Post Magazine: Too Busy to Stop and Hear the Music
Monday, April 9, 2007; 1:00 PM
Can one of the nation's greatest musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? In this week's issue of the
Gene Weingarten is a staff writer and columnist for The Magazine.
Gene Weingarten: Good afternoon.
This story got the largest and most global response of anything I have ever written, for any publication. I think the enthusiastic classical-music blogosphere helped give it a viral life, as did the availability of quality video. It's kind of humbling, and I thank you all.
I am still wading through more than a thousand emails. Please be patient; I am trying to answer each one, at least briefly.
My favorite global letter so farm came from Marnie Smith of Des Moines, Iowa, who was alerted to this story in the Washington Post through an email from her daughter, who lives in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
I'm going to be answering many dozens of questions in the next hour, but there's one I'd like to pose to you all: With little or no elaboration, more than 100 readers so far have told me that this story made them cry. It was not a reaction I anticipated, at least not so universally, and it has somewhat taken me aback. Can those of you who had this reaction try to explain it? I have a hunch, and if I am right, it is extremely interesting. Rather than say what I think, I'd like to hear your thoughts. Weepers, please write in.
In slightly different ways, several people are asking the same question: Was this story intended to be an indictment of the soul of the federal bureaucrat? Was I suggesting that these people, by their nature, are less sophisticated, less open to beauty, less culturally mature, less aware of their surroundings, than the average person?
The simple answer is, no. It was not my intent, nor could anyone reasonably draw that inference from the story. We didn't have a control group; we had only one shot at the experiment, and you just can't fairly generalize one way or another. I really believe this.
There is an interesting backstory to this event, and it reveals something enlightening about the nature of government bureaucracy, versus private industry.
I first got the idea for this story about two years ago, when I emerged from the McPherson Square Metro station on the way to work and saw a ragged-looking man playing keyboard. He was quite remarkably good, and no one seemed to be noticing him. He had maybe a buck or two in change in his open case.
I walked away kind of angry. I thought, "I bet Yo Yo Ma himself, if he were in disguise, couldn't get through to these deadheads." When I got to the office, I actually tried to reach Mr. Ma's agent.
Life intervened. Time went by, but this story idea always stayed with me. It was my friend Tim Page, The Post's brilliant classical music critic, who eventually suggested Joshua Bell. (Later in the game, Tim would also tutor me in classical music; he was actually at L'Enfant that day, whispering in my ear, explaining what the heck was coming out of that fiddle. Josh had given me no playlist in advance.)
I had thought that the most difficult part of this story was going to be securing Bell's cooperation, but that proved relatively easy, as explained in the story. The hard part was yet to come.
We had very little choice in when to do this stunt: Bell's schedule was extremely tight. So we took what we could get, which was a Friday in January. Unfortunately, that created a problem; the cold eliminated any outdoor venue, Stradivariuses being what they are. We needed to find someplace indoors and heated and that would have steady commuter traffic. The only logical choice was inside a Metro station.
That would require a special, secret dispensation by directors of the transit system. Metro regulations ordinarily forbid busking within the stations.
So, with great confidence, I set up an interview with Jack Requa, who was at the time Metro's acting director.
Requa listened to the proposal, agreed it was an appealing use of public space for a potentially revealing urban behavioral experiment, and that it would be a nice thing to do for the citizenry of Washington. Then he said:
"I don't think we can do it, because it violates our rules."
I said: "I know. That's why we're coming to you. We'd like you to loosen the rules, just this once, for 45 minutes, for a worthwhile reason."
Requa said: "Well, also, it might look as though we are giving preference to one news organization over all others."
I said: "Uh, well, The Washington Post would have no objection if you made the same concession to any other news organization that happens to be proposing placing a world-class violinist in one of your stations as a sociological experiment!"
Requa said he would investigate the possibilities. A day later he called to report it was looking problematic, and urged The Post to pursue other possibilities. But he said he wanted to discuss it with his security personnel. Days passed.
Finally, a verdict: No. The regulations were complicated, Requa said, but under one interpretation, busking in the Metro was not only against the rules but against the law, and he did not feel jurisdictionally empowered to authorize a breach of law. If Bell performed, Requa said, he would be arrested. Metro would do nothing to stop it.
Total time elapsed to get a "no" answer: Eight days, four hours.
Things were looking bad. Time was running out. I started traveling the Metro and getting off at every downtown stop, seeking adjoining indoor areas. Eventually, I hit L'Enfant Plaza, which was ideal. The indoor arcade was at the very top of the Metro escalator, and had three exit doors: Two to the outside, and one to a retail mall operated not by government, but by a private management firm called The JBG Companies. JBG managed the arcade area, too.
I laid out the proposal to Amanda B. Kearney, JBG's senior property manager.
"Sure," she said.
"No one can know anything about this in advance," I cautioned. "No one other than you. A single breach in security and the whole experiment is compromised. "
Amanda said: "I won't even tell my husband."
Total elapsed time to get a "yes" answer: Six seconds.
So, I report that for what it is worth.
To me, there were two heroes of this story: Josh Bell, who was an enormously good sport about it all, and Amanda Kearney, who had the guts to make it happen.
Before we start with questions, I want to give you this link sent by Helene Jorgensen. Nearly 20 years ago, Bruce Springsteen did a similar thing in Copenhagen, where he joined a street musician to perform "The River." Not many people noticed him, either.
Okay.... Let's go!
washingtonpost.com: Video of Bruce Springsteen performing on street in Copenhagen
Washington: Mr. Bell's "concert" happened on Jan. 12. The story didn't appear until April 8. Why did it take so long to write it, you primma donna, you?
Gene Weingarten: Actually, there was a very good reason, and it wasn't because I needed the time.
When I decided to do this, the first person I called (this was before Thanksgiving) was Jane Covner, Joshua Bell's highly capable publicist. Jane listened to the pitch, and then was silent for a moment or two. I expected a genteel rejection, but then, she said:
"Can you keep a secret?"
It turns out Josh had just been informed that he was going to win the Avery Fisher Prize -- American classical music's biggest honor -- on April 10. Jane wasn't at all sure that Josh would agree to do this, but she was thinking like a publicist, and said that if we'd be willing to schedule the publication of the piece for April 8, the odds of his agreeing would increase. A double-whammy of publicity always works to a performer's benefit.
So, we deliberately held the piece until now. Heh heh. A small price to pay.
University of, Virginia: I have to admit, when I saw this weekend's cover, I was a little bit disappointed -- thrilled to see your name, of course, but wondering how this gimmick could afford more than a page or two. After Tuesday upon Tuesday spent with you, I should have learned better than to doubt. Your story was wonderful; beautifully worded, and by the end I had chills.
My question: Did editors have similar doubts when you introduced the topic, or were they supportive from the beginning?
Gene Weingarten: I hate to say anything good about Tom the Butcher, who is an odious individual, but he got it from the start. Nothing but support from The Post on this one. Phil Bennett, the Post's managing editor, came up with the idea of videotaping the event. After watching the video, it was Bennett who made the observation about the people appearing to be ghosts. I appropriated that line from him. Some might call this intellectual larceny; I prefer to think of it as genteel homage.
Rockville, Md: Gene,
Did the Washington Post compensate Josh Bell for his time and expenses and if so, what was the total compensation he received?
Did the Washington Post take out an insurance policy covering his Strad during the "experiment" in case it was damaged by a passerby?
Gene Weingarten: Josh got what we Jews like to call "bupkis." He got basically nothing. There was no way we could have paid anything near what he usually commands, and what we could afford would have been an insult. Plus, there was always the question of ethics -- the Post doesn't pay the subjects of its stories. In this case, there was some wiggle room, since Josh was not the "subject" of the story so much as a collaborator in the story. However, it didn't matter. We couldn't, and didn't, pay a fee. He wasn't doing it for money, anyway.
We covered his expenses in getting here, basically. If there was an overage, he's giving it to charity.
Um, he also didn't keep the $32.17.
