I was just struck by a line in Isherwood’s “A Single Man”: “George is like a man trying to sell a real diamond for a nickel on the street. The diamond is protected from all but the tiniest few, because the great hurrying majority can never stop to dare to believe that it could conceivably be real.” It reminded me of doing a PR gig for Carlsburg Lager years ago, dressed up like Sinatra in Canary Wharf at 7am singing “They All Laughed” while pretty girls tried to give out free Sinatra CDs that were being sold in the shop for a tenner. Try as we might, no one wanted a free CD. For a slightly more rarefied example of diamonds on the street, read this. Washington, DC Metro Station: on a cold January morning in 2007. The man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about an hour. During that time approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. After 3 minutes: a middle aged man noticed the musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried on.
4 minutes: The violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw the money in the hat without stopping and continued to walk.
6 minutes: A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and walked away
10 minutes: A 3-year old boy stopped but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. The child stopped to look back at the violinist again, but the mother pulled hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head back all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced their children to move on quickly.
45 minutes: The musician played continuously. Only 6 people stopped and listened for a short while. About 20 gave money, but continued to walk at their normal pace. The man collected a total of $32.
1 hour: He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded.
Findings; No one knew this, but:
- The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest 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 Joshua Bell sold out a theatre in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each.
This is a true story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the Metro Station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste, and people's priorities.
The questions raised: "In a common place environment, at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?"
One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be this: If we do not take a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world, playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments ever made... How many other things are we missing?