If you heard a Bell in the subway, would you stop to listen?

On a recent January day, commuters coming through the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station at 7:51am in Washington DC passed by a street musician playing the violin.  Most walked by, a few stopped to listen.  Young children stopped more than others.  After playing for 45 minutes, the violinist had collected $32.

Not a bad take except that the musician was world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell, who just a few days earlier had sold out Boston’s Symphony Hall at more than $100 a ticket.  And, to put the $32 in perspective a little more, Joshua was belting out Bach’s Partita in D Minor on a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin.

Joshua Bell was playing as part of a “social experiment about perception” run by the Washington Post.  So what do we learn from this?

There are two takes on this story, both valid.  The first take is that there is beauty all around us, every day, that we walk by, head down and disconnected.  The world and our lives would be better if we stopped not just for street musicians but also to look others in the eye and learn about what makes them special.  (If you read the Washington Post article you’ll see that almost every little kid stopped to listen.  So either children recognize transcendent beauty more than others, or they just care more about what’s in front of them than about their schedule.  Either way, we have something to learn here.)

The second take is that the experiment makes for a great story but lousy experimental design.  Put another way, I love the experiment, but I don’t think it answers the question it was set out to ask, which, roughly, was, “Will genius be spotted anytime, anywhere?”

What kind of genius?  Genius to whom?

Consider this:

  1. The audience of people who love and appreciate classical music is small.  (I come from a family of classical musicians and played piano seriously for 20 years, so I say this with regret).  If it had been a world-class rock band or rap artist or dancer, more people would have stopped.  I’m sure of it.
  2. People pay for the whole experience.  The theatre is theatre for a reason – you’re paying for the spectacle, the atmosphere, the whole wrapping around the performance.  You don’t get to extract the “genius performance” from the stage and compare apples to apples.
  3. If people aren’t ready to hear your message (wrong time of day, wrong frame of mind), your message is going to be lost
  4. Pitching a specialized product to everyone gets you nothing.  If Joshua had played at the 66th and Broadway subway outside of the Julliard School of Music, I’d wager he’d have gotten a bigger crowd

As the world gets bigger and more complex, it’s increasingly unlikely that your story is relevant/interesting to everyone.  Putting the right context around your story and telling it to the right people in the right way is more important than ever.

Still, this makes for a great story.

2 thoughts on “If you heard a Bell in the subway, would you stop to listen?

  1. Another great post Sasha.

    Little hat tip: near the end of this post there’s a bunch of code that I’m pretty certain shouldn’t be there (“<!– /* Font Definitions */ @font-face {font-family:”MS Mincho”; pano[…]”)..

  2. Thanks a bunch, Morten (or “Jamie”). The perils of pasting from Word. Should be all sorted out now.

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