Subway Musician

Joshua Bell unpacked his $3.5 million 1713 Stradivarius violin in a busy Washington DC subway station at 7:51am on Friday, January 12, 2007. He put on a baseball cap, and he began to play. He performed for 43 minutes music composed by Bach, Ponce, Massenet and Schubert.

Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post, and Pulitzer Prize winner for the subsequent article chronicling the event, wrote: “He’d clearly meant it when he promised not to cheap out this performance: He played with acrobatic enthusiasm, his body leaning into the music and arching on tiptoes at the high notes. The sound was nearly symphonic, carrying to all parts of the homely arcade as the pedestrian traffic filed past.”

Over 1000 people walked by without a second glance. Only 27 people stopped to listen. Total take for the shift was $32.17, excluding a patron who recognized him, engaged with him, and gave him $20.00. “Actually,” Bell said with a laugh, “that’s not so bad, considering. That’s 40 bucks an hour. I could make an okay living doing this, and I wouldn’t have to pay an agent.”  (Weingarten)

It would be easy to dismiss the crowd as uneducated buffoons but it is not that simple; the underlying principles for understanding and appreciating art are complex. Weingarten makes the point that “Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?” Weingarten makes a case for Kant’s view –  life is busy and full of distractions, and the contextual view of art will affect the depth of perception. These people cannot be judged on their inability to appreciate beauty.

Of greater significance is Weingarten’s commentary on the pace of life in general. The velocity of our modern-day, wealth-driven world does not allow our priorities to include the appreciation of art, and he raises the point that if we cannot find time to listen to the world’s finest compositions performed by the world’s finest musician, then “what else are we missing?”

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
-from “Leisure,” by W.H. Davies

Like all good articles, Weingarten’s raises more questions than it answers. The subway may not be a source of inspiration for many people, and it is possible that the next subway musician encountered in your travels may not be worthy of too much of your time. But that is Weingarten’s point – how will you know?

Joshua Bell returned to the same Washington subway station in September 2014 and, thanks to a bit of promotion, his performance was well-received.

See Joshua Bell’s subway performance here.

Read Gene Weingarten’s article here.