Virtuoso busker

What would happen if you took a virtuoso classical violinist and had him pose as a busker? Would a crowd gather to listen? Would commuters drop large bills into his violin case?

The Washington Post set up the experiment. Violinist Joshua Bell agreed to perform at L’Enfant Plaza at rush hour.

And what happened? The Post article serves up lots of interesting details. Here’s an example — an excerpt that made me want to cry.

A couple of minutes into it, something revealing happens. A woman and her preschooler emerge from the escalator. The woman is walking briskly and, therefore, so is the child. She’s got his hand. …

“There was a musician,” Parker says, “and my son was intrigued. He wanted to pull over and listen, but I was rushed for time.”

So Parker does what she has to do. She deftly moves her body between Evan’s and Bell’s, cutting off her son’s line of sight. As they exit the arcade, Evan can still be seen craning to look. …

The behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. 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.

An interesting experiment. What it says about our society is not encouraging. Mind you, they carried the experiment out when people are most obliged to stick to their schedules — morning rush hour.


10 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. MaryP
    Apr 15, 2007 @ 09:18:53

    Yes, and when she’s told who the musician was, she simply grins and comments on how smart her son is. But not a second’s regret for the missed opportunity. It made me sad.


  2. JewishAtheist
    Apr 15, 2007 @ 10:26:27

    Maybe to non-experts, the difference between the best and merely competent is mostly insignificant? Especially since a lot of the difference probably requires attention to notice.

    And, hey, are you going to update us on your thoughts on evolution? I thought my response to your post might have been convincing. 🙂


  3. Simen
    Apr 15, 2007 @ 12:38:39

    They did it when people were busy. I don’t know how many people would’ve stopped if they had done it at a better time, say a weekend. Perhaps more people would have stopped. Perhaps not so many would have. Classical music isn’t as popular as it used to be. I know I wouldn’t have stopped; I simply don’t enjoy classical music.


  4. MaryP
    Apr 15, 2007 @ 16:41:46

    They weren’t taking time to evaluate his competence; they mostly responded as if he simply wasn’t there at. all.

    I didn’t like classical music when I was younger. As I mature, I discover more and more to enjoy in it. (Along with the many other types of music I enjoy.) The nuance, richness, power, the emotional expressiveness — all went right over my head in my teens and early twenties.


  5. Michelle
    Apr 15, 2007 @ 16:57:22

    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.


  6. tamino
    Apr 15, 2007 @ 19:55:56

    I did a lot of busking back in the day (in Boston) with my partner; we did Irish ballads and dance music. We ultimately arrived at the “inverse applause hypothesis.” When we did a song or tune so exceptionally well that it caused a crowd to burst into spontaneous, loud applause — they almost never donated much money (sometimes none at all). When we were mediocre, we’d make much better money.

    I’ve also noticed people tend to give a buck or so to the *worst* musicians on the street; maybe it’s out of pity? I think it’s not a good idea to feed the delusions of the untalented, and it’s very discouraging to the talented that their gift is so poorly rewarded.


  7. aaron
    Apr 15, 2007 @ 22:26:46

    On the day in question, there’s a very good chance I got off at L’Enfant Plaza on my way to work — it’s my most common route. However, I wouldn’t have walked by that spot until a good 15 minutes after he stopped, so I wasn’t one of the people that passed greatness by.

    That being said, if I had been there at the right time, I’d have had headphones in my ears and to the extent I heard the violin I likely would have treated it as a minor irritant to my ability to listen to the music I was playing. Even if by chance I didn’t have headphones on (which happens roughly once out of every 200 days I commute), I doubt I have the ear to have discerned Bell’s immense talent — I would have heard him play during the escalator ride, perhaps even listened and enjoyed. But then I would’ve walked right past him en route to the office, one of the ignorant masses.

    As for the children, I’m not ready to put much stock in their wanting to stop, unless the Post videotapes the children’s reactions to a regular busker as well. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they responded the same way.


  8. juggling mother
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 14:27:24

    My kids do stop and listen to every busker – good, bad, and downrght awful:-) They would stay for ever if i didn’t drag them away after one piece. I doubt the kids who wanted to stop and listen were doing so because of his great talent!

    However, it is sad that more adults didn’t stop. I have often stopped and listened to someone I thought was particularly good – and I always give a few coins (although not much, cos I know a few buskers and they make more than me most days!). The kids are allowed to give pennies to all of them:-)

    Still, morning rush hour is a silly time to chose. People think they do not have the time to stop for a few minutes. That says far more about our society than the fact that kids wanted to listen to a good violinist!


  9. Stephen
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 14:51:24

    • MaryP:
    … missed opportunity …

    Exactly — an opportunity to enrich her child. And it would have been a missed opportunity even if it wasn’t Joshua Bell, but just an unusually capable busker.

    • JA:
    I probably couldn’t tell the difference between a superb violinist and a very good one. But I think I would at least break stride for anyone better than yer average busker.

    • Simen:
    Classical music isn’t as popular as it used to be.

    I don’t usually listen to classical music at home — almost exclusively rock or jazz. But I will listen to almost anything live, if it’s done well.

    That’s one of the reasons I focussed on the children’s reactions. Children will listen to any kind of music, as the story illustrates. Parents should encourage their children to soak it in, at least when they have a chance to hear a capable musician.

    • Michelle:

    Thanks for the link. SawLady has a good point here:
    When you play on the street you can’t approach it as if you are playing on a stage. Busking is an art form of its own.

    • Tamino:
    Thanks for sharing your first-hand experience! Rewarding the talentless and not rewarding the talented? Oh, the perversity of human nature!

    • Aaron:
    As for the children, I’m not ready to put much stock in their wanting to stop, unless the Post videotapes the children’s reactions to a regular busker as well. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they responded the same way.

    I guess I should have explained my point more clearly, since most readers seem to have missed it.

    Obviously the parents didn’t know they were stepping between their child and a virtuoso musician. That isn’t the point. It was an opportunity for the children to hear a busker who was capable on his instrument. Why not stop and give the children an enriching experience?

    • JM:
    Morning rush hour is a silly time to chose.

    I totally agree. I think the Post stacked the deck against Mr. Bell. Even the evening rush hour would have been a fairer test of his ability to attract attention. Everybody has appointments to keep in the morning.


  10. Jamie
    Apr 16, 2007 @ 23:40:03

    Even had it not been morning rush hour, I’m wondering how many would have stopped (above the average number that would stop for an ordinary busker). I was reading something today (in a totally different context) about how we have to be in the right setting to truly appreciate certain experiences; perhaps this is a situation where that statement applies. Though I enjoy classical music and listen to it regularly, somehow I think even I might find it difficult to appreciate Bell in a subway station. You have to admit the setting is a wee bit odd for world-class music…


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