No insurance policy. Josh has his own, obviously. We did arrange to have a security guard at the scene. This was another favor by the amazing Amanda Kearney.
Arlington: As a writer, whadya do if a huge crowd had gathered? No story? Admit it, you were hoping "please nobody stop, please nobody stop."
Also....with this story and the crazed Johnny Hart both dropping Saturday, everything is coming up Weingarten. Please spread your luck to a group in need -- the Washington Nationals.
Gene Weingarten: Well, Tom the Butcher and I discussed this ad nauseam before the event. A crowd gathering would not have bothered me at all -- it would have created a completely different story; in a way, a more inspiring story.
We feared only one thing. It was the one thing that WOULD have killed the story. It wasn't that a crowd would gather, but that a crowd would gather not because they found the music beautiful, but because they recognized Bell. That word would go out almost from the beginning, and that what we'd be seeing would not be a test of beauty, but a test of celebrity.
That's what we feared.
Toronto, Canada: A brilliant experiment.
What if there are equivalently beautiful performances happening around us all at every moment?
When we are watching those people stroll past a magical opportunity, are we seeing ourselves?
What a shame it would be to miss life when it is so close and there to see if we'll only turn our heads and look.
We are the lucky ones. The commute is not yet over for us.
Gene Weingarten: I missed Elvis Costello in 1978, in a small coffeehouse in Chicago, because I didn't know who he was, and was unwilling to wait an hour and a half for the show to start. Haunts me, still.
Alexandria, VA: Something I've thought since I was in 6th grade and learned about the Colossus of Rhodes is that the very best art doesn't exist anymore. Paintings that have been lost or performances that will never be seen again make every individual try to recreate in their own minds the most awesome version possible of something. This isn't a reason to actively destroy art, but it can be inspiring to think that we can reach aesthetic heights miles beyond anything we have right now.
Gene Weingarten: John Lane, whom I quoted in the story, wrote a book on this very subject. One of his points is that if you look at a telephone manufactured in, say, 1935, it is a work of art. It could be a museum piece. Today, phones are dreadfully ugly utilitarian things. Same thing with brooms from the 19th century. Beauty used to matter, even in the banal.
Paoli, Pa.: On the classical-music blog "The Rest Is Noise," run by
New Yorker critic Alex Ross, guest blogger Justin
Davidson concluded an enthusiastic post about your
article thus: "after I got to the end of the article, the main
philosophical problem that continued to haunted me was,
Why didn't I think of doing this story?" I have a related
question: _Has_ anyone else thought of, and in fact done,
a similar story? You came up with a brilliant concept, and
your wonderfully crafted piece is obviously about a lot
more than Joshua Bell busking in the Metro. But the
central idea also seemed awfully familiar, in a "Candid
Camera" sort of way. Any sense that other journalists
have tried similar experiments?
Gene Weingarten: I don't know!
If anyone knows of any precedent, please write in. I could find none, but it's entirely possible someone has thought of it before.
Washington, DC: I always ignore street musicians, and when I first read the article thought that I would just walk right by Joshua Bell as part of my determined, active ignorance of people that I automatically perceive to be talentless noise polluters. But after watching the video clip (great addition, by the way!), I can't believe that ANYONE could just walk right by and not linger. His talent is just jaw-droppingly obvious. It would be like walking by Michael Jordan dunking at a playground (when he could dunk). I'm always in a hurry on the Metro because I'm a physician and I get to work only about fifteen minutes before my first scheduled patient. That patient would have sat waiting for a long time.
Gene Weingarten: Yep. I urge any of you who think you'd walk by to take a look at that video. Maybe you're right, but the video has persuaded many skeptics, including Ms. Elizabeth Kelly, my erstwhile and future chatwoman.
(Liz is not producing this chat -- we are honored to have Ms. Kim O'Donnel.)
Washington, DC: Why did this article make me cry? I'm 32, male, working on Capitol Hill, hell I'm even a Republican. Is it because that would have been me, rushing past in some self important rush to get to some dumb meeting. I even imagined myself being one of the guys stopping and listening, saying to myself screw it, this guy is good. Or is it because I wish I did something better than what I do now. Maybe I could make music, or write or what i really want to do is make wine. Tell me Gene, what is all this teary stuff doing in my eyes, or is it just dusty in here.
Gene Weingarten: This question came in before my intro was posted.
Yes, we want to know. Why did you cry?
Portsmouth, NH: To me, an interesting follow-up question would be how many readers purchased an album from Joshua Bell after his work was "framed" by this article. Admittedly, one of my first thoughts was to do just this. This is probably some kind of rationalization as I would have likely been an iPod-listening, oblivious passerby. I had never before heard of Bell, but now I have an urge to count myself as one that would appreciate his playing, or pass myself off as being in the know. This is not recognizing his brilliance on its own merit, however. This is how many of us consume culture, by being told what is important.
Gene Weingarten: Several people wrote to say that they ordered Voice of the Violin that night. It's a beautiful album.
Boston, MA: Gene, your writing normally doesn't make me cry, to say the least. This story did, and it was also sent to me by a friend who described it as "heartbreaking." I cried because I find it scary and depressing to think of how obliviously most people go through daily life, even smart and otherwise attentive people. Who knows what beautiful things I've missed by just hurrying along lost in my thoughts? It's almost a panicky feeling, that if a performance by Joshua Bell on his Strad gets lost in the shuffle, what about about all the smaller beautiful things that happen every day and could be making people happier, if only they paid attention?
Gene Weingarten: Yeah. Tom the Butcher explained it this way: People are spiritually starved, and feel, just below the surface, that their culture is strangling them.
I think that's it. I think that's what people are feeling.
one of the weepies: As one of the people that wrote to tell you it made me cry.....to me, some of the things that make life so rich and bring me joy are the small moments like stopping to watch the cardinal outside my window. But it made me realize that despite my rhetoric, I rarely let myself indulge in these things when it really counts.
Gene Weingarten: Right.
Washington, DC: Loved the Cure mention in the story. The whole thing reminded me of a Radiohead song, though--The Tourist. It was written while watching American tourists pass by in Florence. Anyways, the chorus is:
"Hey man slow down, slow down
Idiot slow down, slow down"
It's probably good advice for our society. As an American who grew up primarily in Europe, I can say that I had a certain bit of readjustment when I repatriated. Things are so much quicker and serious here.
Gene Weingarten: Wordsworth wrote: "The world is too much with us."
Washington, DC: I'm one of the criers. My first answer is I don't know why I did. After further thought, I realized that we Americans or really people in general rarely do whats really important, instead we waste our days doing things we don't like, just to meet ends meat. We give up our dreams just....well I don't know why. Maybe because we are scared. I work on the Hill and I think every day what it would be like to pack it all up and move to California and make wine. I want my life to have meaning and even though I get great meaning from my relationships, my work and my busy pace really sometimes makes me sick. I think the tears are from not knowing whats important and not using our important time on this earth wisely.
Gene Weingarten: Ooooh. Well put. Thank you, weepers. You are doing well.
Fairfax, VA: For four months you leave us, and now you think you can just walk in here like nothing happened? At least offer us a poop joke and some words about Johnny Hart.
Gene Weingarten: I tried to write an appreciation of Johnny for today's paper, but failed. It was coming out nasty, and that was bad.
Johnny Hart was one of the greatest cartoonists who ever lived. "B.C." during the first few years of the strip was breathtakingly brilliant; really, if you're too young to remember (everyone but me is) go on ebay and buy a few of his very early collections, from before about 1963.
One of my favorites:
Peter, the smart one, declares he is going to travel across the earth dragging a forked stick in the sand, to prove that two parallel lines never meet. He starts out toward the right of the page. In the next several panels, you see him dragging that forked stick through desert and tundra and jungle, with parallel lines following him the whole way. Finally, he returns to his friends from the left of the panel, obviously having completely circumnavigated the globe. They all look down. The two forks of the stick have been abraded down into a single nub. The parallel lines have met.
Another one: The cavement discover this lumpy creature and decide they have to name it. Peter says: "Well, let's name it for its most obvious characteristic. What is it?" And Thor answers: "It eats ants." So they decide to name it an "eatanter."
