In January 2007, the Washington Post set up an experiment to see if people take the time to pause and appreciate the beauty that they stumble upon unexpectedly during the course of their everyday lives. The Post enlisted world-famous violinist Joshua Bell, who parked himself in a metro station in Washington, DC during rush hour and played six Bach pieces. They were some of the most complex musical pieces ever written. His free metro performance lasted 40 minutes. Just two days prior to his subway performance, Bell played to a sold-out theater in Boston (cost of a seat averaged $100). The violin on which he played in the subway was worth $3.5 million. Passers-by tipped him a total of $59 during the course of the 40 minutes of music.
The Post filmed Bell’s subway performance and you can find it online if you are curious. Those who set up the experiment wanted to see if anyone would stop to listen to this exquisite musical performance, if anyone would recognize the superb beauty in the moment and take advantage of it. No one paused to listen for the entire performance. Quite a few children who wanted to stop were hurried away by their parents. Over 1,000 people passed Bell as he played. Only six of them stopped for more than a minute to listen. One woman recognized him and she left $20 of the $59.
After the event, when the Post ran an article about it, those who set up the performance described it as “a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people.” They claimed they sought to answer the questions: “In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?” After running the experiment, those who set it up concluded that if we don’t take a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing some of the best music ever written, then there are certainly many other things of beauty that we encounter but which pass us by. True dat.
I am absolutely certain that I would not have stopped for 40 minutes to hear him play if I had been one of the 1,000 people. If I needed to be somewhere, if I was in DC on business, I would probably not have paused at all. If I was in DC on vacation, I would like to think that I would have stopped to listen for a while. But 40 minutes? No way. The reality, for me and most other people, is that our lives are mapped out and scheduled. We schedule time to listen to music, we make it a special event. We schedule time to go to an art museum or the theater or to walk in the woods. We listen to music in the car or during a night out dancing or in bed at night. Just because we don’t stop in a subway to listen to a brilliant violinist doesn’t mean that we fail to appreciate the beauty that graces our lives.
Perhaps it’s spontaneity that we lack. Or a more flexible sense of time. We are harnessed to a rigid system of measuring time by the clock. I have often wondered how life flowed before watches were invented. But I live in the now. So be real, Washington Post experimenters: Bell played during the early morning rush hour. People were on their way to work. How many employers or bosses would be understanding if I was 40 minutes late to work because I had stopped to hear an impromptu violin performance by Joshua Bell? I must remember that excuse for a tardy arrival.
I get the point of the experiment, I really do, and it does remind me to remain open to life, to allow myself to pause for the magic that sometimes happens, to make time for unexpected beauty that may reveal itself, transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary. But I would like to see less judgment and more sympathy for the hurried harried workers who live in a world that does not give one permission to take time for unscheduled beautiful music.
In the metro.
In the concert hall.