Joshua Bell busking on the Washington Metro

Joshua Bell playing Bach

Joshua Bell playing Bach

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.

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.

This is a real 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 priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty?

Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

Pearls Before Breakfast

Is this as simple as context, as the Washington Post would have us believe? It was 7am in the morning, people on their way to work. My God, what time do they get up!

How many people on their way to work are going to stop for anything?

I avoid London rush hour, but on the rare occasions I have got caught up in it it is like being swept along by a crowd of zombies, all with blank expressions on their faces.

What if Joshua Bell had played in a park? What if he had played on the streets of Brighton?

I find very good musicians on the street in Brighton. That is why I hate programmes like X-Factor as they peddle crap to the masses.

And yes, people do stop and listen.

Once, it was late, it was dark, it was getting cold, and I found this guy playing a guitar on the Brighton seafront, no one about. He was incredible. Then a girl walked by, she sat and listened. I was then at risk of missing a train. I apologised for leaving.

Another time, I found a guy sitting in a doorway just off Leicester Square in London. He only had to hit a couple of chords to appreciate how good he was. I hunkered down and joined him He was quite delighted to be appreciated.

A couple of days ago I stumbled across Shadowboxer, live sessions at Surrey University

Shadowboxer – Chase and Status – Time
Shadowboxer – Dancer

and studio sessions.

Shadowboxer – Scott Matthews – Elusive
Shadowboxer – Jessie J – Price Tag

I could not believe how good they were.

Carly Bryant is someone I found playing in The Lanes in Brighton. I sat on the curb entranced.

Yes, context is a factor, but not all.

We have complete and utter crap masquerading as art. Critics say it is good. A case of the Emperor’s Clothes. If outside the context we would dismiss it for what it is, rubbish. But no one dare say so, because it has been put on a pedestal as Art.

Celebrity is confused as a synonym for talent.

We have a semi-literate writer winning the Booker Prize. Judges complaining of writing being too simple. Paulo Coelho dismissed by critics for his simplicity, unable to perceive simplicity as elegance.

Is not the art of writing being able to communicate? If we cannot communicate we cannot write.

Never make the mistake of confusing simple writing with bad writing or incomprehensible writing with good writing.

The good scientist is the one who is able to communicate ideas, not make unintelligible and thus appear intelligent because we are made to feel unintelligent for failing to comprehend.

Top story in Art Journaling Today! (Saturday 4 February 2012).

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