Stop and Smell the Roses – Joshua Bell Tolls for Thee

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If you were passing through your local metro or subway station on your way to work and saw Joshua Bell playing (over a 45-minute span) in front of a trash can, would you have stopped to listen?

Gene Weingarten, staff writer of the Washington Post, wrote this piece April 8, 2007, “Pearls Before Breakfast” in which he describes how he and Joshua Bell, a virtuouso violinist, staged a fake busker scene (on January 12, 2007) to see if anyone would really notice (or care). From snopes, it is declared a true story, although the video below would seem to be proof enough; and the Snopes article is itself a little inaccurate in saying that there “was no recognition” of Bell or his quality playing. If you look at the video below, and wait till the end, you will see that a woman recognized him, having seen his concert two days before.

Here is a 2:37 video of the scene from YouTube. The video is sped up, though thankfully the music is not. This video has been viewed some 850,000 times so far. Click and enjoy!

7 Comments, RSS

  1. Victor

    I actually did read the story somewhere before; it is quite unfortunate that people judge by the cover and so many wonderful artists do not get fully appreciated just because they were not able to afford a top-level publisher.. I guess this is how it is supposed to work in business, and it may give excellent results there, but in art things are supposed to be different…

  2. Minter

    @Victor. Art these days must live under the laws of business as stadiums need to be rented and artists need to be paid for etc… But, truly, as the piece indicates, the question goes beyond art. Do people know how to appreciate the good things, including doing nothing (Italian practice of far niente…)…? In terms of music, my feeling is that we are generally unable to distinguish between good and great musicians because not only do we have a lesser musical culture (in classical/traditional terms), but more importantly we are less and less in touch with ourselves, our instincts and our true feelings. Like appreciating a good bottle of wine, do you need to read the label? I think that there are a lot of mountebank wine connoisseurs, pretending to know a good wine but basing their judgment on the label and price.

    One of my issues with music today is that I don’t feel that there is much innovation going on. So, my sense of musical curiosity seems to have been whittled down such that I prefer to listening to the “good old music.” Then again, I suspect that I am also suffering from “getting old” and perhaps prior generations said the same thing about the music with which I was brought up too!

  3. Victor Goldberg

    One may argue though that putting a great violinist play in the subway by itself cannot play justice to his music — it is not an appropriate place to appreciate good music. Putting a great musician perform in the subway does not guarantee a great performance. A musician would not play the same way in concert hall and the subway. I know if I played, for me it would not be the same. You cannot blame people for not being able to appreciate a great wine if you have mixed it with milk or orange juice. What bothers me more is that concert-goers often would prefer a mediocre performance if played by a famous musician to a great performance played by someone unknown.

    You make some great points about new music.. I think what is happening now is a reaction to an excessive innovation — many people feel that new music got out if touch with the listener. At the end, music is not only judged by the amount of innovation but also the quality of music itself and thought/feeling behind it.

  4. CVG

    I had seen this before and it is brilliant. We can proudly say … only in America that a musician of the caliber of Joshua Bell nonchalantly, even if only for a joke, would play in a tube station.

    Ailleurs, ils se donneraient des airs, heureusement Bell nous a offert des aires.

  5. Sarah

    People might well have appreciated his music but, being on their way to somewhere, had no time to stop and listen. If he wanted to drum up an audience, he should have gone to paved zone outside some coffee bar terraces.

    When in London, I’m quite often stunned at the quality of music in the walkways near the museums. This is not surprising as many of the buskers come from the Royal School of Music.

    The Underground even has a sort of audition, if I remember, to choose the best buskers.

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