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The Great Subway Station Violin Experiment

What happened when one of the world's most skilled violin virtuosos put on a T-shirt and a baseball cap, walked into a subway station at rush hour, opened the case of his Stradivarius and played some of the most respected classical music ever written?

On April 8, 2007 the Washington Post ran a long feature article by Gene Weingarten in the Sunday magazine called "Pearls Before Breakfast that won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Rarely have I been more intrigued with a story, and I think musicians will be and should be talking about it for decades to come. A summary of it should maybe be included in every music curriculum, and every music student of every style of music should possibly know the story as well as school children learn about Paul Revere’s Ride or the tale of Pocahantas. Weingarten’s article is very long, very detailed and thoughtful, but it doesn’t zoom out quite far enough to suit me, and neither do any of the discussions of it that I can find. Let’s take a closer look, to perhaps help both performers and listeners better navigate the complex world of musical performance.

The author was a writer for the Post, who convinced classical violinist Joshua Bell, considered one of the greatest virtuosos of this era and voted the best classical musician in America, to put on a T-shirt and a baseball cap and try being a street musician to find out what would happen. During a January morning rush hour, Bell opened the case to his $3.5 million Stradivarius and played in the subway station at L'Enfant Plaza in Washington, D.C. Bell was in town playing a concert at the Library of Congress, and agreed to participate in this unprecedented social and musical experiment. It was anybody's guess as to what would happen. Would passers-by recognize genius and talent or just walk by? Would a crowd obstruct the commuter traffic? How much money would he make? Could hallowed music and "high art" make a mark or maybe shine some bright sunshine into the everyday world of commuters in a hurry?

What Happened?

A hidden camera (above) documented what happened during a 43-minute period, while Bell played pieces by Bach, Schubert (Ave Maria), Massenet and Manuel Ponce. He opened at 7:51 AM on Friday, January 12, with Bach's 14-minute Chaconne (Violin Partita No. 2 in D Minor), generally considered to be the single greatest solo violin work and one of the greatest musical compositions ever created. It was played on one of the finest instruments the world has ever known, the so-called “Gibson ex Huberman” Stradivarius, made in 1713 at the peak of the legendary luthier's powers. The subway location was chosen because it was a place where the acoustics were not bad, and the music would carry reasonably well. Bell even took a taxi 3 blocks to the subway to keep his instrument from even getting slightly cold.

[AUTHOR'S NOTE: Interestingly, on Oct 14, 2014, also in a Washington Post article, Gene Weingarten points out that the story about Bell in the subway went viral on the internet, which presumably caused the majority of the nearly 7 million people to look at the video and spread the story around. But it was not the Post article, but a short summary of the original article, riddled with false information, that became the source of the story for the vast majority of those people. Weingarten details a lengthy list of factual errors, and says: “most people who have heard of the Joshua Bell Metro experiment picked it up not directly from my Washington Post story, but from an anonymous, supposed summary that went globally viral a few months after the story was published. It was a simply written little piece, with a helpful moral at the end…” Then, more tellingly, he said:
Hardly a month goes by that I don’t get an e-mail from some priest or minister or rabbi or imam gratefully and graciously informing me that they have just delivered a sermon based on the events in my story; often, they include a copy of the sermon, and more often than not it is based on the erroneous summary. In fact, they think that WAS my story.

Weingarten's list of errors is interesting, and includes the fact that Bell was standing, not sitting, did not play all Bach, it was not cold where he was playing, and the number of people who walked by was exaggerated, as was the behavior of the handful who stopped or almost stopped, especially the description of the behavior of the children. If you go 'a Googling to learn about The Experiment you'll undoubtedly come across the false information.]

Bell also returned to the subway station in September, 2014 to perform a concert to promote music education. This time it was advertised, and there was a huge crowd as he played Bach and Mendelssohn.

The results of Bell’s experiment appeared to be very conclusive, and no one considers them fuzzy. According to Weingarten: “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, Bell 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. Things never got much better. In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look. “

$20 of that $32 was from the one person who recognized Bell, and who had just seen him play the night before at the Library of Congress, so the 26 givers among the 1096 commuters pitched in a whopping $12, including a lot of pennies. There was never a crowd, and the fears never materialized that there might be a need for extra security. So the moral or message of the story seems to be simply that commuters might have walked by the Mona Lisa also, and that you can’t expect “random people” to notice and appreciate great art on their own without some kind of guidance, commentary or marketing. Even the title of the article hints at the expression “pearls before swine” that is the credo of elitism itself. How many times have we been told that people need to be taught to appreciate great art? I’ve often compared playing music in anonymous situations to selling Picassos door-to-door. It’s hard for people to believe there is something amazing going on when there is no crowd, and nothing telling you to pay attention. There is a lot of context and provenance involved.

The museum curator that Weingarten interviewed in the article said the same thing; that he could have put a $5 million painting on a street corner and just as many people would have walked by it. The 6 people who stopped to listen to Bell just thought he was good, but when interviewed later they admitted that they didn't realize how good, they just liked it. Lots of people stood in line to buy lottery tickets nearby and did not even glance his way, and of course the music fans with their iPod earbuds missed everything. Would you have noticed? Would I? There was apparently one guy, named John Picarello, who really noticed, and who spent 9 minutes listening to Bell, realizing full well how good he was.

Those of us who have played street music, and any who play music for a living often wonder about this kind of thing. When we feel like we are playing well, but no one seems to be listening, we wonder what is wrong. When people talk through our gigs we wonder if we are not good enough, or if they are being insensitive jerks. Are people somehow unable or unwilling to recognize, or even to want quality music without fanfare and packaging? I have often thought to myself when no one was listening: “How good do you have to be for people to listen to you around here?” Apparently the answer is “Nobody is that good,” though that can’t be completely true, since some performers could have pulled a nice crowd that morning at L'Enfant Plaza.


Mozart wrote in 1778 at the age 22 about playing piano at a party for the Duchesse de Chabot during his first trip to Paris to look for work: “After an hour’s wait in the cold I began to play upon a miserable and wretched pianoforte. The most annoying thing about it was that Madame and all the gentlemen never for one moment interrupted their occupations, but continued the whole time, so it was to the chairs and the table that I was playing. I had begun some of Fisher’s Variations. I played half and rose. Then a burst of applause. Give me the best piano in Europe and for an audience of people who neither understand nor wish to understand music, who feel nothing with me that I am playing, and I lose all joy in performing.” [From Francois Lesure “Music and Art in Society” (1968)]

If the greatest musical genius the world has ever known gets treated the same way that many skilled musicians have experienced, can we be surprised that Joshua Bell fared little better in the subway 229 years later?

What Conclusions Can We Draw?

The YouTube clip for “Pearls Before Breakfast” now has almost 7 million views, and the message appears to be a clear one: that average people can’t be expected to recognize quality and genius when it is right in front of them. There are quite a number of internet posts where people are mulling over the results and lessons of the experiment, and it’s clear that this juicy story got a lot of people thinking in healthy ways about the perception of art and of excellence. I found some good observations:

• A blogger named Brad Powell posted some insights about the caper, and called it “a social experiment about perception, taste, and priorities of people.” He further mused that Bell should have done some better marketing and anticipation of some sort to prepare people for something good, and mentioned the old Burma Shave ads. I assume Powell has never played street music, and has little insight into the mindset of someone who does.

• Blogger Kresimir Josic correctly pointed out that the expectations of the commuters prevented them from realizing how good Bell was, and that our attentions are quite fickle, which is also true, making it hard for people to notice the musician playing. Performing musicians as well as music promoters and presenters learn that marketing and packaging are important, and that people will listen raptly to music if they have paid a lot of money for a ticket, and might walk past the same thing on the street.

