Joshua Bell in the Subway

I watched Joshua Bell play the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto last night on PBS Live at Lincoln Center.  It’s the Mostly Mozart Festival in NYC.

This is one of my favorite pieces of classical music.  The melodious theme comes right out in the opening bars, not needing any intro from the orchestra as in conventional concertos.  I like it that way, swift, cut to the chase.  And here’s the sign of greatness:  the audacity to break new grounds.  Last night I saw the violinist’s audacity matching that of Mendelssohn’s: Bell re-wrote the cadenza for himself.  He has not only given an engaging performance, but has left his watermark in the piece as well.

If you want to see what a born winner is like, just briefly look at his bio.  At 10, he was a tennis champion.  Four years later, he made his professional debut as a violinist and became the youngest person to play with the Philadelphia Orchestra.  And the rest is history.

Bell has recorded more than 30 CD’s, won 4 Grammys, indirectly an Oscar as he performed the winning soundtrack for Best Original Score in ‘The Red Violin’, and garnered accolades too numerous to mention.  His achievements culminated in the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 2007, the highest honor for a musician in America.  That puts him in rank with previous prize winners Yo-Yo Ma, Emanuel Ax, and Andre Watts.  But beyond his musical career, he continues with sports and pursues other pastimes.  How about a video games world championship for versatility? Yup, he got that too, in 1996.

Well ok, so far so good… until he was asked by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten to busk in a Washington DC subway station during morning rush hour.  At 7:51 am on January 12, 2007, a few months before he won the Avery Fisher Prize, Joshua Bell stood in a DC subway station in jeans and a long-sleeve T.  He opened up his case, and started playing his 1713 Stradivarius.

That was probably the first time he had been ignored or even given the cold shoulder:

He got $32.17 for his 43 minutes playing, not counting the woman who recognized him and gave him a twenty.  And yes, there were a few pennies in his case.  More than a thousand people passed by.  In the hustle and bustle of morning rush, few had even stopped to look at him, despite hearing the music.

The commuters were oblivious to the treat that would have cost them a hefty $100 in a concert hall, if they could find a ticket that is.  And for Weingarten,  he got a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his Washington Post cover story ‘Pearls Before Breakfast’.  To read this fascinating article, CLICK HERE.

Meant to be a philosophical musing on ‘Art and Contexts’, the experiment aims at exploring the epistemology of beauty.  Will we know what beauty is once it’s taken out of context?  Are there preconditions for us to appreciate the arts?  Do we have to recognize a musician before we can admire the music he plays?  If art is taken out of its frame, is it still art?

But… maybe it’s more a sociological study of urban life, or one of economics.  Even if people recognize beauty, is it worthwhile to stop and sacrifice a few precious minutes?   Weighing the economic cost of being late for work, and the enjoyment of music, the bottom line is quite obvious.  What place does beauty have in the pragmatics of our daily routines?  Where do music and the arts rank in life’s competing priorities?

Pearls before breakfast… What breakfast?  Gotta run…


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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

15 thoughts on “Joshua Bell in the Subway”

  1. I had your “Pearls” after breakfast this morning, and now I am filled with food for thought.

    I heard of the busking story when it was first out, mentioned it at dinner table (my girl plays the violin, thought it might interest her), didn’t cause a stir. Thanks for bringing it up again, with all these interesting points to ponder.

    My thoughts are otherwise, though. Is it just me? I always feel ’embarrassed’ to stay (and pay) to listen to street musicians (not the young ones who are out everywhere now school is over). When our daughter was younger, she always made us stay and she was told to bend her knees and put the money right in, never drop it from high up. Now in her late teens, she joins my hurried steps and never wants to hang around any more. How do I explain this? Why the embarrassment, when you are no longer a child?………….

    Thanks Arti, for putting our brain cells to work!


    This is interesting… but if you read the article, you’ll find all sorts of reactions that morning in the subway station. One of them is a mother with her 3 year-old son. Children have the inherent curiosity to explore, but when they grow older they have to fit in society’s schedules and pragmatics I suppose… that reminds me of the book/movie The Little Prince… Now that’s off topic.

