Monday, April 09, 2007

Letting Yourself Listen

Would you be smart enough to recognize the genius of Joshua Bell playing his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius on the street? Probably not according to a recent "test", where he played outside the L’Enfant Plaza metro stop for 43 minutes and collected exactly $32.17.
The Washington Post Magazine feature article this past weekend was somewhat alarming. It described a carefully planned surprise concert by Joshua Bell on January 12, just a few months ago. I think it’s great that he went along with the idea, to the point of donning scruffy clothes and a baseball cap, so as to look like just any other street musician out to make a buck or two. It was not possible to disguise his one-of-a-kind violin, but most people didn’t even spend a lot of time looking at his instrument.
When asked to predict the success of this experiment, Leonard Slatkin, the conductor of the NSO, thought the young violinist would pull in around $150 in 45 minutes – 5 times what he actually made. This is in contrast to Joshua Bell’s actual income of $1,000 per minute when in concert.
"What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare?" from Leisure by W.H. Davies.
During the entire time, only one person stopped to listen. She recognized Bell from a recent Library of Congress concert and had front row, center in the L’Enfant Plaza concert. She threw in $20, more than half his take. She was appalled that people were throwing quarters and even pennies!
A young child wanted to get a look at the source of the music, but the mother carefully positioned herself between the child and the musician so they wouldn’t need to stop their journey to daycare.
Those who found out after the fact were frustrated and embarrassed, kicking themselves for their misplaced priorities and for having given up such an opportunity.
I kept asking myself if I would have been able to tell the difference, if I would have stopped to listen, if I would have thrown in a contribution befitting such a performer. I really don’t know. But I do know the next time I see a street musician, I will give him or her more than just a fleeting glance.
A video clip of Joshua Bell's concert at L'Enfant Plaza can be seen here.


Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

You would have known in half a second that the violinist was brilliant. Weird that you could doubt that.

I'm so pissed he didn't pick a subway stop I use. Why not Metro Center? Eastern Market? Dupont Circle? Union Station?

The violinists I've heard at those stations are so bad, I give them a dollar because I feel so sorry for them.

Your ear is great - I think Joshua Bell's PR people chose a station where they believed people would be the most oblivious, or the most in a hurry. Great PR - and what a loss for all of us music lovers who never get to L'Enfant Plaza!

9:31 AM  
Blogger Kristin said...

I'm frequently at L'enfant, but I tend to bypass the exit with the musicians. It's a shame; many are talented. I just want/need to get to work.

10:23 AM  
Blogger steve said...

I love Strings so much that Id a stoppped were it Jack Benny...but I would have known it was sumpthin special as well...most people have no patience for good music...if doesn't go "Boom-Boom-Chuck" and grab them right away...they're outta there!pzhthqt

11:47 AM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Reya -- 43 minutes is not a lot of time no matter where it was. The article included the story of how he got there that morning, being limo'ed to the closest metro stop so as not to jeopardize his multi-million $ violin on a subway train. It was just a small moment in time that likely will never happen again, that is not until some obscure street musician emerges with the talent of Joshua Bell. It could happen!

Kristin -- Please tell me you would have stopped if you had heard him. I'm sure your job could have waited 5 minutes, no?

Steve -- I'm sure you would have stopped, thrown in some $$, and chatted him up when he packed up to go. You are the guy who would have been captivated. While Kristin and I were hurrying on to work...

12:55 PM  
Blogger Mother of Invention said...

I can easily believe this! No wonder some people pick up amazing deals at garage sales etc. where most people have no idea what things are worth. My friend got a Martin guitar for $10 that he later found was worth $3500!

1:14 PM  
Blogger Kristin said...

I would have stopped. I always stop, even if they're nowhere near as talented as Joshua Bell. That's why I skip that exit most days. I'd always be late.

3:21 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

Like Kristin I too stop. My son is a musician and many of his friends at CalArts were "street performers. Darn good ones too. No matter the age, no matter the abilities, these are people who love music and love to play it. I am appreciative that they are out there for you and me. I am always a bit poorer after stopping to listen but I would never consider passing them by without stopping to listen, nor dropping a dollar or more in their cup/violin or flute case.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I think I would have known this guy is really good, but doubt I would have figured out he's numero uno

1:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog:
She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters... I thought you might find it interesting.

10:50 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I wouldn't notice, mostly because I have never heard of him. Even if I had, I probably still wouldn't notice.

It took me years of watching The Magic School Bus with my kids before I suspected the the theme song was being sung by Little Richard (one of my favourite artists)

2:27 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Anonymous -- This is a great post that reminds us that street musicians are a special breed and that credentials don't necessarily make a performance artist! Thank you for pointing me to this other perspective.

2:44 PM  
Blogger GEWELS said...

Wow, what an unbelievable treat that would have been. I, too, make a point of stopping, listening and showing my appreciation. What better job than to fill the streets with music!
Besides, you never know who you may be listening to.

Interesting experiment

6:41 PM  
Blogger soubriquet said...

Back in 2005, there was something of a debate in England, because, following the introduction of new laws designed to stop beggars on the street, a lot of layabouts got hold of tin whistles and claimed to be musicians, and buskers, and therefore they were exempt from the law.
So some cities introduced licensing for buskers, and an audition.
Former Yes, and solo keyboard player, Rick Wakeman, who once sold out Madison Square Gardens five nights in a row, went out on the
streets of York for BBC documentary
He met good musicians, and shoplifters turned to whistling..
But after interviewing a young violinist who had made £45 in as many minutes, Rick revealed his take was a pitiful 14 pence for half an hour. -26 cents.
Other buskers however?
This guy busks in Chester, England.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Barbara said...

Soubriquet -- Thanks for stopping by. I hear a lot about you from my husband David, a big fan of yours. I loved your video. Your story from the UK confirms what everyone has said about musical success or lack thereof on the street.

2:45 PM  

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