Joshua Bell playing in Subway Tunnel

I just read this in the Washington Post today.  I could not believe it….

Joshua Bell accepted an invitation to go undercover in a metro station in D.C., dressed in street clothes and a baseball cap.  The question was: IF A GREAT MUSICIAN PLAYS GREAT MUSIC BUT NO ONE HEARS . . . WAS HE REALLY ANY GOOD?

From the article: “It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. 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)?

We’ll go with Kant, because he’s obviously right, and because he brings us pretty directly to Joshua Bell, sitting there in a hotel restaurant, picking at his breakfast, wryly trying to figure out what the hell had just happened back there at the Metro.

“At the beginning,” Bell says, “I was just concentrating on playing the music. I wasn’t really watching what was happening around me . . .”

Playing the violin looks all-consuming, mentally and physically, but Bell says that for him the mechanics of it are partly second nature, cemented by practice and muscle memory: It’s like a juggler, he says, who can keep those balls in play while interacting with a crowd. What he’s mostly thinking about as he plays, Bell says, is capturing emotion as a narrative: “When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you’re telling a story.”

With “Chaconne,” the opening is filled with a building sense of awe. That kept him busy for a while. Eventually, though, he began to steal a sidelong glance.

“It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . .”

The word doesn’t come easily.

“. . . ignoring me.”

Bell is laughing. It’s at himself.

“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.

Before he began, Bell hadn’t known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous.

“It wasn’t exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies,” he says. “I was stressing a little.”

Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?

“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence . . .”

He was, in short, art without a frame. Which, it turns out, may have a lot to do with what happened — or, more precisely, what didn’t happen — on January 12.”


This article was very interesting – I recommend it excellent reading. The link is below, and there are also video clips within the article to showing how, for hours, passerbys just walked right past him – not even realizing that before them was the most famous concert violinist in the world playing on a $3.5 million dollar Stradivarious violin.  In the article, it said he only made a mere $37  – $20 of it was tainted by a woman who recognized him from a concert she’d attended the previous night and therefore gave him a $20 tip.

I have met Joshua Bell twice before – once when I was a sophomore in high school (this was before he was a huge star) he came and gave a masterclass to our orchestra of 20 members, played for us and showed us his then 1.5 mill violin. LOL  And then again, 3 years ago when I was working for the Seattle Symphony at Benaroya Hall.  I was in the artist lounge at the artist entrance of the concert hall and he came walking in – I about studdered my words out as I spoke with him.  This article completely shocked me and yet it was soooo very interesting to see the value people will put on a street musician in comparision if they are a well-known artist or not.


Joshua Bell Undercover in D.C. Metro

– Jennifer


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