The subway musician.


The following story intrigued me and I think there’s a lesson here about appreciation that gets lost as we grow older. Small children are fascinated by everything, but that fascination soon becomes indifference or even boredom as the cares of the world begin to bear down and the daily grind of survival and “keeping up with the Joneses” seems to take priority over the really important things in life, which are usually the little things we take for granted.

Here’s the story.

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule.

A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk.

A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist.

Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

This is a true story. No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the top musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written,with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.

The above scenario was an experiment organized by the Washington Post as part of a sociology study about human perception, taste and priorities. The central question was this: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, can we perceive beauty?

If we do not have a moment to stop and listen when one of the greatest musicians in the world is playing one of the best music pieces ever written, how many other things are we missing in our daily lives? It’s as if most of us are walking around half asleep. I found it interesting that only the little children actually stopped to listen to the man for any length of time. In some ways, it would benefit us all to be more like a small child.

To make use of the old cliche (because it’s a good one), take time to stop and smell the roses. They fade and wither fast.

7 thoughts on “The subway musician.

  1. I’ve said a million times, one of the best things about having kids is that they help me see the world through their eyes, with wonderment and amazement at what we, as adults, may see as mundane or ordinary. This is a prime example of that. We get so caught up in teaching our kids, we neglect to see the lessons they can teach us. One of the reasons I love being a dad: they keep me feeling young with a renewed appreciation for life.

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  2. If the purpose of the experiment was to determine whether people can “perceive beauty in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour,” the folks who designed the study chose almost the worst possible location. People in a subway station are people on their way to somewhere, most of whom need to BE somewhere at a specific time, and they seldom have even a few minutes to spare. If they stopped to listen, they would be late for work or school or a doctor’s appointment or whatever it was they were using the subway to get to. I don’t think the reactions of the people hurrying past the violinist say much of anything about their capacity to appreciate beauty. If the researchers had sent the violinist to a food court or shopping mall or public park or someplace else where not everyone is rushing to meet a tight schedule, lots of people would have stopped to listen and enjoy the music. There are gazillions of videos on YouTube of flash mob performances by choirs, bands, orchestras, dance troupes, etc., and in every case, lots of people of all ages stop to watch and listen, most of them with huge smiles on their faces. When the performance is done, the spectators cheer and whoop and holler in appreciation, and you can tell from their expressions that it was the highlight of their day. Moral: If you want to give a public performance, and you want people to take the time to enjoy it, you need to choose the proper venue.


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