What happens when a maestro plays the subway?

This piece in the Washington Post is one of the most interesting articles I have read in a newspaper in a long, long time.

The Post arranged for Joshua Bell, a world famous violinist, to bring his $3.5 million violin to a subway stop, open up his case for donations, and see how people respond. The story even shows you hidden video. Before you read the article, take a guess at what you think happened.

One intriguing part of the article described how Bell’s parents decided that they should start him on formal violin lessons:

…he got his first music lessons when he was a 4-year-old in Bloomington, Ind. His parents, both psychologists, decided formal training might be a good idea after they saw that their son had strung rubber bands across his dresser drawers and was replicating classical tunes by ear, moving drawers in and out to vary the pitch.

I cannot tell you how far that description of Bell at age 4 is from anything I have observed in my own children. The closest parallel is that my oldest daughters could recite the lyrics to the Kid Rock/Sheryl Crow duet “Picture” when they were two. If you know the lyrics, you will understand how that got me into some trouble more than once.

Thanks to Andrew Brock (who also blogs about this story) for bringing this article to my attention.

Cynthia Yeung

The Washington Post has a long Q&A for the story so I won't repeat any of the points mentioned there.

One interesting factoid, however, is that Joshua Bell's "Voice of the Violin" album shot to the number one spot on iTunes' classical section today. Any correlation between the Washington Post story and iTunes sales?


Here's a slumming-superstar-as-busker event that seemed to go much better


And no groupies hitting on Josh at the Metro station? Welcome to the world of anonymity...

Overall though, the most successful buskers I've known had a lot of Neil Young in the repetoire...


Agree with mongolian above #19.

The portrayal of the surreal scene was brilliant, with the people rushing to work as the "ghosts" or cogs in the machine, and one of the few real living persons in the entire picture being the ignored violinist.

I appreciate the way the article was written. It'd be easy to try to read an agenda into it, but I don't think that was the point at all.

Cyril Morong

I like the comments above by drdr. There were some parts of the article that talked about how we all move too fast and life is out of balance. So the article might have been a little preachy.

Alot of us probably don't know enough to know how good Bell is. So in just hearing him for a few seconds as we walk by, we can't figure out that it is worth staying around for. We might think "that guy sounds good." But there might be many musicians, maybe even conservatory students, who could have been playing there who sounded good and if someone pulled us aside and said "hey, that is a world class violinist" we might have said "well, he does sound like it." I listen to classical music on the radio fairly often and I can't always tell if it is one of the top orchestras or not playing a piece. So it would have been reasonable for the people walking by to conclude that it was just some good student playing.

Some of those people who went right by might listen to classical music in their offices. A recent Wall Street Journal article mentioned that big classical CD companies are not selling as many CDs as they used to but there are many smaller labels than there used to be. There are people listening and making it a point to listen. So I would like to see an article that examines how the popularity of classical music has changed over time. Are people listening less as our lives have become sped up? Anyone have a link to suggest on that?

Some of those people may be rushing to work so they can afford nice things like going to concerts. People obviously like classical music enough to allow Bell to buy a violin for $3.5 million. He does after all make a $1,000 a minute.

Some pop star could start singing or playing in the subway. Who knows what would happen. Alot of people might think it was just a lookalike and go about there business.

What would happen if a world famous economist were to start giving a lecture in the subway?



I would like Mr.Levitt to comment on this as he's coming from the Chicago school which actually made this country into what it is today - soulless rat race as illustrated by the article


Reading the article not only made me picture myself in a similar type of situation, but also made me feel guilty for all of the times that I never gave any of the talent in the New York subways any donations for their effort. I believe that most of the people on subways are in a constant rush, so the sounds do not really come out as sounding "professional" or otherwise. When I am in a constant rush to go anywhere on a subway or any way of transportation, the sounds that I hear usually come in high pitched, medium pitched, or low pitched tones. I don't think in the situation that most people are put in during their morning commute, they would be able to determine the difference between a professional and an above amateur player (or at least someone that isnt completely inexperienced).

People are usually in such a rush that they forget to eat before they leave the house; what makes people think that just because Bell is a professional violinist that people will recognize the music regardless of what is going on in their mind and their day already and just run to see it? It it easily understandable if someone is walking aimlessly around the subway and not really in a rush to go anywhere and hear the harmony with the richness that it has and be able to tell that it is someone that knows what he/she is doing. I did not expect him to have a large amount of money, but at the same time, I did not expect him to have nothing whatsoever.



I'm fascinated by what this experience says about art in context, which the article only touches on briefly, with the interesting comments from the art curator. Clearly Bell is an incredibly talented musician, and his talent may account for his rise to fame, but his skills alone don't make him the success that he is--that depends on promoters, name-recognition and prestige...context. I wonder: if he did it again the next day, played everything exactly the same way, but put a sign in front of him saying "My name is Joshua Bell. I am a world-famous musician. People pay $100 minimum to see me in concert" then would they have had problems with crowd control?


J Bell in DC: Bad Location - You need to hear a longer segment to realize you should stop to listen.

Observations from the Paris Metro:

Location, Location, Location.
1. In the long interconnection hallways of some stations you can hear the music well before you see the performer. Some folks have regular spots so you might not toss a coin the first day but later in the week...

2. Performers ride a car for a station or two then hop out to a platform to wait for another train. Whether performing on the train or the platform the riders get a longer exposure.

