What Do We Miss, When We Walk On By?

It was rush hour on a cold January morning in a subway station in Washington, DC.

An unassuming almost-middle-aged man arrived unnoticed, and unpacked his violin. As buskers do, he started to play.

An article in the Washington Post describes what happened next:

The sound was nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the pedestrian traffic filed past.

Three minutes went by before something happened. Sixty-three people had already passed when, finally, there was a breakthrough of sorts. A middle-age man altered his gait for a split second, turning his head to notice that there seemed to be some guy playing music. Yes, the man kept walking, but it was something.

A half-minute later, the busker got his first donation. A woman threw in a buck and scooted off. It was not until six minutes into the performance that someone actually stood against a wall, and listened.

The violinist continued to play beautifully for about 45 minutes: six complex classical pieces delivered with flawless technique. Hundreds of people (actually 1,097 people to be exact), walked through the station, most seemingly totally oblivious to the sublime music.

During the solo, only six people stopped to listen. About twice that number tossed money into the musician’s case without pausing to enjoy his music; he collected a grand total of $32.17 for his effort (yes, some people threw in pennies).

When he finished playing, and the noisy silence of the subway station took over, one lone woman, Stacy Furukawa, stood listening in rapt attention, smiling.

“I saw you (play) at the Library of Congress,” she said. “It was fantastic.”

Of the hundreds of people who had passed him by, Furukawa was the only one to have recognised the fiddler as Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world.

During the previous 40 or so minutes in the subway station, he had played some of the most intricate music ever written, on a Stradivari violin for which he reportedly paid about USD 3.5 million.

Two days before busking in the subway, he had enchanted a sell-out audience at a concert in Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where the “cheap seats” were USD 100 each.

When Joshua Bell walked over to talk to Furukawa, his one-woman audience in the subway, she said: “This is one of those things that could only happen in D.C. Thanks.”

Notes: This is a true story. World-renowned violinist Joshua Bell playing incognito in a Washington D.C. metro station on January 12, 2007.  The event was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities.

The experiment was designed to explore questions such as: 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?

One of the possible conclusions could be:

If we don’t have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing some of the most moving music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

Here’s Bell in the subway: