On a cold January morning world famous violinist Joshua Bell entered a metro station in Washington, D.C., during rush hour as part of a social experiment conducted by the Washington Post. The Post wondered if people would perceive beauty in an unexpected context or stop to appreciate it.
Armed with his 3.5 million dollar violin, Bell, who just two day earlier had played to a sold out theater in Boston where seats averaged $100, played six sophisticated and difficult pieces by Bach for 45 minutes. The Post calculated that 1,100 people traveled through the station duringBell’s performance. Most were on their way to work.
A full three minutes went by before anything happened. A middle-aged man turned his head but continued on his way without stopping. Thirty seconds later someone threw a dollar into Bell’s hat and hurried off. Finally, six minutes later, someone stopped, leaned against a wall, and listened. After checking his watch, he too continued on his way.
In the 45 minutes that Bell played, loudly and with great emotion, seven stopped at least for a minute to see the performance; twenty-seven donated money, mostly as they passed by—Bell collected a little over $32; $20 was donated at the end of the performance by someone who recognized him and felt embarrassed by his lack of attention.
In all 1,070 people that morning completely ignored one of the world’s finest violinists playing some of the most beautiful music that has ever been written. Many passersby were only three feet away. Few even turned their heads in Bell’s direction.
“It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . .ignoring me.”Bell laughs. “At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cell phone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.”
Interestingly, children noticed Bell and stopped to listen. Without exception, their parents pulled them away and forced them to rush off.
And just as interesting, yet far more disheartening, is that 100 feet away from Bell stood a line of folks, sometimes 6 people long, waiting to get lottery tickets. In 45 minutes, not one person turned around.
It’s easy as I sit here at my desk on a quite evening at home to think well of myself. Surely, I would be different. Certainly, I would make time for such rare beauty. But, would I really?
Most of the people in the subway station that morning were rushing to work or to school. Would I be any different? Was it that the subway passengers truly did not recognize beauty or was it that the beauty was simply irrelevant to them? Far greater concerns pressed upon them that morning.
That’s the saddest part of this story to me. Our lives are so busy that we have no time for the very things that bring meaning and joy to our lives.
Click here to read the full story and to view the video footage.