Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Social Experiment that Proves Many of Us May Be Missing the Beauty of Life Around Us


At a Metro Station in Washington, D.C. on a cold January morning two years ago, a violinist played six Bach pieces as approximately two thousand people went through the station (see above video), most of whom were on their way to work. Three minutes into performance, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule. Four minutes later a woman threw a dollar in a hat next to the violinist, not even stopping to listen to the music, and continued her brisk walk.

At six minutes a young man leaned against the wall to listen to the violinist, then looked at his watch and started to walk again. At ten minutes a three-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The kid stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head the whole time. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent - without exception - forced their children to move on quickly.

During the entire forty-five minute presentation only six people stopped and listened to the music for a short while. About twenty people put a dollar or two into the hat, but all continued to walk at their normal pace. The violinist collected a total of thirty two dollars. He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.

The Rest of the Story

The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate violin pieces ever written on a Stradivarious violin worth three and a half million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theatre in Boston where the people payed well over one hundred dollars each to sit and listen to Joshua play the same music he played for free in the Metro.

The Washington Post organized Joshua Bell's performance at the Metro Station as a social experiment about perception, taste and people's priorities. The experiment raises several thought-provoking questions:

In a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? If so, do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

The Joshua Bell experiment also causes me also to ask a very personal question:

If we all are capable of being oblivious to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, on one of the most beautiful instruments ever made . . .

How many other moments of spectacular beauty am I missing because I rush through the day and fail to see the unexpected brilliance of the people, places and events immediately around me?