Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Violinist in a metro.

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 thousand 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 best 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 was a social experiment about perception carried out around 2 years ago
Had they announced beforehand that Joshua Bell was going to play at that same place, people would have gathered by the hundreds. Although thousands of people passed by him while he was playing, no one could appreciate the music. What must have been the reason ??
One reason was that, those who heard him must have already been biased - how good can someone playing at the station be ? We often are consciously or unconsciously biased by the looks and condition of a performer. I've myself experienced such a bias. At Sawai Gandharva 2007, while I was sipping tea at a stall, standing beside me was a villager. Black in colour, zero in sophistication and wearing typical Maharashtrian white shirt (सदरा) and white cotton pants (पायजमा). I was told that he was going to present a vocal performance in the evening. My thoughts after looking at him were like - will it be worth listening to him ? I doubt how good he will be, etc. His performance in the evening turned out to be one of the best in the day! I remember his Yamani bhajan (कान्होबा तुझी घोंगङी...) to this day! The singer was able but not very well known in Pune(till that day) - Anant Teredal. I was incorrectly biased by his appearance.
Returning to the experiment - another reason for the un-appreciation would be - hardly anyone has enough time to hear music while hurrying for a train to work. This brings to light another important point - art needs you to spend some time with it until it beings to interest you and you appreciate it. Someone who is really interested in the art would have definitely stopped by the player after hearing only a small piece. In fact, one did stop, and he said(in the survey) that, the player at the station was 'superb' and 'technically proficient' and he had 'never heard anyone of that caliber'. Thus, he could enjoy the oddly positioned, unusually timed but brilliant performance which many people failed to notice. I've heard many people say that they do not like (for e.g) classical music. The reason I reckon is that, they've not spent enough time with that form of art to get to know it and decide whether they are interested in it. People tend to form an opinion even before taking enough experience.

A wonderful article describing the whole scene and containing Bell's comments along with a small video clip of his performance resides here.

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4 comments:

Innocent Warrior said...

"art needs you to spend some time with it until it beings to interest you and you appreciate it"

This is awesome!!!

Vivek said...

Nice story.

Two reasons for the ignorance by the masses are:
First, as you rightly pointed out the bias/prejudice that every human being is possessed with at all time and it is not only limited to appreciation of art. Unfortunately, being prejudiced is a function of growing up. So no wonder, children gave their attention to the music at metro. Grown ups just close their mind based on their prejudice.

And secondly, lack of true knowledge. The people who could not appreciate the music being played at metro, but who would have appreciated the same music, had it been announced who the performer was, are fake. Their interest, taste and knowledge towards music is a sham. Not everyone is like that, but it is a vast majority.
People dont listen to music but listen to the performer. But a person who truly understand music will notice the difference (just like people who stopped by at metro).
And this is so evident at Sawai. People appreciate even a poor performance by a well known singer (even a seasoned singer sucks sometime) and would not even care for a beautiful rendition by a lesser known artist from Dharwad.

Pranav said...

@Innocent Warrior
Thanks! :)

Pranav said...

@Vivek
Very true. Children probably are the only unbiased ones.
Also, like you say, some people go to concerts not out of true interest in music but to socialize (or show off ?). I too came across such people at Sawai.