Stop and Hear the Music



I’d like to share a story with you today. It’s a story with a message I find very moving and powerful.

By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in blue jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swivelled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour at the L’Enfant Metro station in Washington DC. By count, 1,097 people passed by. Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

So, what do you think happened?

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped. About 20 gave him money, but the others continued to walk their normal pace. The violinist collected $32.

The twist in the story? The violinist was Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston’s stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements. But on that Friday in January, Joshua Bell was just another mendicant, competing for the attention of busy people on their way to work.

Bell’s performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment to see if people would actually stop and notice beauty in unexpected places. Would a crowd gather? Would people willingly miss their trains or turn off their cell phones? Would people slow down, be late for work inexplicably drawn in to the music?

The answer is no. We see what we expect to see. We hear what we want to hear.
And we experience what we anticipate we will experience. We do not expect to see a world-class musician on the side of the road, so we don’t see him, even if he is there.

I love this reminder to be more mindful of the treasures we might find in unexpected places, if we only keep our senses and our minds open to finding them.

What do you think? Would you have stopped to listen to Bell?  What are some of the treasures you have found in expected places lately? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.