A true story about perception, taste and priorities

This isn’t actually my story, I received it in one of those emails that periodically do the rounds. You might have too. I was amazed when I read it and immediately went straight to Google to find out if it had really happened.

Written by
Marie Burnett
Added
April 07, 2014

To my immense relief I discovered that it was true, even though it saddened me a little.

Then I wondered how many other amazing things we rush past. How often do our donors, or our beneficiaries, tell us great stories that we miss because we have our heads down as, quite rightly, we beaver away at our jobs? But, surely, if we some times lift our heads, slow down, reflect and listen we might all enjoy greater success. We might even make the world a little better. Joshua Bell tried and thousands of people missed it.

Joshua Bell

In Washington DC , at a Metro station, on a cold January morning in 2007, the man pictured right with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After about three minutes, 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 whatever he felt he had to do.

About four minutes later

The violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

At six minutes

A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.

At 10 minutes

A three-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The child stopped to look at the violinist again, but the mother pushed hard and her son continued to walk, turning his head the whole time. Several other children repeated this action but the parents, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.

At 45 minutes

The musician played continuously. Only six people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.

After one hour

He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all.

No one knew this

The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. He had played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, a performance by Joshua Bell at a Boston theatre was sold out and people had paid an average $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.

This is a true story. Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the DC Metro station, was organised by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.

This experiment raised several questions:

In a common-place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty?

If so, do we stop to appreciate it?

Do we recognise talent in an unexpected context?

One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this:

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made, how many other things are we missing as we rush through life?

About the author: Marie Burnett

Marie Burnett

Marie Burnett (1949-2019) was director of The White Lion Press and a trustee of SOFII.

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