    Anyway, I’d like to see what your daughter think now… And, thanks for including my blog in your morning routines!



  2. There’s something about watching that video the second time around that reminds me of mice in a maze. I just hope that I can get knocked out of the routine and mundane more often to see the beauty and life happening around me. To stop and pause and see…
    Have a great weekend Arti.


    How true… to stop and pause and see… Have a good one yourself.



  3. wonderful. right to your last sentence which made me LOL! I watched the entire film. There is nothing like a live performance, whether singing or playing or acting or reciting…how brave every person is who will dare to share an art…I love this.
    And there has been a lot of performance, blissfully shared in blog world and on youtube of spontaneous performances, of dancing, of people acting and singing (what was that one…in Europe, of a performance in a train station suddenly where a song from the Sound of Music comes over the loudspeaker and a performing co begins to dance and sing? And, even the guy who was giving away “free” hugs.
    Wonderful. Bravo.
    Bon weekend, Arti!


    I’m glad you feel entertained, even just for a short few minutes. I think for this case, unlike the other public performances, is more about the reaction of the crowds rather than the actual playing. It’s the whole philosophical question of what is beauty… and does beauty has the same quality and effect when it’s being placed in different settings. Do click to read Weingarten’s award winning article. I think this is an ingenious experiment that serves multiple purposes. Thanks for your sharing!



  4. Remarkable, stupendous!

    Thank you for sharing many details about Bell I didn’t know, including this busking performance. I love that he did that. I’ll read his piece next.

    I heard a cute Joshua Bell story when he came to our campus and performed. His flight was canceled due to inclement winter weather, so he hired a driver to get him here (from St. Louis – maybe 5 hours). All the ticket holders were auto-texted that he would be 30 minutes late. And so he was. And when he came out he introduced his driver, who stood up in the third row. I was impressed with his determination to get to the concert, when others might have just canceled.


    Yes, for a world renowned musician to be willing to face the raw reception of the cold morning crowds, both literal and figuratively speaking, must be quite a humbling experience.

    Bell grew up on a farm in Bloomington, Indiana, with video games and sports in addition to music. I think what makes him so admirable is this: he can still remain down-to-earth in the midst of fame and accolades.



  5. Arti, I have such a mixture of feelings after reading Pearls before Breakfast.

    One thing it convinced me of more than ever: we need to pay attention all around us all the time. You never know when you’ll find beauty.

    I was reminded of riding on a train in Ireland with American students. My friend and I (we were in our 50s, just a couple years ago) were sitting across from an old Irishman, who was singing to himself the whole 30 minute train ride. One of our students sat next to him, eyes closed, with iPod buds in his ears. We thought nothing he was listening to could have been better than what we were hearing.


    What an interesting picture! This is so real in our world today. But, I think the two: the old and the young, need not be in contradiction. A diversity of musical appreciation could well be an aptitude to nurture for us all. You never know, your student could be listening to classical music on his iPod 🙂

    I think what’s more acute is that the ‘Bell Subway Experiment’ points to our modern psyche of a hurried life… Imagine if it were not a violinist playing but a person fallen on the ground sick, such a case could not afford any apathy from the crowds.

    And the article is so well written and thought-provoking. Glad you’ve actually gone through it… a real good read isn’t it?

    Thanks for all your thoughts and sharing of memories.



  6. Yes a real good read. And I think it was the shoe shine lady who said she saw people walk by a dead homeless man without stopping.

    Yes, maybe the student was listening to classical, but he was missing a cultural moment, one where a man on a train was singing Irish tunes, and he completely missed it.

    We just need to be more attentive to the world around us. Period.


    You’re so right… the cultural moment that your student must have missed, while he could always get back to his iPod anytime later. Thanks for sharing that wonderful memory!



  7. Yes, you’re right – this “entry” is about the crowd’s reaction to Bell. Their tunnel vision, perhaps, their “focus” of sorts on getting to work and not noticing what’s around them. I do think, however, that there are many reasons for it, not the least of which, as the article mentions, Bell was “art without a frame” that day. Totally unexpected (like the dancers in the train station I mention in my earlier entry).

