I enjoy this true story so much, that I wanted to share it again as we move into this year’s holiday season. It’s a reminder to look beyond the surface and tune into the heart of what we’re seeing, doing, and hearing. Or another way to put it is “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
A man stood in 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, around 1,100 people went through the station.
After the first three minutes went by, a middle aged man noticed the playing. He stopped for a few seconds, and then hurried to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the box without stopping. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen, but then looked at his watch and walked away.
A 3-year old boy wanted to listen, but his mother dragged him away while the child kept looking back. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents forced the children to move on.
In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. He collected $32. When he finished playing, no one noticed.
No one knew that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before he had sold out at a theater in Boston.
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. The outlines were: In a commonplace 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: If we can’t hear one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written when it’s in the wrong context, what other amazing things are we missing because we refuse to acknowledge their greatness out of context?