Another one: They decide to name that muscle in the chest that pumps blood. Peter decides to call it a "Hart." And B.C. yells at him: "Bootlicker!"
Hart was a genius. Then he got weird and scared, and it made him selfish and intolerant and preachy. I hope he's in heaven, because it was REALLY important to him to get there. It warped his priorities.
Silver Spring, Md.: your story is very flawed. many don't have classical music access, much less education. aside from being busy, these people might have different notions of beauty. appreciation of beauty is just as much a function of osmosis as anything else. notice all the people who stopped and appreciated had had access to classical music. the one who didn't, stacy -- she was just star struck. put someone with jennifer hudson's voice there, i'd bet there'd be a crowd. why? this country's been inundated with THAT kind of musical education.
also, ever think the kids just noticed loud sound, as all kids do? kids are just more aware, more present. and probably saw Bell flailing around, which is always fun to watch. i doubt that they were struck or inherently mesmerised by your imposed definition of beauty.
finally, the experiment and the story is awfully condescending. it's premise was at least. perhaps it's conclusion wasn't. but i think the experiment needed some common sense-squadding. i hope i haven't been rude. I just wanted you to know what at least one reader thought.
Gene Weingarten: Hm. Why was the premise condescending? I can tell you honestly that the premise was nothing more than a zero-based experiment -- we had no idea how it would turn out. My suspicion was that he'd be largely ignored (though not THIS largely ignored) but other editors felt just the opposite.
I'd like to know if anyone else found the tone of this story condescending. I really tried to avoid that. Frankly, I was glad that the Kantian scholar said the results implied nothing about the sophistication of the passersby. It would have been awkward if I'd been forced to conclude that these people were Philistines, because, deep down, I didn't feel as though that was the case.
As the story said, though I DO think the results implied something disturbing about our priorities.
Your point about the children may well be on target. I wasn't implying, nor do I believe, that the children somehow sensed the quality of the music -- what they did seem to sense is that something highly unusual was happening. Regrettably, the vast majority of the adults didn't seem to see even that.
Tel Aviv, Israel: I love Joshua Bell's playing. But speaking as aviolinist
who has played both in the street and in concert halls, I
would say that this experiment seems designed to
produce this result that you received- the time, place,
and I would say the repertoire all conspired to achieve
If he was playing the Bach Chaccone, its an amazing and
incredibly deep piece, but a bit heady for the street, and
especially the subway. Bad choice. Sort of like handing
out expensive wine from a cart in plastic cups. Worse,
If he would have played some of the flashy, gymnastic
(and usually 5 minutes and under) show pieces by
Paganini, Sarasate, Wieniawski, or Kreisler that he must
know and probably has played as encores at his concerts,
I think there would have been a different reaction.
People generally want a song and a dance and a shpritz
down the pants if they only have a few minutes, especially
if its 8AM, and they are late for their job working for the
uh, government. Playing in a public place like that
successfully requires a different approach than playing in
a concert hall, and Joshua Bell has never learned this skill.
May he never have to.
Gene Weingarten: Understood. But there are acrobatic parts of the Chaconne, as you know: Fast, complex, flight-of-the-bumblebee stuff. It's what hooked John David Mortensen.
Estrellita is charming and accessible, as is the gavotte. This wasn't all difficult music.
Washington D.C. : What do you think YOU would have done if you were heading to work that morning, and encountered this?
Gene Weingarten: Good question. I've thought about it, at some length.
I know nothing about classical music -- whatever expertise I seemed to have shown in the piece was essentially a fraud; I learned only what I needed from Tim Page and from Josh. (Here is one of the great joys of journalism -- you get outrageous opportunities, such as being able to sit next to Joshua Bell in his apartment, and have him explain classical music to you.)
The point being that I began with no intrinsic appreciation of the form.
When I watch the whole 43-minute video, I recognize that there are parts of some of these pieces that would probably not have grabbed me, even as brilliantly as they were played. These were mostly 30-second segments, slow stuff -- lamentations, meditations and such -- that are tough to comprehend for a dork like me. Yet that escalator ride is a minute and a quarter. Add 15 seconds to cross the arcade, and at some point in your journey, and you will have heard something accessibly good. You are -- or should be -- hooked. I think I would have been.
I have an advantage over many of the passersby that day -- I am seldom so rushed on the way to work that I don't have five minutes. I'm pretty sure I would have found those five minutes.
My favorite moment in the reporting, by the way, was watching the video with Josh. Two or three times he winced and said "Oops." He'd heard some minuscule error in his playing. Each time we rewound, and he tried to explain his mistake. It was like trying to explain Euclidian geometry to a dog. No way could I hear it.
Silver Spring, Md.: Wow - apparently I'm in the minority here, but I read this story and said, "eh." I walk by street musicians all the time. Whatevah. Some of them I really like, too - I enjoy the keyboard guy, and the guy who plays the one-stringed Chinese instrument I can never remember the name of, while I ride up the escalator at Farragut North, and then I rush on off to catch my bus. I get that 30 seconds of beauty, it's lovely, and I'm on my way. (I haven't watched the video yet, though, so maybe it's true what you say - that I should've stopped for this one.)
Gene Weingarten: You may be impenetrable, but watch the video. Esp. the first one!
Baltimore, Md.: I was one of the people who wrote to tell you I cried. It was watching the last video at the end. I figure it was two things: the beauty of the piece and the obliviousness of all the people to that beauty. I was sad for them and for Bell (not that he lacks for appreciation).
As for missing beautiful moments, I still kick myself too, and will forever. One day when I was in grad school, I was too lazy to get out of bed to see the Yankees game I'd planned to attend that day. I missed a one-handed man pitching a no-hitter.
Gene Weingarten: I know a woman who was at that game! She still talks about it.
Easton, MD: Kudos to you, Joshua Bell and Ms. Amanda Kearney (who happens to be my brilliant daughter -- yes, and gutsy, too) The article and experience remind me that one of life's first and basic lessons which we learn as toddlers is -- Stop, Look, and Listen. Thanks for a wonderful article!
Gene Weingarten: Thanks for giving birth to Amanda. Seriously, this might not have happened without her.
Holyoke, MA: This is an interesting story; Joshua Bell seems like a gentleman and a cool guy. I have to say, though, that I am very disturbed by the writers' assumption that there is something wrong with the fact that more people didn't stop, or pay attention, or otherwise recognize Bell's virtuosity. The writers' assumption implies that there is a normative "greatness" to the music that Bell was playing and that there was a normative "virtuosity" to his playing; and what is presented as normative in this article, as is usually done in musical discourse in this country, is a white European musical aesthetic. I love the Bach chaconne, as does Bell and as do the writers and some of the passers-by, but many people do not. Many people hold other culturally- and environmentally-learned aesthetic conceptions of musical beauty which, believe it or not, do not recognize Bach as beautiful. The assumption that is expressed throughout this article that something must be seriously wrong because people didn't recognize Bach's or Bell's genius - especially given the writers' obnoxious contention that Washingtonians are "sophisticated" (with the implication that residents of other communities are not) - is spurious and ethnocentric, to say the least. I like the quote from the Kant scholar who says that Kant would have made nothing of the entire experiment. Your alleged experiment is revealing only of the writers' chauvinistic preference for European art music, and of the larger, implied problem of the racialized canon of Western music. Please, please, get a grip on yourselves. The fact that most people who passed by Bell on their way to work did not register what you consider to be proper approval means absolutely nothing. There is nothing to explain given that you do not know what those people's musical preferences are; what their thoughts on musical performance in public spaces are; what their thoughts on giving money to street performers are; whether or not they grew up in cultures or sub-cultures that value other kinds of music or musical performance as being most beautiful, etc. I would have enjoyed the performance, but so what? I am not so impressed with myself as to believe that my musical tastes represent some objective and all-encompassing notion of musical taste.
Gene Weingarten: I expected more posts like this one. But this one will do: It expresses the point well.