    Oh yeah, we have to slow down. And get off the phone. And take those ear buds out of our ears! (I wouldn’t have recognized Bell, though, either; I couldn’t pick him out of a crowd, but I’ve heard his playing and recognize talent and passion. Still he was playing difficult music and depending on when you passed him and the speed at which you were traveling, you might have heard only a dozen notes or, you might have heard dozens and dozens of notes!)

    A wonderful experiment. Very honestly, I wish more such art and beauty events were just “out there”, publicly. Ongoing. Frequent. Sharing. And that when they are out there, free, playing we wouldn’t simply think “oh, the poor busker” or, “Oh, I don’t have time.”

    There’s a lot of competition out there for our senses.

    Yes, we should strive to keep “art/beauty” in our world and give it attention and allow ourselves some zen time.

    Geez, that was a good article, though. Some damn good writing – I read the entire thing.
    Off to do some writing “exercises!”
    Thanks, Arti.


    How fortunate you are to have actually seen this great talent play! Don’t think he’s coming to Calgary any time soon.

    I think I read it somewhere that the selections of music that Bell played in the subway were not the popular classical tunes so people would not be attracted because they’d heard them before.

    I think an evidence of great musicianship is that when they play something you haven’t heard before, you’d still enjoy it, ie you’re attracted by real musicality and not mere familiarity. That might well be the difference before Karaoke replays and true musicianship.

    Thanks for all your input!



  8. This one raises as many questions for me as it answers!

    For example: what would have happened if the experiment had been carried out in multiple locations? My hypothesis is the reaction of people would have been very different in the Houston downtown tunnels, or the St. Paul airport, or the main street of Laramie, Wyoming or a South Texas colonia. Context matters, but perhaps in ways the writer didn’t consider.

    In designing the experiment, they picked the toughest possible crowd. Mid-level government bureaucrats? Like middle-management in the fifties and sixties, they’re practically bred for inattention to everything but their immediate goal. They certainly are among the most regimented workers, those least able to pause for a few minutes to enjoy what’s in front of them.

    And perhaps that’s where the heart of the problem lies. Is it possible that more and more people among us purposely desensitize themselves to beauty rather than confront the fact that the lives they’ve created for themselves allow no time for its enjoyment?

    I actually know a small business owner who worries about this, and deals with it by granting each of her employees a “whatever” hour each week. If, for example, someone was heading to work in the morning and bumped into a musician like Bell, or wanted to stop and take a photo of the sunrise, or just needed ten more minutes to finish the last three pages of that book – that hour is there to draw on.

    From what I hear, no one abuses it – they keep their own time, do their own thing, make the meetings they really need to attend on time, and everyone really likes it. It’s a way of affirming the importance of freedom in the middle of necessary structures.

    I know this – I’ll put up with heat and cold and cash flow problems and getting just flat tired for the privilege of being able to stop and listen to a bird, let alone Joshua Bell. We’re surrounded with beauty, and we’re responsible for nurturing our own ability to respond to it.

    One thing really did strike home in the article you linked. It was this paragraph:

    THERE ARE SIX MOMENTS IN THE VIDEO THAT BELL FINDS PARTICULARLY PAINFUL TO RELIVE: “The awkward times,” he calls them. It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord — the embarrassed musician’s equivalent of, “Er, okay, moving right along . . .” — and begins the next piece.

    That’s a nearly perfect description of blogging. We finish our entries, post them, and… nothing. There’s no applause, no acknowledgement – and so we begin the next piece. Eventually, someone stops and leans against the wall or tosses in a comment and… See? The analogy IS nearly perfect!

    I’d heard the story of this little experiment before but not read the article. Thanks for including it.


    Yes, you’re spot on! You’ve spoken something that I’ve been mulling over since I read the article. Should we continue to write if there are no comments? Or, is a piece of good writing still good if nobody reads it? Or, as the quote from the creative-writing newsletter you came across, is the value of a piece of writing determined by its monetary worth?

    Your putting it specifically within the writing context makes it all the more relevant. If as WordPress puts it, blogs are for self-expression, then there really needs no readers or readers’ response to lend its ‘reason to be’. But, whether we can continue on without the fuel of readers’ response is another matter. After all, we’re a part of the blogosphere community, and are spurred on by mutual support and exchanges of ideas.

