A young man dressed in jeans and t-shirt lifted his violin and began to play. It was rush hour in Washington, D.C., on January 12, 2007. The metro station was packed with commuters.
Over the next 43 minutes, 1097 people passed by. Most were mid-level government workers hurrying to their jobs.
No pop music for this young musician. He began with the “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. He followed that with Schubert’s “Ave Maria”, then Ponce’s “Estrellita”, a piece by Jules Massenet, and finally a Bach gavotte.
Street performers are a common fixture of the urban landscape, but this one was different and not just because of his choice of music. The Washington Post had talked Joshua Bell into an experiment, “as a test of whether, in an incongruous context, ordinary people would recognize genius”.
The virtuoso violinist had hit the big time as a 14-year-old child prodigy. On January 12, 2007, he was 39 and one of the rare classical musicians with an adoring-fan base. The violin he insisted on playing for the experiment was crafted by Antonio Stradivari himself. It is worth over three million dollars.
In the first three minutes, 63 people passed by without a glance. Then a middle-aged man turned his head and looked Bell’s way before passing on. A half minute later a woman tossed him a dollar. Things never improved. His total take for the performance? $32.17.
During the entire 43 minutes, so few took note of Bell’s soaring performance that reporters easily interviewed everyone of them. Watching the excerpts on YouTube or the Washington Post site is painful.
Gene Weingarten, in his lyrical story on the experiment, writes: “If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that—then what else are we missing?”
Weingarten quotes the Welsh poet, W.H. Davies, whose poem “Leisure” starts with these two, oft-repeated lines:
What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?—
Today, as I write, I’ve just had two pieces of bad news. A friend is in hospital after a massive heart attack. That’s the worst news. And yet another of my investments has dived into a pool with no water, cracking its poor head. Not something easy to hear at my stage of life.
Neither is an excuse for inattention. When someone falls gravely ill, when someone dies, when our life takes a sudden and unexpected turn, we vow from this point on we will re-order our priorities. We will cherish each moment of each day. We will slow down and stop fretting.
But habits soon reassert themselves. So I’m grateful to the friend who sent me the link to this story, grateful for the reminder to stand and stare.