I think this poster is arguing, really, that there was no way to have conducted this experiment in a way that was meaningful, since musical tastes are so individualized. I disagree, and I disagree not because the poster's logic is faulty, but because I was there.
Go back to the story online and click on that first video clip of Bell performing Bach's gavotte. You don't need to know or care anything about classical music to have been mesmerized by that.
There were amazing sounds coming out of that fiddle.
I don't know or appreciate jazz either, but I'm thinking I would have stopped for Charlie Parker.
And lastly, I don't buy that this was white-European cultural chauvinism. Look at the demographics of the people who stopped to listen. The Post couldn't have INVENTED a better mix: White, black, black, Latina, white, black, Asian.
cry baby: This is the second time you made me cry.
The first, I know why, was about the Great Zucc. You were kind enough to write me back after that.
This time, I have no idea. I wasn't sad, or digsuted, or feeling like we lead wasted lives, or any of that banal BS. I was wiping my eyes thinking "what the heck is wrong with me?" So, you tell me.
Gene Weingarten: I think you're hearing it, here.
Atlanta, GA: Did Mr. Bell try playing some "rock classics" (Beatles) or "American classics" (Gershwin or Bernstein) to see if people would be more receptive to his music? Perhaps familiarity with music would attract more casual listeners.
(Also, just wanted to mention how great it was for Mr. Bell to "hang-out" at a bar with Emory students after one of his concerts here in February)
Gene Weingarten: Bell played what he wanted to play, and it was music he considered among the most beautiful ever written. He asked me, before we began, whether I thought he should play popular tunes, and I urged him not to. I thought that would skew the results. We didn't want people to stop because they recognized the tune and thought it catchy. We wanted to see if they could recognize (sorry, Josh, deal's off now) genius.
We could have drawn a much bigger crowd with an Elvis impersonator, or a woman in a bikini doing Jazzercize. You know?
L'Enfant Plaza: I think I was there. Right time, right place, and it might even be me in the video clip. Might be someone else with similar coat and hair, though. I walked on by. I don't even remember hearing or seeing him. I know exactly why I did, too: This was the day before we left for our 10th anniversary vacation. I was going to work just long enough to clean up a few critical things before leaving to pack up. My mind was on the vacation, what to pack, what I needed to finish.... Plus I probably still had my iPod earbuds in. That little device has made my 90 minute commute so much more enjoyable, but it does have the effect of narrowing my world.
It doesn't bother me that I missed this little bit of beauty. There is beauty everywhere if you know where to look. The most beautiful thing I had seen all day, even if I had noticed Bell playing, was the smiling face of my husband when I came home earlier than expected.
Gene Weingarten: Awwwwwww. Okay, that's cute. You are forgiven.
NYC: I cried, and I am tearing up reading the chat. I am a 30 yr old female (attempted) musician. I am not sure exactly why I cried, but I suspect it is strongly linked to the child's reaction- and hence they are sort of tears of loss. The loss of innocence, of being so attuned to the world around you.. of the thrill of life. I think I also cried because I even though I fancy myself a musician, I work in a "job" something I commute to.. Something I hate. Something that numbs me to the core just so on the occaision I am home or with my band, I can return to my inner three year old who is just grasping for that beauty.
Gene Weingarten: I find this post poignant.
Rockville, MD: I am an avid chamber musician, and I see this article getting lots of comment in the online classical music community. It is sometimes painful to see the huge disconnect between this beautiful art that we love and try to keep alive, and the largely oblivious mass of Americans. But I am not so sure you can conclude much from this experiment. Sure, it would be nice to be able to stop and listen, but people filing into/out of Metro have one goal on their minds: Get To The Destination. If I'd been there I probably would have thought "Wow, a really good violinist instead of the usually poor players I hear on Metro, and great job on the Chaconne!" but I would have continued on my way. And even though I've seen Joshua Bell perform, that baseball cap makes him hard to recognize. So, let's not get too carried away about the end of civilization. The man still sells out a concert hall.
Gene Weingarten: Interesting! You really think you wound have passed?
Wow. This is a significant vote of support for the oblivious passersby.
Frederick, Md: Gene,
A lovely, masterful piece. Enlightening, human, sweet. Surpasses "The Great Zucchini".
One can assume that Tom the Butcher did a very professional job of editing. Can you fill us in as to what details or anecdotes were cut for space or "tightening"?
It's good to see you back on the Magazine cover and back in the chats - two places where you definitely belong.
Gene Weingarten: T the B behaved himself. There were very few cuts. The original story had a section about our difficulties dealing with Metro, compared to the comparative ease with which we negotiated with the mall management company -- the situation I explained in the intro to this chat. Other than that deletion, Tom was pretty light-handed. He cut a few explanatory lines that, as he diplomatically explained to me, were "ludicrously over-written." Ludicrous over-writing is a weakness of mine, so I suspect he was right.
violinist.com: A precedent: on the blog @ volinist.com, someone noted:
in Belgium they did a similar experiment. Our own Yossif Ivanov, who had just won 2nd prize in Queen Elisabeth Comp. was asked to play alongside the beach, in summer. People were NOT rushing to work, and were NO Americans. Result: He got just enough money to buy an icecream!
Gene Weingarten: Hahahaha. Excellent.
Federal Employee: So...what does this prove or disprove?
That if I don't stop and listen to him play classical music, then I am some ignorant rube?
If my day starts at 7am, then that means I can leave at 3:30pm. As much as I like classical music, I like getting home to my family as soon as possible even more.
In any case, I still don't understand the notion of having to give him (lots of ) money. When I give money to musicians on the street, more often than not it's for musicians who are obvious amateurs, or wholly awful. The fact that they do this at all (oftentimes day in and day out) take lots of 'cajones.'
Sorry, but this entire article was rather banal in its thesis and execution.
Gene Weingarten: What are you so defensive about? I wasn't criticizing you personally.
Wait, maybe I was.
Washington, D.C.: Although well written, this article left a really bad taste in my mouth. I really wanted to enjoy it (Weingarten is a good writer!) but it was ruined by how mean-spirited, pretentious and judgmental the whole thing sounded. I feel insulted that you would make a commentary on the sad state of affairs in Washington based on a contrived situation that you knew would fail from the start (why else would you have gone through with it?). I encounter people in Washington everyday who are beautiful and amazing and who will completely surprise you in the capacity they are willing to go out of their way for another human being. Let's find the good in Washington, instead of point out the bad.
Gene Weingarten: Boy, this wasn't my intent. If this is how it came across, then I failed.
Davenport, Iowa: Unitarian Universalist minister in Davenport, IA writing to you. When you wrote about Alaska, I mentioned that I thought your piece was like a sermon. This time, I used your story on Joshua Bell as part of my easter reflection. Thanks for a wonderful piece.
Gene Weingarten: You are the second clergyman to say that you used this piece as part of your Easter services. I am honored. Thank you.
Stradiva, RI US: Gene: Beginning with its premise, this article had your fingerprints all over it. But, occasionally, someone else's voice seemed to interrupt. For example,
"BELL ENDS "AVE MARIA" TO ANOTHER THUNDEROUS SILENCE, plays Manuel Ponce's sentimental "Estrellita," then a piece by Jules Massenet, and then begins a Bach gavotte, a joyful, frolicsome, lyrical dance. It's got an Old World delicacy to it; you can imagine it entertaining bewigged dancers at a Versailles ball, or -- in a lute, fiddle and fife version -- the boot-kicking peasants of a Pieter Bruegel painting."
First question: who wrote the above passage? "old world delicacy???" Do you even know what a "gavotte" is? Had you ever heard of Bruegel?
Second question: how many poop jokes did Tom the Butcher have to cut out?
Gene Weingarten: Hahahahaha. Well, you got me! "Old world delicacy" is in fact Tim Page's expression, to describe the gavotte. I lifted it verbatim from him. The rest of that passage is, indeed, me. I like Brugel. I have SOME sophistication.
