Street Musician – Violinist Joshua Bell

When I was in high school, my friend Andy and I took the train into Boston in the summers to play guitar and banjo duets in the subways. We had a blast playing songs like The Beverly Hillbillies, Duelin’ Banjos and Cripple Creek for early morning commuters. We opened our instrument cases, and people actually threw money in. We usually made about $40-$50 between us, enough to cover our lunch and train fare with some spending money left over.

So I was fascinated to read this article from Sunday’s Washington Post about world class violinist Joshua Bell performing incognito for Washington D.C. Metro commuters at L’Enfant station on the Orange Line. On Friday morning, January 12, 2007, one of the world’s greatest violinists played some of the world’s greatest music on his $3.5 million Stradivarius while over 1,000 people passed by in oblivion.

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look . . .

“At the beginning,” Bell says, “I was just concentrating on playing the music. I wasn’t really watching what was happening around me . . .” Eventually, though, he began to steal a sidelong glance.

“It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . .”

The word doesn’t come easily.

“. . . ignoring me.”

Bell is laughing. It’s at himself.

“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

Before he began, Bell hadn’t known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous.

“It wasn’t exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies,” he says. “I was stressing a little.”

Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?

“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence . . .”

THERE ARE SIX MOMENTS IN THE VIDEO THAT BELL FINDS PARTICULARLY PAINFUL TO RELIVE: “The awkward times,” he calls them. It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord — the embarrassed musician’s equivalent of, “Er, okay, moving right along . . .” — and begins the next piece.

The writer of the article, Gene Weingarten, appropriately quotes W.H. Davies: “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” (from “Leisure,” by W.H. Davies)

The whole performance was videotaped and later analyzed. At one point a mother and her three-year-old son pass by. The child clearly wants to stop and listen but the mother grips him firmly by the hand and moves on. Weingarten comments:

The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too . . . Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.

Towards the end of Bell’s performance, one commuter actually recognizes him. Stacy Furukawa had seen Bell perform three weeks earlier at a free concert at the Library of Congress.

“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 . . . 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.

“Actually,” Bell said with a laugh, “that’s not so bad, considering. That’s 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn’t have to pay an agent.”

I can’t believe it. My friend Andy and I made more money playing the Boston subways than Joshua Bell made playing the Metro in Washington D.C. (And that was thirty years ago!)

One last piece of interesting information from the article:

One biographically intriguing fact about Bell is that he got his first music lessons when he was a 4-year-old in Bloomington, Ind. His parents, both psychologists, decided formal training might be a good idea after they saw that their son had strung rubber bands across his dresser drawers and was replicating classical tunes by ear, moving drawers in and out to vary the pitch.

The six pieces that Bell played are as follows:

  • “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor
  • Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria”
  • Manuel Ponce’s “Estrellita”
  • a piece by Jules Massenet
  • a Bach gavotte
  • the second “Chaconne”

You can read the whole article and view video clips of commuters walking past Bell while he plays here. I really appreciated Joshua Bell’s sense of humor and humility displayed throughout the article.

HT: The Evangelical Outpost

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