Monday, April 16, 2007

Violin Busking

He emerged from The Metro at the L'Enfant Plaza station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.
So begins an interesting article on an experiment the Washington Post conducted to see how the average communter would respond to high art. For just under an hour one morning they had the classical violinist Joshua Bell play classical music in a Metro train station. The piece is interesting; though perhaps predictable. Somehow, you knew that had there been a positive reaction, there would have been no article.

Some of the quotes from the musician are particularly revealing;

"At a music hall, I'll get upset if someone coughs or if someone's cellphone goes off. But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change." This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

THERE ARE SIX MOMENTS IN THE VIDEO THAT BELL FINDS PARTICULARLY PAINFUL TO RELIVE: "The awkward times," he calls them. It's what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn't noticed him playing don't notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord -- the embarrassed musician's equivalent of, "Er, okay, moving right along . . ." -- and begins the next piece.

The article doesn't slam the commuters, and I think some of the analysis is spot on:

Leithauser's point is that we shouldn't be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.

The comments of the people they interviewed are also revealing;

When he was called later in the day, like everyone else, he was first asked if anything unusual had happened to him on his trip into work. Of the more than 40 people contacted, Picarello was the only one who immediately mentioned the violinist.

"There was a musician playing at the top of the escalator at L'Enfant Plaza."

Haven't you seen musicians there before?

"Not like this one."

In 43 minutes of playing he made $32.17; but twenty of that was from a person that recognized him. Which really translates to $12.17. Hardly a great way to make a living...

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