Central Virginia: Hey, Gene! How nice to have you back with us again! (We've missed you.) And that was a wonderful article! So how come I never get to hear glorious music like that on MY commute? (sigh)
I noticed that the only two moving adults to really react to his playing were violinists themselves. Do you think that in order to really hear the glory of that sort of music in an unaccustomed venue, you have to be especially attuned to it in the first place? I would feel better if a non-violin player (say, an ex-oboe player like. . . oh, me, for instance) had come around the corner and screeched to a halt, mouth open, entranced by Bell's playing.
What do you think caused it? A matter of people channeling their energy and attention down their accustomed track? A question of unaccustomed ears and unfamiliar music? What?
I'm sadly reminded of Joni Mitchell's song: ". . . I heard his refrain as the signal changed/he was playin' real good, for free. . ."
P.S. Okay, it's April. Where's Chatalogical Humor??
Gene Weingarten: Chat Hum hmm!)resumes on April 24. A Tuesday. Noon.
And yes, several people have emailed me with the lovely Joni Mitchell song, which I either didn't know or had thoroughly forgotten. Here are the lyrics.
I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels.
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
and the children let out from the schools.
I was standing on a noisy corner
waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood, and he played real good
on his clarinet for free.
Now me, I play for fortunes
and the velvet curtain calls.
I got a black limosine and a few gentlemen
escorting me to these halls.
And I'll play if you have the money
or if you're a friend to me.
But the one-man-band by the quick lunch stand,
he was playing real good for free.
Nobody stopped to hear him,
though he played so sweet and high.
They knew he had never been on their TV
so they passed his good music by.
I meant to go over and ask for a song,
maybe put on a harmony.
I heard his refrain as that signal changed,
he was still playing real good for free.
That lady can write a song.
Paris, France: There is a wonderful artist who sits outside different Paris Metro stations and carves the most intricate birds and flowers out of vegetables: carrots, radishes and beets. They are spectacular, and his method is intriguing. People stop and watch him for upwards of 20 to 30 minutes, just to see him make a few sculptures. If you drop a few coins, you may take a sculpture home with you. It is really affirming to see how people respond to him there. Would they respond thus here? After reading your piece, I doubt it.
Gene Weingarten: Actually, they might, because there is something to buy. You know? Commerce! We're good at that!
Washinton, D.C.: Just entered the discussion. A couple of points/questions: Why do you think so many people were upset about the timing? I think it was a perfect display of how we rush from one event to another without regard to the world around us. Secondly, do you really think that if - as some have suggested - the experiment was conducted on a sunny Friday afternoon at the Cleveland Park metro stop, it would have been any different?
Gene Weingarten: It might have been a little different, sure. Heck, it might have been a lot different. Honestly, I dont think it is reasonable to draw any larger inferences than that this particular thing happened under these conditions. To me, that was significant enough.
Alexandria VA: You had specifically mentioned choosing the L'Enfant Metrop stop for its high proportion of federal workers that can become mired in daily habits of commute and thus possibly less influenced by the ethereal talents of a world class musician. Being a federal worker myself I am ashamed to think that I possibly could have passed by one of the greatest musicians of our age, even though the majority of my childhood and college years was spent in classical music training. Do you think that picking a more "toursity" metro station, perhaps the Smithsonian, Union Station, or even Chinatown would have had significantly different results?
Gene Weingarten: Yeah, this is a good question. So is another one that I've received: Would the results would have changed had we done it at evening rush, instead of morning rush?
The fact is, we had only one shot at Josh -- we couldn't ask the man to do it TWICE -- and we were severely limited by location. As I explained in the intro, L'Enfant, by default, became the best viable venue for this thing.
We could have made it the afternoon rush, but various factors militated for the morning.
You have to remember, the logistics of this were daunting: At the event, we had four reporters scrambling after people, begging them for phone numbers, without telling them why we were asking. I needed to call these people just a few hours after the event, while their memories were very fresh, so they could accurately answer questions such as "er, what specific piece of music were you listening to on your iPod when you got to L'Enfants Plaza?"
We figured -- correctly, as it turns out -- that people would be more likely to cough up a work number than a home number. Plus, I'd have more time for calls during the workday after the event than during the night, bothering people at home. It all pointed to a morning gig.
Did this skew the results? Possibly, though we were reliably informed by demographers that the evening rush is just as hectic and rushed.
Important point: Before we did this, we genuinely did not know what would happen. Let's say we had done it at evening rush, and large crowds gathered, and we did a story essentially saying that people found time for beauty in their lives. I bet we would have gotten letters saying, "Well, sure, but what if you had done it in the MORNING rush?"
Silver Spring, Md.:"It doesn't bother me that I missed this little bit of beauty. There is beauty everywhere if you know where to look." - I like this. And I think it's true. So most of these people didn't notice this particular dose of beauty. But I see so many beautiful things on the way to work every morning, I don't have to stop for every one, do I? This morning a young woman with the sweetest, tiniest newborn baby got on the metro at Fort Totten and off at Rhode Island Ave. And, even more beautiful, someone gave up a seat for her. No one was playing music at Farragut North this morning, but often someone is. The sun was shining. The fancy stationery store around the corner from my office has another awesome window display. Yknow. All sorts of beauty.
Gene Weingarten: Yesterday morning, around 9:30, there was a man standing outside a bar in my neighborhood. He wore a wrinkled suit. He had stubble on his face. He didn't look so great. I think he was waiting for the bar to open. The thing is, he had big pink bunny ears on.
I noticed this. It made me laugh my arse off.
See, you gotta notice stuff. Life is better this way. See next post.
College Park, MD: Hi Gene,
I feel compelled to write because I think your premises were wrong. I wouldn't have even attempted it.
There is a time and a place for everything. I wrote in protest to Metro when it decided to allow buskers in the station, and I was not alone. I carry an MP3 player. If I want to listen to music, I listen to music. If I want to be lost in my thoughts, I'm lost in my thoughts. If I want to doze -- it's typically 6:00 am when I leave the house in the morning -- I doze. The -VERY LAST THING I WANT- is to have to have someone else's choice of music blasted at me with no room for escape. If buskers weren't subsidized, they would soon discover -- as Bell did -- that so few people want to hear them that they are not going to make much money. The market would work it out. But in its infinite wisdom, Metro has decided to participate in a program in which the buskers are screened by Arts Councils and then subsidized. We can't make them go away no matter what we do.
You might as well have had Bell play on someone's porch at 3:00 am on a Sunday night. Occupants would have called the police, and rightfully so. You can conclude that this means that no one recognizes genius. Or -- and I think this is the right answer -- you can conclude that people upset about being woken up in the middle of the night by a trespasser do not care if the person doing it is a musical genius.
Gene Weingarten: Interesting!
So you would like your commute to be undburdened by any distraction, any sign of life or energy or color or grace or joy or fun or art or anything! You would like to be whisked from home to work and back again in dun-colored tubes, with white noise in the background and, ideally, no people, animals, plants to interrupt your incredible private solitude.
Not me. I'd like to walk to work through the streets of Paris. In the spring. Watching everything a city has to offer. That's heaven, to me.
Arlington, Va.: I'm assuming you were present for this experiment, and
given your status as a sort-of celebrity in the D.C. area, there
was more than a slight chance that someone would
recognize you, not Joshua Bell. Did anyone approach you to
discuss, say, VPL in the middle of the performance? Did you
take steps to disguise yourself?
Gene Weingarten: Yes, I wore Groucho glasses; unfortunately, this disguise did not change my appearance at all.
Nah. I am occasionally spotted on the street, based mostly on the unfortunate physical similarity between my actual self and Eric Shansby's stupid-looking caricature that accompanies my weekly column. But such spottings are a rarity. I'm not all that famous.
During Josh's performance, I stood some distancce away from him, and for most of the time I was next to a very attractive woman who was assisting in the reporting. I assure you, no one noticed me.
Bethesda, MD: Working as an Arts Manager, this story caught my eye instantly. I am a musician myself, having earned a performance degree before going into arts management to "pay the bills." I read it with rapt attention, but I wasn't too shocked by the results. I shared the story with my roommate, a non-musician, who asked me if I would've stopped. While I'd like to say that I would have, I honestly have to admit that I probably would not have.