• Business consultant Dan Weaver had some deeper insights in his blog and said that this experiment is not conclusive proof that people in general ignore or can’t recognize awesome art. Weaver's business brain pointed out that people were pressed for time, having long ago made the decision that they needed to work and to get to work by certain methods. “Even if you told someone who is trying to make it to work on time that the man playing the violin was Joshua Bell and that seats to his concerts go for an average of $100 they probably still wouldn’t stop because being late to work jeopardizes their job security and seeing a man playing the violin, no matter how good he is, isn’t worth losing your job.” Weaver also said tellingly that “No matter how technically skilled or world renowned Joshua Bell is, if you don’t enjoy the violin as an instrument and you have no taste for classical music you aren’t going to stop and listen to his music just because someone else would pay $100 to. The reason Bell sells out his concerts is because he his advertising a location and time that people who appreciate his music can go to appreciate it. You can’t just randomly drop Joshua Bell in the Gobi desert and expect that Joshua Bell fans will suddenly materialize…”

• Someone named Arti said something similar in their blog: “maybe it’s more a sociological study of urban life, or one of economics. Even if people recognize beauty, is it worthwhile to stop and sacrifice a few precious minutes? Weighing the economic cost of being late for work, and the enjoyment of music, the bottom line is quite obvious. What place does beauty have in the pragmatics of our daily routines? Where do music and the arts rank in life’s competing priorities?”

How Do Musicians Feel About This?

I didn't find any comments by performing musicians about this story, which is part of why I am digging into it here. As a former street musician and a guy who has performed for 45 years in every kind of venue from streetcorner to stadium, I think there needs to be a lot more said about the experiment and its conclusions.

There is obviously something hugely vindicating about this story for all performing musicians who have ever been ignored. It probably applies to other creators and performers as well, since Bell, the Stradivarius and the Chaconne make a strong case that it was the listeners who flunked a test and not the musician. I vividly remember in 1981, when I came home from winning the National Fingerpicking Guitar championship. Thousands of people cheered and clapped at the contest, but when I played the same pieces (I played the “Dirty Dish Rag,” a piece of my own, and Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” in a local bar a week later, much better, not one person even bothered to look up.) I have made it a point all through my career not to blame people or be resentful when people don't notice that I am playing well, and to just be glad that there are some who do. But I have always graciously thought that I just need to work harder at being calm and happy when I perform, and to play the best I can, and not blame those who don’t love or appreciate what I do.

I am reminded of an experience I had while performing at the Tumbleweed Festival in Garden City, Kansas a few years ago. I finished my set, and was chatting with my wife (Joyce Andersen, who performed with me) and with a handful of listeners who were buying CDs and asking questions in the 100 degree August heat, and the next performers got set up and started playing. It was a guy playing harp and a woman playing flute, and they were playing Celtic music of various sorts, and nobody was paying that much attention to them, and neither was I. I like to think that I am observant, but it took much longer than it should have for me to realize that the guy playing the harp was really good. Something he did jolted us out of our conversations and packing up our gear and CD's, and Joyce and then I listened in total awe for the last half of their set. I'm no expert on Celtic harp, and the duo were listed as "Draíocht" in the festival program, which meant nothing to us. Joyce and I chatted and traded CD's with the Irish couple after their set, praised them effusively, and found out they were on a tour of America, playing gigs to celebrate their honeymoon. Their modesty was noticeable, but while listening to their CD in the rental car I was again amazed, and found out from calling a couple friends that the guy I heard, named Michael Rooney, was probably the best Irish harp player in the world. (I still don't know if I should refer to him as a harper or harpist.) Scroll ahead a couple minutes into this to where he really gets going...

I didn't notice a world-class musician until 20 minutes into his set, because he was out of context and unheralded, like Joshua Bell in the subway. I watched the legendary Danny Gatton play electric guitar in bars many times while people weren't paying attention, though at least because the instrument was loud they didn't have to stop talking to hear him. (Maybe if Joshua Bell had been a lot louder people would have paid more attention...) I could probably come up with a pretty good list of similar experiences from my 45 years of being a musician and hearing all sorts of other players in all sorts of other contexts. I've seen plenty of great musicians get ignored, and the story Gene Weingarten told didn't surprise me that much, though I would have thought Bell could have done better than he did in terms of money and number of listeners. I've also seen plenty of mediocre musicians being celebrated way beyond their due, but let's not go there...

