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]


  1. JT says

    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.

  2. SeattleDan says

    Thanks for reminding me of one of the reasons I left DC…

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

  3. says

    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

  4. Michael says

    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.

  5. pacificoceanboy says

    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.

  6. Patrick W. says

    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. 😉

  7. FizziekruntNT says

    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.

  8. says

    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.

  9. SeattleDan says

    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?

  10. Dan says

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

  11. Michael W. says

    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…

  12. says

    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.

  13. anon says

    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.

  14. Mark says

    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…

  15. says

    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.

  16. Violin Fan says

    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.

  17. MiKEM says

    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.

  18. mark m says

    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!!!”

  19. Gary says

    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.

  20. Morr says

    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.

  21. John says

    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?

  22. seattledan says

    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.

  23. Jordan says

    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…

  24. Billy says

    Pul-leeze! Straight? Back in his student days at Indiana University he was known as Miss Joshua Bell!

  25. dcmarty says

    “Thanks for reminding me of one of the reasons I left DC… ” What???

    It always amazes me when these bitter queens take ANY opportunity to bash DC. Glad you’re in Seattle, Dan. We’re much better off without you (and your attitude) in DC.

    Regarding the “experiment”, I’d venture to say we’re no different than people in most major cities. In fact, the majority of people here are temporary transplants from all over the world and they bring with them their reactions to tests like these.

  26. Deschanel says

    Say Andy- if you remember the Pet Shop Boys video for “London”, Neil and Chris were busking in the Underground, seemingly ignored except for a jolly dancing drunk :)

    (probably edited though, lots o people probably recognized them..)

  27. pacificoceanboy says

    Did any of you read the actual article?

    Mark for example, the article explicitly states that no inference can be made due to the venue in which it was presented. The article mentions Kant a philosopher to support that nothing can be determined about the cultural/ artistic appreciation of the people.

    Instead of getting all brainwashed “gung ho america” hollier than thou you should read the entire article.

  28. mark says

    it’s call nuance OceanBoy! And you prove my point… IT’S A NON-STORY! There is know actual “news” relevance to the entire piece!

    So, don’t get yourself all worked up with your brainwashed “all americans are stupid” theology… better luck next time.

  29. seattledan says

    Marty, did you read the next sentence down? I understand you’re probably far too busy for this whole ‘context’ thing, but really…

    Everyone settle down. Lack of culture or not, I think this whole is exchange is proof that DC is sorely lacking a sense of humor.

  30. Brian says

    I liked the article. I’m a classical musician, but even if I weren’t I would still be able to notice that Bell’s music was on a totally different plane than the average street performer. I think the take-away message in the piece isn’t that Americans are a bunch of philistines, but that there’s great beauty to be experienced if we only allow ourselves a moment to be mindful of our surroundings.

  31. LYLE says

    “I think the take-away message in the piece isn’t that Americans are a bunch of philistines, but that there’s great beauty to be experienced if we only allow ourselves a moment to be mindful of our surroundings.”

    Exactly, Brian. I don’t think the point here was so much that it was Joshua Bell, but rather how sad that even at that exquisite level of playing most people weren’t capable of allowing that beauty to penetrate their rush hour absorption.

  32. scott says

    the last time i looked, joshua bell put his pants on over his underwear, shopped for yogurt and blueberries at the local market, and ordered a tall soy half decaf latte the same way i did. in other words, quotidian events are inherent to our lives. like a violinist playing, open cased, in a subway station. a superb, profoundly sexy violinist, but a violiniist nonetheless.
    i have heard mr bell (may i call you josh) perform many times and he is truly sublime. but to call this an experiment (and for mr bell to be injured by the non-response) is ludicrous. now if it had been Ludicris……

  33. Don A. says

    The one thing that really comes out in this and from the comments I have read, is that Classical music is not to be heard as background music. It is to be experienced through the whole person and needs to be listened to intently not as a by-product of what you are doing at the moment but as intently as you would sit down and read a book, or as passionately as you would be looking at a Renoir in the Art Museum. If you stuck a famous painting up in the same venue, how many people would stop to look? Art and particular music as art, is to be enjoyed with total concentration, not as a fling or as elevator music.

  34. Michael Korman says

    Michael Korman: symphony, wedding, cruise ship,strolling restaurant and STREET BUSKER violinist.

    I usually have 200 people listening to me on street corners and art fairs when I play.

    It has more to do with the musical selections than how handsome the violinist is! (or if he is playing a Guanerius)

  35. MEAGAN says

    I personally didn’t have a problem with the article. However, it is a bit of an overreaction to bring culture into the matter. It was an EXPERIMENT not something intended to offend anybody. I love music, and had I been passing by on my way to work, i would have stopped and listened for a few minutes. Even if it caused me to be a few minutes late. Considering i’ve never been late to work, i wouldn’t have to worry about getting fired. I can understand why other people would have just kept walking.