I agree with others on the blog who said that setting up Mr. Bell at 8 am on a weekday made this result a given. But I loved the framing discussion - a heavily debated topic in my Masters of Arts Management program at American University. If you take art off of its pedestal, do people still recognize it as high art? The answer is definitively no.
We are trained to recognize quality in certain ways and because of certain settings. Even an avid arts consumer really can't pick out the difference between Joshua Bell and your average college music student. As a flutist, I probably couldn't either. Now, if you had disguised James Galway and plunked him down at L'Enfant, I probably would've noticed - but Joshua Bell (even though I know of him and have listened to him play), probably not.
The truth is that art, in all of its forms, takes a great deal of education to truly be able to appreciate the subtle differences between prodigy and average. I
t is no surprise that almost everyone walked by - arts education is no longer valued in this country and no one can expect people who have no education in the subject to be able to pick out even a genius like Joshua Bell from a street performer anymore than I can identify the strange noise that my car is making.
Beauty speaks only to those who know the language, no matter what the medium.
Gene Weingarten: I think these are interesting points, well put.
Crofton, MD: So is Bell really as nice a guy as he came across in the article?
Gene Weingarten: I think so. I say that with qualification because I spent only about three hours with him, total, and smart and canny celebs are often strategically congenial to people who are writing about them.
But I really liked this guy, and saw zero indication that he is anything other than gracious, and remarkably modest considering the adulation he has received.
I loved that he described what he was doing as "Makin' a lot of noise."
Frustrati, ON: Gene --
I'm so happy to see you on my screen again. We've missed you. Is there anything you can do about the atrocious redesign of the front page of the washingtonpost.com website? It's dumbed down to the point that I can't afford to look at it anymore, because each time I visit I get stupider. I used to visit 10 times a day; the first day I forgot how to tie my shoes and I had to find a 6 year old to teach me again. It's apparently aimed at those who can't or won't read, and the news junkies and politics wonks like me are apparently expected to move over to some site that actually cares about news.
I am bereft.
But welcome back. Loved the article. I'm sure that if I'd been there, I'd have been thinking of something else and walked right by. Embarassing but true.
Gene Weingarten: My biggest problem with it is how difficult it is to find Live Online. I think they're working on that.
Anonymous: I used to work with classical musicans and they are among the most elitist people in the world. Who's to say someone's daydreams weren't more beautiful than his playing? What if the next Hemingway was walking by, oblivious, because he was busy writing in his head? I found the article and the whole experiment specious.
Gene Weingarten: Okay.
Arlington, VA: In 1984 I happened on a violinist in the London underground playing the Mendelson E Minor Concerto. He wasn't Joshua Bell, but it was the Mendelson. I stood three feet from his left hand. I had heard it a hundred times, but never seen it. When he finished, a Bobby told him to move along. I didn't say anything, but I thought, "Man, do you know what he just did?"
Gene Weingarten: This is a hugely difficult piece, I am guessing?
Falls Church, Va.: I would argue that what you saw in the Metro was an illustration of Gresham's law, by which bad goods or services crowd good ones out of the market, where consumers have difficulty getting enough information to distinguish the two. Metro is filled with poor-quality noise, from the sounds of the trains themselves, the incredibly loud, incredibly banal safety announcements ("SEE IT, SAY IT!"), and the mediocre musicians who more commonly haunt the Metro exits (e.g., Gallery Place).
Put another way, we're conditioned to expect music (and other noise) in the Metro to be bad, and it takes more than an ordinary effort to recognize a virtuoso violinist as something better, so we pass by unwitting.
Here's an analogy: Have a master pastry chef bake the finest cookies he or she can imagine. Assume that they're delectable to the point of bringing tears to your eyes. Mop the Metro entrance so it's pristine, and scatter the cookies across the floor. Is it really a surprise that most people don't stop to taste them?
Gene Weingarten: Funny analogy, but I think you know it's bogus.
Falls Church, Va.: Why is Bell still single? Who picked "pearls before breakfast?" First, its kinda gross. second, you should eat breakfast before getting on the metro and going to work. How did hanging out with Bell compare to the Great Zucchini? Did you watch the hidden camera feed live or later? Did you observe Bell live or on video? Did the experiement humble Bell or not? Did he get all philosophical on you or move on to the next concert/stunt/talk show apperance/sesame street gig? What is he going to do about the fact that so many people ignored the beauty? What are you going to do? BTW Picarello's part in the story made me tear up. And Furukawa's quotes gave me the chills. I know I would be one to keep my eyes straight ahead and walk right past any street musician. Looking people - anyone - in the eye makes me nervous. Like it makes me weak. A target. A potential victim.
Great story Gene. really great. love it. eveyrone who lives in the metro area should be required to read it.
Gene Weingarten: A lot of people who walked by Bell were heading into the mall to get breakfast, actually! I wrote the headline. I didn't really "hang out" with Bell the way I did with the Great Zucchini: We had a couple of structured interviews; this is a VERY busy and scheduled guy, which may explain the marriagelessness. He is definitely straight. I was at the site of the event, but watched the video about 700 times afterwards. Bell is a nice guy who can relax and have fun, and he was extraordinarily gracious to me. I don't think this experienced humbled him, particularly, though he saw the humor in it. He knows it was not a referendum oh his talent.
Whew. Did I get it all?
Distra, CT: Gene-
I've been reading a lot of outside commentary on the article and many argue that OF COURSE no one is going to stop, I can't be late to work! Isn't that the point, though? That we move in this unwavering conveyor belt morning to night, never stopping and even thinking what we might be missing? And let's ignore the argument about "pretension" and classical music that seems to be the other opposing view - if it had been Bob Dylan, would anyone notice? Maybe, if only because of the cult of celebrity (and that's possibly the only reason why Josh Bell was noticed, too). But would we ever stop to hear and listen and appreciate if we're so worried about getting to work on time, on producing and making sure the conveyor belt doesn't lose a cog and the whole system break down? (Nevermind the inflated self-importance of even believing the previous sentence to be true).
Gene Weingarten: Yes. To me, that's the very point. I accept that many if not most of the people didn't stop because they were in a hurry. But SHOULD we be in this sort of a hurry?
Washington, DC: I am one of the gov't workers with a "fungible" title. I listed to Mr. Bell all the way up the L'Enfant Plaza escalator ride that day and it was beautiful. I put in $3.00 and I can't help laughing at myself. Really folks, don't be so serious, we should just enjoy it, laugh at ourselves, and take a moment to re-frame our thoughts on art and music in our everyday lives. P.S. tell Mr. Bell that he can put my $3.00 to paying off his Strad.
Gene Weingarten: Hahaha. Thanks. Hey, at least you gave real money!
You know, I'm surprised I'm not hearing from more people who were there.
Richmond, VA: I was wary of the potential for condescension in this piece from the very beginning, but I think you addressed it in ways that exceeded my expectations with your quotation from Kant and the section that talks about Mark Leithauser. Your writing here reframed the entire experience for me, and I think it's one of the more significant passages of the piece. The Silver Spring chatter who found this to be condescending I think makes a number of assumptions about your intentions that you explicitly clear up in the article. I put myself - someone who has no knowledge of classical music but still listens to it regularly - in the shoes of the passersby that day, and I can't say I would have stopped, either. I think the point is that beauty - or at least, something this "extra-ordinary" - doesn't take any education to appreciate. The article did not conclude that those with access to classical music were any smarter than those who didn't, but rather noted that for them, the art had been "framed." For the other passersby, it hadn't been framed, and as you mentioned via Kant - "to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal." I learned from your article that, at the -most-, we could only expect average passersby without any experience with classical music to recognize that this was something out of the ordinary (if that)!
Also, Gene, I think my latent experience with the article was interested as well. I didn't know it was you who'd written it until the very end when I saw you were running a chat today. Up until then, I'd wondered where on Earth this writer had come from, as it was the most profound piece I'd read to date from the WP. Once I saw it was you that'd written it, I think it ended up framing the piece for me - as art -- all the better.