A Former Street Musician’s Perspective on the Story

Joshua Bell obviously wasn’t an expert at playing street music, and there is such a thing. I probably spent a few hundred hours or so doing it, and there are people who have logged countless thousands. It did say in the article that Bell had enough sense to put some change and a few bills before he started playing, which is wise, since it “primes the pump.” I wonder if he put any pennies in, since many of the donations he got were pennies. A skilled street musician or troubadour with a lot less musical training could undoubtedly have made more money and attracted bigger crowds. This is understandable, since Bell probably never had to play street music and never wanted to, but if he had been coached a little it might have changed the result. It goes without saying that Bell was trying to do something he wasn't trained to do, and that there is a skill set and a mindset that seasoned street performers learn that is not just reflective of their musical prowess.

As a performer, I know that it’s always been true that only a few people are willing and able to take time out of their lives to just listen to music. It might have been a much better experiment if Joshua Bell had gone door to door, knocked and introduced himself, and offered to play for the people who answered the door. It was unfair to put him in a subway station where people are by definition in a hurry, and timing their actions to the minute, though street music is a great way to quickly find out who cares, since they have to stop walking. It also might have been a much better experiment to do in the afternoon when people were getting off the train after work, since they would have more time to pause and listen. In the winter they couldn’t do it on the street, and Bell was in town for a January concert and they picked a pretty good location. They were in an atrium, not the actual room where the trains were, though that room being quieter and more pleasant, it might have kept people from lingering. If Bell had been right there where they were waiting it might have been a different experiment, since there would have been some people already congregating while waiting for the train, and they might have been able to listen for a while.

I think the lesson of this story is less clear than the obvious one, which blames the commuters. Why do none of the accounts or discussions suggest that Bell was perhaps not radiating only pure musical greatness? When you play for young kids, you feel quickly that they don’t feel obliged to like you, and you really have to earn their admiration. You have more to do than just play the notes in the pieces of music. In Bell’s whole career he has been in a world where he gets a permanent “get out of jail free” card on this matter, and the subway gig there might have really confused a lot of circuits in his brain that he might not have dealt with very often. He was a child prodigy, which means he got huge respect from the very beginning of his performing career, and never had to go without it. Naturally, he is the only one who knows what happened in his head that day, though we could learn something from one of the 7 people who really stopped to listen to him play. If we’re lucky, one of them was observant and eloquent and perhaps wrote or said something about what they saw that morning. Unless Bell reads this and contacts me and tells me what he was thinking, I’ll never know.

Bell seems to be pretty self-aware and adventurous (he has also performed on Sesame Street and some other unusual venues) and his comments in Weingarten’s article showed that he was uncomfortable in the subway, as you would expect. “When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence?” Maybe they did. I can’t tell much about the subtler parts of his facial expressions and body language from the video, but those things are vital in these kinds of situations. I've seen a lot of situations where a musician with a lot of skills and technique didn't go over well with an audience, by projecting arrogance and disdain for the listeners who dared to not fawn over them. Bell could easily have been doing that, at least to some extent, though from my vantage point and the grainy video you can't make the call as to whether he did. He seems like a pleasant and humble person, and I'm not accusing him of anything, but I am trying to look at all the perspectives here.

In my opinion, he made a big error by putting the violin case much too close to himself, and looming over it. People don’t want to have to get too close to you to put money in your case. It’s as if there is a force field around you when you play street music, and if he had turned his back to the case or stood 10 feet from it, or even had something else like some luggage in between it might have allowed people to come closer without violating the “comfort zone” we all maintain with strangers. If he was looking at the people and making eye contact, or even showing obvious high-alert peripheral vision it could have been very off-putting. It doesn't look like a good location to me at all, though I'd have to go there and wander around to see what spot I might choose. He was slightly blocking the pathway, and it looks like it would have been awkward to listen near where he was.

I wondered if Bell’s lifetime of performing has taught him to look at the crowd at least from time to time, and if he were glancing around the subway station while playing it could have been very intimidating. When I look at video clips of him I see that he usually closes his eyes, and sways a lot. I don’t find his body language that compelling— it reminds me a little of the typical stiff classical violin posture. In a discussion among violinists on the subject I found this comment “Swaying... Josh Bell style, I find extremely distracting, mainly because I think of a figure skater landing a jump… I am conscious of what the audience is seeing though. They don't want to see a really in-pained look on your face when you are playing.”