    And lastly, this is another case of delayed ripple, two years after the fact. I didn’t mean to write about it if not because of watching Joshua Bell on PBS and his interview by Alan Alda who mentioned this subway experiment again. And from YouTube, I’ve looked into several other subway violinists… and surprise… they all seemed to gather onlookers and even applause. I’m sure the location, city, and time of day do make a difference as well as the familiarity of the tunes.

    Thanks for your contribution to this post.



  9. As this is Pearls in the Middle of the Night and I am incapable of adding to the discussion, I just want to thank you for including the link to the original article on Bell’s “experiment” (something I’d actually heard about!), as well as the video. I will be back to explore both in greater detail (i.e., when playing the music won’t blast people out of sleep!). But I’m glad you’re raising the question, Arti. We should all pay more attention. There is so much out there…Thank you.


    Thanks for stopping by in such wee hours… your comments are welcome any time.



  10. Arti ~

    I’ve got to add a recent example of what happens when you take the “frame” away.

    I’ve always enjoyed books about horrid sea storms: Fastnet, Force 10, Isaac’s Storm, The Perfect Storm. Most sailors I know feel the same.

    I read The Perfect Storm several times, and even saw the movie (!) You may have, too. The sailboat that was rescued was re-named Mistral for the movie, but her name was – and is – Satori.

    For years I’ve been working on a certain dock on this boat or that, chatting with a couple who lived aboard their boat and left recently to go cruising. They ended up changing their plans, returned and sold the boat to another fellow who put her back into her same slip.

    Two weeks ago I took a good look at her and thought, “That’s the same name as the boat in the book. Satori.”

    It’s not just the same name, it’s the same boat. The very same. Now that I’ve figured it out, she even looks like her photos. But I never recognized her, even with the name staring me in the face for months upon months. I didn’t expect her to be there, after all, any more than those subway riders expected Joshua Bell.

    It may be we have two issues here: can we recognize beauty wherever it appears, and, can we recognize anything when we don’t expect to see it? Very, very interesting.


    I think a lot has to do with one’s training. Your view on boats would be quite different from mine, you who have highly specialized knowledge compared to me who have absolutely none at all. I wouldn’t be able to tell one from another except maybe some very crude observation. Music, art, or just about anything else the same. It takes the musician decades of training to hone their sensitivity and appreciation, let alone techniques and theories. So I think this experiment is missing one crucial element: sometimes training is required to activate intuition and senses. To some it’s just sound, to another, it’s intricate counterpoint.

    BTW, you’ve seen one that I haven’t. But I did see Message In The Bottle though.



  11. Not sure how I stumbled across your blog, but I love it. Then I saw this Joshua Bell post, and all the ensuing comments, and found something very interesting.

    There is a book out called “Sway,” written by the Braffman brothers. In it, they talk about the sways that we experience every day that make us perform certain ways in certain situations, reactions we are not even aware of.

    The Bell scenario is featured prominently; it’s an example of a sway called “value attribution.” Similar to the idea that, if you were walking down the road, and saw a painting in an old frame, sitting on top of a pile of garbage, the receptors in your brain would dismiss it, even if it had the potential to be a great work of art. It’s surroundings and aesthetics lead you in a direction that, in retrospect, is absurd.

    In other words, chances are, a number of those passers-by enjoy well-played classical music. But, their mind dismissed Bell outright, because he’s in jeans and a baseball cap.

    Most of us would’ve walked by him, too. One of the main things to remember with sways, however, is that once you’re aware of them, they’re less effective.


    Interesting study you mention here. It points to how often we need to go counter-intuitive in order to reap the best of our everyday life. It speaks to the need to examine assumptions, fight prejudices… as well. Thanks for stumbling upon and leaving your comment!



  12. It was probably good for Bell’s ego.


    The fact that Joshua Bell was willing to participate in this ‘experiment’ by standing in a subway and busking incognito has already shown he is a down-to-earth guy. See Ruth’s comment for an example of this relatively modest celebrity.



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