Gene Weingarten: Awwww. Thank you.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Gene-- Were there any people of interest that you saw in the video that you weren't able to interview? It seems you were able to contact most of them based on the reporters gathering contact info outside of the metro. Thank you -- your piece was a very enjoyable read.
Gene Weingarten: I reached most of the people I wanted to reach. One major exception: A woman in a red coat who hung around at the end, and complimented Josh as she left. You can see her in the end video. Never found her -- it is possible I got her phone number wrong. Thank you, red-coated woman. Sorry we missed you.
Silver Spring, Md.: Gene, thanks so much for your article on Joshua Bell. I don't know his work, or anything about classical music, but I'd've given him some money (probably not paused to listen though).
About ten years ago, in Atlanta, I dated a violinist for a while. I thought he was amazing, which may not mean much coming from me, but apparently when he was a kid he'd come in second in a scholarship competition for some fancy violin conservatory in Germany I think. The second place prize was too little for his family to make up the difference, so he didn't go.
As a young adult, he worked odd jobs from time to time, and probably not very well at that... he didn't come off as very competent in everyday life. But he played in an avant-garde band, and would also set up his case at the Underground Atlanta mall and work for "tips" as you had Joshua Bell do. Here, competence wouldn't begin to describe the aura he gave off.
At the mall, it was a good day of earning if he could spring for some lunch from Taco Bell on the way home. I'll never forget how it seemed like he had such a huge gift that was being squandered on the great unwashed... and to this day, I always, always give street musicians money.
Gene Weingarten: A sad story. Thanks.
Watertown, MA: Homework, maestro please. You write "Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100."
The top price ticket at Boston's acoustical standard Symphony Hall is $101.00.
Gene Weingarten: Hm. Well, I was there for the performance, and I had only pretty good seats (mid-length balcony), and I paid $100. Did they GOUGE the Post???
Osprey, Fla. : I am a professiona musician, self employed singer songwriter in what has become known as the "Trop Rock" vein of music. Your article was very interesting to me as it articulated something that several of my peers and I wonder about a lot. Setting is so important for what we do. I have played concerts in a listening environment that were truly amazing, and done the same show in bars or at Parrothead parties and gone largely unnoticed. I've held a crowd in the palm of my hand at tropical bars around the Caribbean, and been completely lost by the dinner crowd at a restraunt where I'm playing for people who came only for the lobster bisque.
I'm forwarding your article to many of my singer/songwriter friends who will get a good deal of comfort from it. It's nice to know that someone like Joshua Bell can be overlooked because of where and when they are playing. Most of us have leaned to laugh at the idea that people often overlook something beautiful and unique right in front of them as they scurry to hear something they've heard a thousand times before performed by someone who mimics rather than interprets or has attitude rather than emotion.
Gene Weingarten: I'm glad you posted. This was a point I wanted to make in the story, but never got around to: Take what happened here, and extrapolate it to the experiences of all those talented buskers trying to make a living out there. Feel for these people, and throw in a few bucks. It's just so hard to grab people's attention.
Tim Page knows of two guys who played tuba duets on the streets of Berlin, and could take home 100 euros in an hour or so.
It's tough here. Tough crowd.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Gene,
Among my favorite moments of studying abroad in Paris were the musicians on the Parisian metro. I would try to stop and listen as much as possible. As a newcomer, the city was a moveable feast for me, but, most everyday Parisians on their commute seemed to block them out as our fellow DC'ers did at L'Enfant. Did you notice a difference in the way tourists or non-work-attired people behaved? I am guessing no, since you would have mentioned it. Also, the great teamwork of the Washington Post team is evident by the beauty of the article. Cheers!
Gene Weingarten: Honestly, I saw almost no one who appeared to be a tourist. And no one I called was a tourist. This was a work-intensive environment.
My editor, Tom the Butcher, just returned from a vacation in Paris. He was amazed at how much people just seemed to love their city and take in their surroundings, as opposed to here.
And yes, we had a terrific team at the site, interviewing people. Tom was there, and his daughter Emily, and my friend Rachel Manteuffel. The two women got a LOT more people to volunteer their names and phone numbers than did Tom.
Washington, DC: Gene,
Excellent article!! In fact, I think it's your best work at The Post yet (haven't and won't read your books) because it was a serious piece. Do you have any plans to ditch the whole humor thing (because you really aren't funny) and look for pieces a little more serious like this one? I sure hope so because it was very well written, albeit a page or two too long.
Gene Weingarten: Thanks!
No, I plan to continue writing weak humor columns, to annoy the crap out of you, personally.
Bloomington, IN: As a freshman (from the D.C area) at the Indiana University School of Music where Joshua Bell went, I am not a bit surprised by the results of this stunt. I sort of feel like I am in shoes of Mr. Picarello. I am unsure if I can make it in the music world. I think Mr. Picarello made a wise choice of enjoying music on the side and doing something else. I may make that same decision very soon.
Gene Weingarten: I agree with him. It's no defeat, and it certainly doesn't mean he wasted his time. You have it forever.
Alexandria, VA: How incredibly arrogant. This isn't a test. It's a stunt, and it's used to "prove" that Washingtonians (and Americans are general, given the numerous references to Europe guaranteed to draw a better crowd) are culturally-deprived boobs that prefer Peep art.
Maybe the pieces chosen aren't transcendent in a Metro station at thirty-second snippets. Maybe people headed into work are too focused or pressed for time to deal with any distractions. Maybe Bell had an off day. Maybe children would listen to any music, even that from someone who was objectively awful. Maybe people, even those who apparently walked by, oblivious, heard the music and had their day brightened by it.
Maybe the Post should have let this idea die on the drawing board.
Gene Weingarten: Maybe you need to take your meds.
Washington, DC: Of course we shouldn't be in that much of a hurry. But I work at L'Enfant and my boss wants me in on time. If I accrue 3 days of being five minutes late, I have to put in for vacation time (I'm serious). Beauty is nothing compared to being beholden to the taxpayer.
Gene Weingarten: Good god. Ok, I'm laughing, but it's with you, not at you.
Salon: Alas, Salon.com didn't like your article either and feels you may have even done damage to any potential classical music fans.
Gene Weingarten: Really? How would this damage classical music fans? Summarize.
Rockville, Md: Mr. Weingarten, thank you for this story and its challenge to our priorities. I hope you will pass along your readers' thanks to Joshua Bell. As a bonus, it sounds like the experience may have (unwittingly) given him insight into his own artistic priorities and may help sustain his remarkable career.
(1) I imagine Mr. Bell doesn't get to perform in person for children often, if ever. Did he notice the response from the kids and/or the parents rushing them away? Did he share with you any reaction to this part of the experience?
(2) Were you surprised he was so willing to break out his multi-million-dollar violin in a Metro station? What a good sport.
Thanks again for a tremendous piece.
Gene Weingarten: Yes. He noticed the kids. At one point, when a mother was pushing her daughter through those glass doors, Bell remembers thinking, "C'mom, momma. Let her stay. I'll watch out for her!"
Chicago Crier: Hi Gene,
Thanks for the great article! I got teary reading this article because I agree with the prior poster who wondered if she's really using her time on Earth wisely. I think violin is one of the loveliest sounds on Earth, and yet I really wonder if I would have stopped. I think I would have paused, but my morning meeting, my Starbucks coffee, my e-mail, my thoughts about whether I remembered to buy milk...all this would have propelled me on. This is so so sad to realize.
Gene Weingarten: Look at the video, then decide.
Washington, DC: Each if us creates their own prison. I would like to think the upon hearing JB, the passerby would stop and listen like the prisoners in the movie The Shawshank Redemption:
Red: "I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I'd like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free."
Gene Weingarten: Good lines.
Washington, DC: Even before I read your prefatory comments, I was thinking that the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority owns the responsibility for the utter negligence of Bell. For years, the prohibition on Busking has instilled a culture of pure, streamlined utilitarianism to the Metro system. We're not used to seeing our system as anything but the most drab, architecturally austere utility for getting hither and yon. Do you get the sense from your correspondence that a groundswell could reverse that trend?