In Bell’s normal performance world, as he explained, he is utterly comfortable in his role, and his relationship with anyone in the audience is simple and predictable. On the street, he can fail, and it’s possible that he failed miserably. He said “It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . . ignoring me.” It’s possible that the reason so few people stopped had nothing to do with them not recognizing great music played on a great instrument by a great player. It might have been all about how he projected, and what kind of “vibe” and stage presence, and even self-confidence. Bell might have been very off-balance by having a flood of new thoughts about being rejected or ignored, and it might have thrown him into a place where he was projecting negative or confused energy more than musical joy.

Street music is a delicate art form, and it is easy, especially when you are good, to project arrogantly and defiantly. Until you finally let go of that defiance, sometimes no one will stop and listen. Suddenly, after a long stretch, you can get lost in a thought pattern and go inward into a good musical place, open your eyes and there may be a sizable crowd watching. Seeing that crowd can pop the bubble, and your ego can take over again, and everyone might walk away. I used to call street music “musical bio-feedback.” You really know who is paying attention and who isn’t, unlike many other common types of musical performance.

When I perform as a street musician, or when I play in a bar or some place where no one has bought tickets to hear me play, I feel very naked, like people can see into my soul. I’ve gotten used to it, and now I feel like it is my job to honor that and to think good thoughts. If you are arrogant, vain, or even aloof, it can show poorly. Joshua Bell says he was thinking during The Experiment: “At the beginning I was just concentrating on playing the music. I wasn’t really watching what was happening around me . . .” but a paragraph later it said he admitted to being nervous. "It wasn’t exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies,” he said. “I was stressing a little.” Awkward might be the best word for his mindset.

The “Do I Dare Say it?” Perspective

There is another explanation for the behavior of the 1097 people in the subway that day that cannot be completely ruled out, and it’s a little harsh. Dan Weaver mentioned it briefly in his blog. It is possible that the kind of violin playing Bell was doing, and the whole energy field around him were not that attractive or awe-inspiring to people in general. If jazz legend John Coltrane had been playing his saxophone and doing his best solos there, many people might have covered their ears, or if the world’s best Uilleann piper or the world champion yodeler was soaring away it might have had the same effect. It’s also possible that if those musicians, like Bell, were used to performing with automatic massive respect and admiration, and they were playing in a subway for the first time in their lives, they might have projected bad attitudes even while playing music that most people didn’t like that much. Not everybody thinks the world’s greatest pastry tastes any better than a good whoopie pie, and not everyone thinks that celebrated buildings or paintings are that great to look at. Everybody doesn’t like everything, and “ordinary people” might even have a built-in feeling of resentment against classical music for taking the high ground and embedding an elitism and a “our music is better than the music you like” attitude into everyone’s music education, especially in schools and churches. There is a reason why George Winston sold millions of piano recordings, and why Norah Jones was so successful as a singer. They aren’t technically that great, but they make you feel good when you hear them. Just because they don't play cascades of amazing notes doesn't mean their music is no good. I would much rather right now listen to George Winston play something from his “December” album than Vladimir Horowitz rip on a virtuoso Rachmaninoff piece. Horowitz may be “better,” but most people would rather hear George. Right at this moment I’d rather hear Jay Ungar play “Ashokan Farewell” gently and plaintively on his fiddle than hear Itzhak Perlman play 32nd notes in a perfectly executed Paganini masterpiece. Maybe Bell should have played the “Tennessee Waltz” and “Ashokan Farewell,” or a Scotty Stoneman show-off bluegrass piece, or maybe Weingarten should have had an Irish and a bluegrass fiddler play in the same place on different days to compare the results. I bet J.P. Cormier could have drawn a crowd with some Cape Breton fiddling.

This is another posting where I'm trying to raise issues, questions and awareness in the world of modern troubadours... You deserve a reward or a door prize for making it to the end. Please check back to look for new posts as I get them done. I plan to cover a wide range of issues and topics.  I don't have a way for you to comment here, but I welcome your emails with your reactions. Feel free to cheer me on, or to disagree...

Chordally yours,