Saturday, March 28, 2009


"A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but 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. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 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. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. 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 his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and 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 an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: 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?"
The above text is from an email I received from my Mom. The writer of this summary is anonymous. I have excluded the final words posing a possible interpretation of the experiment. 

Personally, I am musing over the word "intermission" in relation to the story.

To read the full, original Washington Post article, click here.

(You will eventually scroll past the cosmetic surgery ad, hang in there, it's worth it).

See and hear the performance here.


  1. Julia, this is a great (real) story. I was a child in Boston where there were a lot of street musicians and I guess I would always stop and listen because it free music seemed like such a gift. It's hard to imagine people not stopping to listen to Joshua Bell's music, even if they didn't know it was him. I wonder what he thought of the experience? $32/hr for his playing, no clapping? It seems as much a study on him, as well. I hope you are doing well! Cheers! Tamar

  2. Thank you! What a great story. Made me stop and ponder...would I have recognized the virtuosity? I would like to think I would have stopped for a few minutes to enjoy it anyway. I think when we (my husband and I) are out and about, we usually notice and enjoy public performances whenever possible.

  3. Tamar, so good to see you here. It is an amazing story and experiment, isnt' it? Your comment makes me homesick for Boston! It's interesting, I do understand peoples' rushing because they have a train to catch or somewhere they have to be - but even so, you would think there would be at least more heads turning. I wonder if sometimes city dwellers have trained themselves to be blase on purpose, to deliberately NOT be impressed or distracted by anything that will slow them down? Sort of a "yeah, yeah, yeah, seen it all, don't bother me" kind of attitude. Because, as Joshua Bell himself points out in the article, they can't possibly have not noticed, he was making so much noise (with the exception perhaps of the guy in the story with his iPod cranked up). I'm doing great!! I'll send you an email, really good to hear from you. Julia

  4. Terry, I know - we'd like to think we would at least stop and listen for a moment, if not recognize the excellence. I think it's great if you are open to noticing, I think we can choose to have that openness or not. There's an old Chinese man who sits in front of Nordstrom sometimes, playing that one-stringed traditional Chinese instrument. He was there one Sunday recently when I came out of the store. His music is skilled and soulful and changes the air of downtown Seattle into somewhere sensuous and exotic. Down the way from him, I heard another man, the same age, playing the same instrument, but in a very basic way. It was not transporting, but you could hear his love of what he was doing and how difficult it was. It was affecting, somehow, and made me appreciate the first guy's virtuosity even more. I could have spent more time with each of them. Next time, I will.

  5. Wow! I can't imagine not stopping to listen to Joshua Bell! What an interesting experiment. Thanks for sharing this, Julia.