Gene Weingarten: I have this feeling, too. Have you ever been on the Yellow line, I think it is, with that fabulous kinetic art that just suddenly bursts into you consciusness? It just reminds me what a commute should be.
Washington, D.C.: I have to admit that I was one of the "unsophisticated boobs" who passed by Josh Bell after riding the Yellow line to L'Enfant Plaza. I do remember that day specifically, and now I feel terrible that I did not stop. In my defense, I had remembered that the Metro board was considering a proposal to allow a handful of musicians inside Metro stations, and thought that perhaps this might be one of the pilot performers. I made a mental note to send an email to Metro expressing my appreciation for having classical music in the stations. Unfortunately, the thought slipped my mind until I read this article. So, in my case "context matters" since I was thinking this was just another musician (albeit much more talented than other performers I've heard outside of Metro stations). Do you know whatever happened to Metro's proposal to allow musicians to perform in stations?
Gene Weingarten: Ooh, good. So lemme ask: Did you even THINK about stopping to watch?
Baltimore, MD: Gene, are you surprised how many people in Washington seem to take this article so personally, as if you were attacking their lack of knowledge/priorities? I thought the point was everyone - not just Washingtonians, not just Americans - could make more time in their lives to appreciate everyday beauty.
I LOVED the article and thought you did an excellent job writing it. Although, in fairness, I am enough of a Josh Bell fan that when I saw the cover my heart actually fluttered.
Gene Weingarten: He's a hottie, isn't he?
I am delighted, frankly, that people are taking this personally -- both negatively and positively. A writer can hope for no better result.
Falls Church, Va.: I love it that people are maqd at your for charaterizing the type of people who came out of that metro stop, but have no problem charaterizing the only type of person who supposedly can appreciate classical music.
Gene Weingarten: Hahahaha.
Washington, DC: I didn't cry, I laughed. I found the entire article and its premises very humorous and ironic. I especially love that Joshua wore a Nats hat.
Gene Weingarten: I never cried during the writing of it, though, obviously, um, I had given a great deal of thought to what the story meant. I am moved, beyond my ability to express it, how strongly this piece affected people.
washingtonpost.com:Joshua Bell video
Gene Weingarten: Oooooh. I didn't know this was going to be available! Thanks, Kim.
I guess we're gonna be losing most everyone now.
Arts Festival Planner: I work on art and film festivals for a living, and I run into the "framing" issue a lot. Many people don't pay attention to beauty unless they are primed ahead of time to expect it.
Question for Gene and readers: Thousands and thousands of people went to tidal basin over the last 10 days to see the cherry blossoms. It's a big event. There's a festival. People are told over and over again that those blossoms are great. How many of you have stopped to look at blossoming trees and bushes in other places this spring? Is a blooming cherry tree in Vienna less beautiful than one by the Tidal Basin? Or do people just not notice beauty because they aren't looking for it at the time?
Gene Weingarten: I like this question. There are lots of cherry trees in my neighborhood. We don't have crowds.
Okay, here's a confession: I think cherry trees in bloom look crappy. Cheap, somehow, like the feeling you get from cheap perfume. I've never understood what the fever was about.
Pittsburgh, PA: Your story made me think of something I have noticed in myself. There are some folks I am used to seeing only in certain situations. I know their faces well, we have even talked several times, but if I see them in another location, situation, or context, all of a sudden I don't know who they are, at least for a few seconds. I will think to myself, "Why does this person look kind of familiar to me" and then it finally comes to me how I know them. Case in point - I know many of the parents in my daughter's former day care group, but one day, I was in the grocery store, and kept looking at this woman, wondering why she looked so familiar to me. Finally, she came up to me and said, "Hi Stephanie, how are you doing and how is Meredith?" It was only then that the lightbulb went off and I knew who she was.
I wonder if there were any folks who walked right past Mr. Bell and were halfway on a train before they realized, "Hey, that couldn't have been..."
Gene Weingarten: Haven't heard from any. But, for what it is worth, I suffer hugely from the phenomenon you describe. It has embarrassed me enormously, because I have failed to recognize, and clearly insulted, people whom I really should have known.
Washington, DC-The plaza: Thanks for this great piece. I am really miffed that I missed this! I work in the building right across the street and always take the orange line to the L'Enfant Metro. Often I have heard other violinists and/or keyboardists play from the top of the escalator, and regardless of their abilities, the way the sound wafts down the escalator and fills the entire space is a wonderful way to be welcomed to work.
I studied the violin growing up and, alas, over time I have let my busy schedule squeeze out any time I might have to play the fiddle.
As it so happens, you conducted this experiment on my AWS (alternate work schedule) day, so I was at home--likely sleeping in that morning. Hearing about this missed opportunity actually makes me wish I had gone to work that day. And as much I as enjoy my job, I don't crave being here on the weekends or other days off. Had I been here, I would have noticed as I am one of the last few people who refuses to wear earplugs or use an iPod (even though I am in my twenties...okay, nearly 30).
That being said, will you provide the full video clip without the sped up sections so that we can enjoy what apparently so many of us missed for one reason or another?
P.S. An earlier comment hinted that the choice of music might have been to blame. I strongly disagree. Music reaches everyone on a very fundamental, even subconscious level. It may sound like a familiar voice or the heartbeat or that "in the zone" feeling when all you hear is your breathing. Unlike some of the more modern forms of music, such as hard rock, classical music does not hurt the ears. Sure, some may doze off to it, but even then it is serving its purpose (being tranquil). At other times it is exciting and vibrant. But because there are no lyrics, it is completely up to one's imagination as to the feelings and thoughts the music stirs. I think your choice of metro stops was perfect and I am disappointed to hear how few people got to appreciate such a great start to their day.
Gene Weingarten: We're working on possibly making the full video available. There are a number of issues involved with that, and it may be impossible.
Re: Alexandria, VA: : Your "need to take your meds" in response to the Alexandria person was uncalled for.
There was nothing mean or over-the-top in that person's post.
Gene Weingarten: It would not be the first time I was promiscuously and unjustifiably cruel.
Another viewpoint: Here's my problem with your experiment from the perspective of a woman who navigates the streets of Georgetown daily--I don't make eye contact much less actually come to a full stop in front of someone panhandling. Many people have been verbally and physcially harassed by random people on the street, including musicians. You jsut stare straight ahead and keep walking. There was no gurantee that Josh Bell wasn't violent, mentally ill, or would call me c--t if I stayed but didn't give money.
Gene Weingarten: Uh, honey. No. You had to be there. The man was just a musician, playing beautiful music.
Johnson City, NY: Your article reminded me of the story of the "Cellist of Sarajevo," but I'm not sure why:
"Vedran Smailovic was the famous lone cellist dressed in full evening suit, seen on television all over the world, who refused to stop playing his cello on the streets of Sarajevo after his Opera theater was destroyed and twenty two of his neighbors were killed by a mortar while standing in a bread queue. When asked by a CNN reporter if he was not crazy for playing his cello while Sarajevo was being shelled, Smailovic replied, 'You ask me am I crazy for playing the cello, why do you not ask if they are not crazy for shelling Sarajevo?'."
Gene Weingarten: Nice.
During the war, Russia brought orhestras into factories. The music increased production. There was a nexis between fear of death and appreciation of beauty. This was something I meant to put in the story, but there was no room.
Washington, D.C.: Many of your readers do not have understanding employeers who tolerate their workers being even a few minutes late. You have worked at The Washington Post, and you are pretty popular writer. I am curious what you think would happen to non-famous employees at The Washington Post if they were late to work because they were listening to a street musician.
Gene Weingarten: Honestly, nothing. It is not that sort of work environment. I feel pretty privileged to work there, and a little guilty about it.
Okay, we're out of time. We may have set some sort of record here for questions asked, and questions answered. I am grateful for your time and enthusiasm and the depth of your thinking here. And your tears. Especially your tears.
To the regulars: See you on the 24th.
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