would be interesting, wouldn't it, to set aside some ten minutes at the beginning of every day to go over life priorities in your mind, think about the kind of person you want to be, and keep that thought central in your mind? If you were to do that, really be mindful on an ongoing basis, would you be more likely to stop to hear the music? I think so.

andalucy said...

I did see this story a while ago but it's great to read it again, and especially great to read your reaction to it, Laini. I also find that I need constant reminders to be mindful and enjoy every moment, carpe diem, etc. Your thoughts inspire me.

My daughters play violin and cello in a youth orchestra and I like to think we would have stopped and listened. My daughter swears she would have recognized Joshua Bell, but who knows.

Living here is Spain has, weirdly enough, made me realize what an amazingly rich and varied musical heritage we have in the US. Everyone here asks us if we listen to gospel, jazz, folk, etc. This morning on a Spanish radio station I heard some kind of American rockabilly stuff. It was great! It almost seems like Spaniards appreciate it more than we do. I do wish they would teach classical music appreciation at school, but just as much I wish they would teach the wonderful history of American music.

I totally agree that we are missing a great opportunity to impart higher culture in our public schools.

H Niyazi said...

I too love Mr Bell's work but this 'experiment' is flawed - the context of the setting lends itself to people being on the move and sometimes not being able to stop, even if they wanted to.

Result of experiment:

People at train stations are in a transient state and not ready to engage.. not really a surprise is it?

They should try it in a mall or park next time perhaps, but then the results may not have been as newsworthy.


Laini Taylor said...

H Niyazi, point taken. But I think this was part of the point: our perception being tempered by location/circumstances. How many of those same people would have shelled out $100 to hear Joshua Bell, but couldn't recognize art when they heard it? And how many, if they were told it was him, would make a point to stop? Probably a lot, no matter that they were in a hurry. What does this say? I don't know. But I think it's interesting!

Alysa said...

Laini, the version you've posted is somewhat simplified. My husband and I read the Washington Post article (which was quite long, and we watched a good portion of the video as well) some time ago. The way I remember it, one woman who had actually been at his Boston concert recognized him, and stopped and listened for some time. :) She got to be *ideal listener*. It seems like they decided not to add her monetary contribution to the total. So, even though it is ideal, it's not impossible.

"It would be interesting, wouldn't it, to set aside some ten minutes at the beginning of every day to go over life priorities in your mind, think about the kind of person you want to be, and keep that thought central in your mind?" I find it well worth my time. I usually spend a few moments at the beginning of the day doing this, about 10 somewhere in the middle, and then a half hour or so at the end of my day. I find this meditation, reading, pondering, journaling, prayer, etc. a real help in my life. Let us know if you try it.

Faith Pray said...

I saw the picture, recognized Joshua Bell (One of The Greats!), and tried to imagine how, if in that setting, I could NOT stop to hear him. I think, barring an urgent appointment with the President, I would have made my gang hang out and soak it in. Most kids naturally respond to music and art; it's adults who forget to stop, to breathe in and out, relish the beauty that is calling to us.

Dangerous With a Pen said...

Hi Laini :) Yes, I teach in a regular public school. It's probably not representative of the majority of US schools in that about 85% of my school does not speak English at home. And yet we are still a high-performing school and district. So, yes, it's working.

What I find sad is that the people who are complaining about public schools are people who have not spent any great amount of time in them, actually visited normal classes in action, talked to parents, etc. The video "Waiting for Superman" is getting national attention as a rallying cry for charter schools, but even IT admits that they are not successful. Actual research shows that 85% of kids who are pulled from lotteries to attend charter schools do not to any better (or actually perform worse) than kids in the same lotteries whose names did not get chosen so they went to public schools.

My point is that articles can spin information in any way they want to. (Did you also know that most of the countries whose test scores ours are compared to only have the very top percentage of academic students even TAKE their tests??? In the US, EVERY KID takes standardized tests, including kdis that my sister in law teaches who are wheelchair-bound, cannot speak, and are fed through feeding tubes. Talk about spin... comparing our test scores to some countries isn't even apples and oranges, it's apples and hammers!)

It's true that it is never a bad idea to stop and smell the roses. I completely agree with you there. However, I've also been in the DC Metro and as another reader said, it's a flawed study... anytime I'm in the Metro station, it's because I have somewhere to go, and I can't stop and smell the violin.

If you did the same experiment on a NYC street corner, I bet you'd find a completely different result. Probably one that Joshua Bell would find much more pleasing.

Dangerous With a Pen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dangerous With a Pen said...

(Sorry for the deleted post, my comment above posted twice.)

Kate said...

I knew about this, it was a while ago and there is a YouTube video showing the whole thing. Joshua Bell is an amazing artist and did the music for the movie Ladies in Lavender.

Myrna Foster said...

But the children wanted to stop. This is why I write for children.

Anonymous said...

One of ny favorite writers, Mary Pipher, wrote about this last year in Psychology Networker and it really struck me too., Sure, people were on their way places and could have consequences to their work if they'd stopped but I doubt that's true for everyone. We are too busy to literally be in the moment. How many people didn't notice because they were on their cell phones having some dumb conversation about celebrity news or texting instead of looking around with all their senses fiery and alive and alert? Sometimes when I'm out in public and forced to listen to people's long drawn out cell chats, ill wish I had an invisible wand with which to( harmlessly) blow up their little phone.
But back to this story, few have the time to stop on the surface. We have to make time and bend moments like little crow bars and willfully make time bend to our wills instead of the other way around. Great post Fatty! (and this is a wonderful comment I have inserted into the conversation).

Anonymous said...

