Perception – Something To Think About…

In Washington, DC , at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played for 43 minutes whilst approximately 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

He chose not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest, but instead chose masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.

After about 3 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 meet his schedule.

At 4 minutes: The violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

At 6 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 3-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.

For 43 minutes the musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. As he finished playing each piece silence took over. No one noticed and no one applauded. There was no recognition at all. About 20 gave money but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.17.

The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world.

As it happens, exactly one person recognized Bell, and she didn’t arrive until near the very end. For Stacy Furukawa there was no doubt. She doesn’t know much about classical music, but she had been in the audience three weeks earlier, at Bell’s free concert at the Library of Congress. And here he was, the international virtuoso, sawing away, begging for money. She had no idea what the heck was going on, but whatever it was, she wasn’t about to miss it.

Furukawa positioned herself 10 feet away from Bell with a huge grin on her face. The grin, and Furukawa, remained planted in that spot until the end.

It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” Furukawa says. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?

When it was over, Furukawa introduced herself to Bell, and tossed in a twenty. Not counting that – it was tainted by recognition – the final haul for his 43 minutes of playing was $32.17. Yes, some people gave pennies.

He played some of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play the same music.

Joshua Bell, playing incognito in the D.C. Metro Station, was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities.

Here’s a video of his performance:

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 recognize 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?
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