Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Bigger Picture:
For the Common People

Ah, to be plebeian. My friend Scott McPherson sent me an e-mail today, and I thought I'd share some of it with you.

I'm interning with Scott in Principle Awareness, teaching people how to grow happiness in their lives, and one story we've talked about in class is a social experiment conducted by the Washington Post involving Joshua Bell busking in L'Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. the morning of Friday, January 12, 2007.

Joshua Bell is widely considered to be among the world's greatest violinists, if not the best; his playing has been described as doing "nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live", and two days before his performance in the plaza, he played to a sold out audience in Boston, where even mediocre seats averaged $100. The Stradivarius violin he played that morning in Washington is the Gibson ex-Huberman, which he purchased in 2002 for just under $4 million (click here and scroll down to 'History of Joshua's violin - The Gibson Stradivarius: from Huberman to Bell' for the interesting, and lengthy, story of this violin). Of L'Enfant Plaza, there is little of note to say, other than that its acoustics proved surprisingly good and its position near a Metro station at the heart of Washington, D.C. means most passers-by were mid-level government employees. (Yes, they are the people running America, and no, this experiment was not meant as a critical analysis of the American government.) The morning's repertoire began with Bach's Chaconne, physically demanding at 14 minutes long, and technically one of the most difficult pieces ever written for violin. On it, Johannes Brahms wrote,
"On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind."
I'll share with you directly from Scott's summary of the article, first, because I like his writing, and second, because it's late and I'm tired. (Any emphasis is Scott's.)

. . . Something To Think About. . .

Washington, DC Metro Station on a cold January morning in

The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes.

During that time approximately 2 thousand people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

After 3 minutes :

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

4 minutes later :

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

6 minutes :

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

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 all the time.
This action was repeated by several other children.
Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

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. (author's note: not including $20 given to him by a confused and delighted fan who'd seen him play a free concert at the Library of Congress three weeks earlier)

1 hour :

He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed.
No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

This is a true story.

Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post, as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities.

The questions raised :
  • In a common place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?
  • 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 ?

I write this blog, not to goad you into wondering despondently how much beauty you've passed by absentmindedly over your day, week, year, or lifetime, but to urge you to open your senses fully to whatever beauty waits directly in front of you. Right now, and for as many moments as you can afterward.

Read the original Washington Post article 'Pearls Before Breakfast'
(where you can also view video of Joshua Bell's performance),
and the follow-up live discussion 'Too Busy to Stop and Hear the Music'.

And now, because I like connection:

...and because I like digressions:

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