PS Performers on the Paris Metro are regulated by the RATP. This was instituted in the late 1990s both to encourage performers and control the transportation aspects of a subway.

Cyril Morong

I think yrb is way off base in comment #25. Whatever ills society suffers from, I don't think you can blame the Chicago school. In case full disclosure is relevant, I got my BA in economics from the Univerisity of Chicago.

Compared to 30 years ago, there are some things which are much better today and I think Chicago economists might have had something to do with it. From 1975-83, the US averaged 7.7% inflation and 7.7% unemployment per year. Our monetary policy has been much better since then, thanks in part to Milton Friedman. Some of the deregulated industries, like airlines, led to increases in what economists call consumer surplus, meaning over all social welfare increased as a result. We all pay less in taxes. I think the Chicago economists helped bring that about. No one, not even any democrats advocate going back to a top tax rate of 70%.

Butting get back to the "soulless rate race," how bad can it be? Bell made $40 per hour in the subway from voluntary contributions. No one was forced to pay to hear him. I think most of the people who passed through the subway that day get paid less than $40 an hour. Things may not be as soulless as it first seems.

We have a more market oriented economy than Europe, yet I think that a greater percentage of Americans go to church or profess some religious belief than Europeans. That does not sound soulless.



It would have been one of the funniest things imaginable if Bell had unintentionally invaded the turf of a real (and especially territorial) beggar, and the latter expressed his displeasure by smashing the $3.5-million violin over Bell's noggin :)


I'd expect ripple effects throughout the global economy resulting from the grinding halt of the bastion of productivity better known as federal government and DC area bureaucracies as a direct result of epidemical narcolepsy.


Crap, it didn't post what I was commenting on:

"What would happen if a world famous economist were to start giving a lecture in the subway?"--#24



I'd expect ripple effects throughout the global economy resulting from the grinding halt of the bastion of productivity better known as federal government and DC area bureaucracies

Considering all the religious nuts Bush has appointed to the Fed bureaucracies from such great American universities as Messiah College and Oral Roberts University, I would say that any "grinding halt" might save us all.


JRip, how long a section do you think is necessary? Weintgarten actually addressed this in his chat yesterday, and apparently it takes over a minute to ascend the escalator at that metro station (the DC metro system has some of the longest escalators in the western hemisphere). He said that while there were definitely uninspiring 30 second segments that he wouldn't have stopped for, during the minute plus that people heard his music on the way up, he thinks people would've heard something they liked.


TO sasha 34
For me the first hallway exposure (less than 2 minutes) was insufficient. Appreciation took 2 passings - and 2 days.

The in-car experiences have been longer and more fun.


Much of the coverage of this story suggests that the unwashed masses won't appreciate great music if it isn't presented to them as great music.

The flip side of this coin, however, is that the cognoscenti aren't necessarily judging the greatness of music on its own merits. For the past several years, the pianist Joyce Hatto was acclaimed in the classical music world for her brilliant recordings. A couple of months ago, however, it was revealed that many - probably all - of her recordings had been copied from other pianists' albums.

In some cases, the same recording received better reviews when it was released under the Hatto name than it had under the actual performer's name. A classical music fan who posted on Usenet that he believed Hatto's recordings were not all by the same pianists was roundly flamed.

For many listeners, the belief that they were part of an exclusive club who were listening to an unappreciated genius seems to have influenced their perception of the music.

Wiki article on Hatto, including numerous links to the researchers who established the theft: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joyce_Hatto



For all the people listening to iPods how many of them do you think were listening to classical music? The only time I listen to classical music is if I'm having trouble falling asleep. The only way I would go to a Bell performance was if I was dragged there by my girlfriend.


I got my MBA from Oral Roberts U. It is the only good thing about the U.S.


Regarding RandyFromCanada's comment about "Turkey in the Straw", here is an excerpt from "A Confederacy of Dunces" by John Kennedy O'Toole:

Ignatius chewed with a blissful savagery, studying the scar on the man's nose and listening to his whistling.
"Do I hear a strain from Scarlatti?" Ignatius asked finally.
"I thought I was whistling 'Turkey in the Straw.'"
"I had hoped that you might be familiar with Scarlatti's work. He was the last of the musicians," Ignatius observed and resumed his furious attack upon the long hot dog. "With your apparent musical bent, you might apply yourself to something worthwhile."
Ignatius chewed while the man began his tuneless whistling again. The he said, "I suspect that you imagine 'Turkey in the Straw' to be a valuable bit of Americana. Well, it is not. It is a discordant abomination"
"I can't see that it matters much."
"It matters a great deal, sir!" Ignatius screamed. "Veneration of such things as 'Turkey in the Straw' is at the very root of our current dilemma."
"Where the hell do you come from? Whadda you want?"
"What is your opinion of a society that considers 'Turkey in the Straw' to be one of the pillars, as it were, of its culture?"
"Who thinks that?" the old man asked worriedly.
"Everyone! Especially folksingers and third-grade teachers. Grimy undergraduates and grammar school children are always chanting it like sorcerers." Ignatius belched.



no offense, but drdr's response is a bit soulless- claiming that it's 'rational' to ignore street music, and comparing this encounter to crumpled up cash- they could have planted a rose there, and most pass by, some trample- but it doesn't change the wisdom (read rationality?!) of stopping to smell it