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World-Class Violinist Joshua Bell Overlooked at DC Rush Hour

BellThe Washington Post conducted a fascinating experiment in mid-January. They placed world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell at the entrance to the L'Enfant Plaza Station in Washington, DC to conduct a little experiment. Would hearing a world-class violinist inspire commuters to stop and look up from their morning rush, or would they soldier on, ignorant of the Grammy-winning musician who has played with nearly all of the world's major orchestras? The results were an exercise in music appreciation and context:

Joshua_bell"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."

Stacy Furukawa, a demographer at the Commerce Department, was the only commuter to recognize Bell.

Said Furukawa: "It was the most astonishing thing I've ever seen in Washington. 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?"

Pearls Before Breakfast [washington post]

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  1. Joshua Bell? I would have tossed him my phone number!

    Posted by: Tyler | Apr 9, 2007 9:56:06 AM

  2. Great experiment. I noticed, though, that the Washington Post made sure to say that Mr. Bell is handsome, "...single and straight..." They clearly had no qualms about outing him as straight.

    Posted by: JT | Apr 9, 2007 10:54:22 AM

  3. Thanks for reminding me of one of the reasons I left DC...

    (then again, I'm not sure Seattle'd be any different)

    Posted by: SeattleDan | Apr 9, 2007 10:58:56 AM

  4. Hey, not that many people seemed to stop and pay attention, but $32 in 45 minutes ain't half bad (at least for this poor college student!) =p

    Posted by: Ryan | Apr 9, 2007 11:13:36 AM

  5. What's so unbelievable about this? People are in a rush and probably see street musicians everyday so they've become accustomed to not paying attention.

    Posted by: Michael | Apr 9, 2007 11:16:36 AM

  6. Great article/experiment.

    But, much like they admited by mentioning Kant. Nothing can be infered due to the venue/setting scewing everything. The same people who ignored him might have payed more attention and appreciated what was going on if he was in a park on a sunny day and they were not rushing off to work.

    The part about all kids being intersted in what was going on was cool, and the whole concept of the world driving away/squashing the poetry from/in our souls.

    Posted by: pacificoceanboy | Apr 9, 2007 11:16:47 AM

  7. With respect to Mr. Bell, or any not-so-famous performer plying in our nations train stations, I don't think this is a very accurate litmus test of culture.

    What the hell do you expect during the morning rush when people are trying to get to work? Had they tried this during the end of the day then maybe they would have a sanctimonious leg to stand on. Or try a shopping mall where people are not scurrying to get to work on time.

    This sounds like yet another bullshit "experiment" that was set up to achieve a desired outcome rather than just see what happens.

    I'm all for stopping to smell the roses or take in a "train station concert," but if I'm trying to make a living, I'm probably gonna do my rose-smelling in the evenings lest I find myself unemployed. But at least then I'll have all the time in the world to linger in train stations since I won't be able to afford the buy the CDs or go to the real concerts. ;-)

    Posted by: Patrick W. | Apr 9, 2007 11:17:22 AM

  8. Most people haven't got a clue who Joshua Bell is and for that matter, rush hour is a time for specifically that, rushing. So a violinist camps out to serenade the passers-by. Wooo. That's not an experiment, that's just stupid. If people had TIME to stop and listen, I'm quite certain they would. Otherwise, that's what they pay big money for to SCHEDULE the time to go an truly enjoy a performance. Maybe now Mr. Bell knows what true street musicians deal with. Put his time to better use and have him do a benefit performance for underpriveleged schoolchildren.

    A Simon David store here in Dallas used to perform a somewhat similar nonsensical "experiment" by maintaining the employ of a concert pianist to play soft, soothing numbers while the locals did their grocery shopping. It was all part of the "experience". Feh.

    Posted by: FizziekruntNT | Apr 9, 2007 11:20:33 AM

  9. My co-worker mentioned this story to me because we both work at L'Enfant Plaza. Unfortunately the exit we use is an outdoor one, and the Starbucks is elsewhere so there was no chance we would have passed by, but neither of us would have failed to recognize.

    Still that was a painfully long article to read to get to the point that I arrived at before having seen it. Of course people would have just filed past, it was morning rush hour and they have places to be. Had it been mid-day it could have been very different. But it's definitely the context. If it were Brad Pitt reading poetry, people would have mobbed, but if it were Corrine Bailey Rae singing - most people wouldn't have batted an eye.

    I did think it was pretty funny that he was out of his element and started craving any type of notice. Good experiment but unnecessary to arrive at the conclusion.

    Posted by: urban bohemian | Apr 9, 2007 11:34:59 AM

  10. I think the comments here are as telling as the public's reaction on the subway platform. Like the Brazilian woman said, if you took this same situation and moved it to another country, you'd likely get a completely different (read: more positive) reaction.

    Yes, we're all very busy. I have job that regularly requires me to put in 15 hour days. Even still, sometimes you should just take the time to enjoy something beautiful. What's the point of living otherwise?