Oh , and a lot of our schools do suck- not because of the teachers but because of inadequate funding to those who might need more than a school in a rich district who has the luxury of parental investment financially especially. Anyone who thinks all Americans are getting an equal education needs to read Jonathon Kozol.

Anonymous said...

And I wonder if that experiment would be different in Portland. I'm going to go down to the corner of NW 23rd and Burnside and sing Harry Chapin songs while I play my mini banjo and see if people are more likely to pause and enjoy it. Of course I'll sound a lot better than the J Bell but still. I'm going to get dressed and head to the corner now. (Will report back later...)

amy said...

Hi Laini - I don't know if you've checked out Portland Baroque Orchestra - but they are always awesome, and inspiring to me - and it's very nice to be in a more intimate setting to hear them than in a big hall.

Katie said...

Wow. This was totally amazing - and sorta sad.

Jeff Hirsch said...

This is a great story. Reading it again on your blog though it made me think not about how hurried we are but how much we rely on others (critics, professional arts organizations, etc) to tell us what's worth listening too,worth seeing, worth reading, what's important. Maybe people didn't stop, not because they didn't care for the music, or they were too rushed, but because without the imprimatur of a major arts organization they didn't trust their own instincts enough to stop and listen. It's like we outsource our own artistic taste. We wait for people to tell us what's beautiful instead of deciding on our own. Not a good thing


I despair when I read this. Classical music should be made compulsory along with a second language from the age of 4 in every Western Society. This would result in a more intelligent and enriched society.

Anonymous said...

On the article: I enjoyed reading this, thanks. Also, I found your title ironic, because violinists que other musicians to start playing by "sniffing them in".

On our schools:
I personally advocate homeschooling, obviously it can go wrong, like anything, but there are tons of happy, smart, educated homeschoolers out there who get to spend more time with their families and receive 1 on 1 attention all the time.
I am a homeschooler, and have LOVED it. I am now attending community college.

Another great thing to check out is Village Home, they are a great resource for homeschoolers in particular, but for others too.

Kjersten said...

Street musicians make me so so so happy. The regular old Kjersten (not ideal) stops for street musicians maybe 1/3 of the time that I like what I hear -- I've always had the thought, "hey, free concert!" And street musicians kind of make my day. But this story makes me want to ratchet up that self statistic -- I honestly don't think I'll hear another street musician the same.

It also makes me smile inside to think of all the times I've stopped to hear a musician because my little boy was tugging on my arm. Such sweet memories. This is a nice reminder never to ignore that little tug.

Beautiful post. Thanks, Laini.

Wyman Stewart said...

An accidental memory of my own, shows how life's daily interactions may prove more important and memorable to us than they first seem.

Although humble compared to the story related in Laini's post, my post points to how such events should be viewed.

Thank you for this post. Sorry computer problems continue to keep me away from blogs I enjoy, including having to put my own blogs on hiatus.

Kate said...

Laini, I have to tell you that I often think of you as that person who appreciates life and its beauty. I absolutely love LIPS TOUCH (I'm a 32-year-old mother of two). I love how you're out there writing beautiful stuff and I living life so ferociously.

I'll be interested in seeing what you do with Clementine when she gets older. Right now, I'm planning to homeschool my kids (my older one turns 5 in April). I want them to keep their own zeal for life and for reading. Keep your loyal readers posted about Clementine's education!

Jen Marie said...

I found this very interesting. I'd like to think I'd be one of the people that stopped because I already do that. However, I'm often urged to move on by the people around me and try to stay longer.

I also test people's perception. I play flute in town and even sing in the mall. Just stand and sing or play for no reason and loud enough for anyone to notice. However, quite often, people will continue on as if you are not there. It's...interesting really.

I definately encourage people to listen to all kinds of music. Classical especially. Expand your creative horizons; you'd be surprised what you find and the joy you get from stopping and taking it in.

Anonymous said...

But you can't measure, can you, what joy people derived as they passed by? Maybe for every dollar in the hat at the end of the session there was someone who stood on the escalator listening as she drew closer and closer, who shuffled a bill out of her pocket to drop in the hat and then listened as she walked slowly on to the next escalator to the platform soaking up every minute. How many people sat on trains that day with Joshua Bell's music in their heads? Why do you think people had to stop in order to have taken something from the experience?

How many people were there who listened, but didn't have any money to spare, or only had $20's from the cash machine? I have to agree with Dangerous with a Pen, the story is written to make you feel bad. I'd rather focus on the fact that hundreds of people's day was a little more beautiful because Joshua Bell played for them.

Of course, I love listening to street musicians, and because I have a tin ear, I enjoy most of them as if I were listening to Joshua Bell.

Iliadfan said...

This was really fascinating for me because I love strings. My first reaction was sadness, and my second was "What did he play?" I looked up the composers named in the article, and based on the dates when they wrote their music, I realized I would probably have slowed because Bell is a) a musician b) playing for free and c) incredibly good, but I might not have stopped, either (unless I recognized him). Because I don't love classical music. I love early baroque, the stuff from the renaissance period, medieval music. But not mid/late baroque, classical or romantic (though I've paid to hear it in concert halls). So perhaps there's another reason. Perhaps, as with every other art form, not everyone is drawn to it, even when it’s the best played by the best.

Abigail said...

Hmm, it's curious that so many of the kids wanted to stop and listen to Mr. Bell and his violin--our young ones are living in the moment, seeing the beauty, while we older folk are preoccupied with all the buzzing nonsense filling up our brains. Kids and animals are natural Buddhists, I think. Clear of mind and living in the present.

Laini, I have three pieces for you:
Jerome Rose playing Liszt's Un Sospiro
Jacqueline du Pre playing Sea Pictures by Elgar
Leontyne Price singing the Habanera from Carmen



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