It was a cold January morning in Washington DC. A nondescript man in a jacket and hat entered the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. He was carrying a violin case. The man walked into the heart of the station where he stopped at a pedestrian common area. It is here that he took a violin out of his case and started to play it. What started emanating from his violin was a composition by J.S. Bach. This piece would be the first of six Bach compositions the man played over the course of 45 minutes while at the station.
It was rush-hour, a time where it is estimated that over a thousand people pass through that area of the station on their way to work. After he started playing, it was three minutes before anyone at all acknowledged the man playing the violin. The first person to do so was a middle-aged man who slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds to listen, only to hurry off moments later.
It was a minute later that the violinist received his first dollar tip. It was from a woman who threw the bill into his case without stopping to listen. She simply continued to walk.
A few minutes later, a man stopped to listen, but shortly there-after glanced at his watch and continued on his way.
The first person who paid the most attention to the man playing the violin was a 3 year old boy. He was in tow behind his mother, but tugged back on her arm hard enough to make her stop a moment. The boy was entranced. But it was only a short time before the mother grew impatient, pulling the boy even more forcefully away from the man playing violin and toward their final destination. But just the same, all the while they walked away, the boy stared back intently at the violinist until the mother and boy were out of sight. Many children, in fact had this type of reaction, with numerous parents there to pull them along without exception.
All told, in the 45 minutes the musician played, 7 people in total stopped to listen for a short time. 27 people gave him money but continued walking.
During his time playing, he collected a grand total of $32.17.
When he stopped playing, seemingly no one noticed. There was no applause. No recognition. Only the sound of people walking, trains coming, and trains going.
In fact, only one person of the 1097 that passed by that day knew this at the time, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented soloists in the world (one person did recognize him and stopped to listen). During his short impromptu concert, he played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, and did so flawlessly. The instrument he played it on was a hand crafted 1713 Stradivarius worth 3.5 million dollars.
Three days previously, Joshua Bell had played those same pieces on that same instrument to a sold out audience in Boston’s Symphony Hall. The average seats went for $100 that night.
The experiment that placed Josh Bell playing incognito in the L’Enfant Plaza Station was organized by the Washington Post to attempt to measure the perception, taste, and priorities of anonymous people on the street. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?
The results… speak for themselves. 7 people stopped. His biggest fan was a child. The adults… weren’t really listening. More accurately, because Josh Bell was being presented outside of his regular context, the people weren’t hearing the value of what was being presented for them in an obvious fashion. They weren’t listening for the opportunity. They weren’t paying attention to the reality that existed right before their ears.
So are you listening outside your expected contexts? Are you listening for God outside church? Are you listening for spiritual truth outside your times of meditation or yoga? Are you listening for the spaces in between the words being spoken by the voice inside your head?
Maybe you should. You might be missing something.
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