    Posted by: SeattleDan | Apr 9, 2007 11:36:52 AM

  11. If Madonna or Norah Jones set up shop in the same station, I think more people would have stopped to gawk, don't you?

    Posted by: Dan | Apr 9, 2007 11:40:04 AM

  12. Yeah, what was the point of this experiment? To prove that people are busy? To prove that violin music may not have been the right type of music for people to stop and listen to while they're busy? I bet if he had been playing something upbeat like bluegrass, he'd have gotten more stoppers...A little violin is conducive to enjoying a glass of wine in a restaurant, not for people hurrying to get somewhere they're not...

    Posted by: Michael W. | Apr 9, 2007 11:40:09 AM

  13. Andy, thanks for posting this. It was really interesting to read.

    Posted by: Jeff in Deserto | Apr 9, 2007 11:51:04 AM

  14. At 8:00 AM tomorrow I am going to stand outside Grand Central Terminal with a laptop and let people watch me write blog entries. After 45 minutes, we will see how many people stop to watch me blog, and how many recognize me.

    And that will be just about as meaningful as the Joshua Bell experiment.

    Posted by: Famous Author Rob Byrnes | Apr 9, 2007 12:20:07 PM

  15. The premise that he is famous is wrong. He's only famous within the world of classical music, so the proper context might be him playing someplace music lovers hang out. The general public would only know him from a couple of appearances on the Tonight Show a decade ago.

    Posted by: anon | Apr 9, 2007 12:26:01 PM

  16. The point of this "non-story" is to make American's look like ignorant fools with no "culture"

    This article and Andy's post is just a further example of the MSM bias agianst it's own: i.e. Americans. They'll do anything, even create non-news stories to make American's look foolish!

    But hey, $32 is 45 minutes, American's sure are generous! Even if they don't know who the fuck you are...

    Posted by: Mark | Apr 9, 2007 12:35:51 PM

  17. blah, blah, blah. if it was paris hilton a bumpin' and a grindin' and a warblin' away, you betcha bottom dollar there would be more peeps stoppin' rather than scurryin' off to punch the clock... but instead of quarters bein' tossed in her basket, it'd be valtrex tabs.

    Posted by: sean | Apr 9, 2007 12:38:23 PM

  18. The article doesn't say how many passers-by heard the music, appreciated it and had a better day because they heard beautiful music on their way to work that morning. If it's about how much acknowledged attention Joshua received, it's kind of a shallow experiment.

    Posted by: Violin Fan | Apr 9, 2007 12:55:30 PM

  19. What an elitist piece of crap...! As if a concert violinist glows with his own light. Give the people who are rushing to their jobs to pay off their enormous debt to capitalism a break.

    Posted by: MiKEM | Apr 9, 2007 1:00:41 PM

  20. Sorry, but I have to agree with others that this was pretentious and silly.

    I know Joshua Bell by name, and I listen to Classical music, but I don't know that I have ever seen a picture of him since most of my listening tends to be over Internet or Satellite radio.

    And yes, people are rushing to work and they pass musicians every day. It's insulting to accuse those people of being culturally bankrupt because they didn't stop and point and say "Oh my gosh...Joshua Bell!!!"

    Posted by: mark m | Apr 9, 2007 1:09:00 PM

  21. This article was subjective, however. There are many occasions on the G-train at Clinton-Washington that this gentleman plays the violin beautifully in the morning on the platforms and most either clap at the end of the songs or give him some money, if not both. It is so lovely to hear him. It can take a bad start and turn it into a wonderful morning.

    We are all not jaded individuals. We just need to sometimes take in what is around us appreciate it.

    Posted by: Gary | Apr 9, 2007 1:12:38 PM

  22. There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog:
    She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters... I thought you might find it interesting.

    Posted by: Morr | Apr 9, 2007 1:18:48 PM

  23. Have the reporters ever taken the Metro during morning rush hour? If you miss a train, who knows when the next one might show up, if the lines will be running properly, how packed the stations are (esp. L'Enfant Plaza). I'm all for culture, but honestly the acoustics suck in the Metro stations and it just adds to the cacophony. I often hear and listen to the street musicians but don't stop -- who's got that time?

    Posted by: John | Apr 9, 2007 2:00:01 PM

  24. Funny how defensive people seem to be getting. "Elitist piece of crap"? Chill out a bit, hon.

    It's not meant to be any kind of cultural indictment. The article does a pretty good job of staying away from any kind of sweeping statement.

    It's just a pretty funny 'what if' scenario.

    Posted by: seattledan | Apr 9, 2007 2:16:41 PM

  25. There's a reason it's called the morning rush - people are rushing to get to fucking work. You know, the place where you earn money so you can feed yourself and your family?

    However, he is very cute...

    Posted by: Jordan | Apr 9, 2007 2:21:38 PM

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