Joshua Bell’s experiment

I ran across a story several years ago which got me thinking about how much I’m missing as I got through too many of my days as if plowing through the middle of important experiences and opportunities and beautiful reminders of a loving Heavenly Father and a Beautiful Savior.  Perhaps this story will be a reminder for you, too.


On a cold January morning in 2007 at the Washington DC Metro Station, a man posing as a “street musician” gave an incognito performance to morning commuters.  It was actually Joshua Bell, a virtuoso violinist who is recognized as one of the greatest violinists of our time. He’s received Grammy awards. He performed beautiful, complex music on an instrument he had purchased a few years earlier, worth $3.5 million (handcrafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713), and he opened his violin case for tips.


He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes.  During that time, approximately 2,000 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.  After 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing.  He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.  4 mins later, the violinist received his first dollar – a woman threw the money in the case and, without stopping, continued to walk. 6 minutes later, a young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again.


At about 10 minutes, a 3 year-old boy stopped as if wanting to stay and listen, but his mother tugged at him.  He still listened and watched.  Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. Every parent, without exception, forced them to move on. For 45 minutes he continued to play.  Only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. He finished playing and silence took over. No one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.  No one knew that they had walked by one of the best musicians in the world.  He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, Joshua Bell sold out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.


From a newspaper article:  “No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend? Journalist Gene Weingarten was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his outstanding and thought provoking analysis of the experiment.  Weingarten discussed the ramifications of Bell’s subway experience. What role does context play in our artistic perceptions? To what degree is our perception of beauty influenced by our mindset at the particular time we perceive it?  In a common-place environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context? One possible conclusion reached from this experiment could be:  If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing some of the finest music ever written, with one of the most beautiful instruments …. HOW MANY OTHER THINGS ARE WE MISSING?  It’s a great question, and I’ve thought a lot about it since reading about this experiment.

Joshua Bell

Joshua David Bell was born in Bloomington, Indiana, on 09 December, 1967, the son of a psychologist and a therapist.  He began taking violin lessons at the age of four after his mother discovered her son had taken rubber bands from around the house and stretched them across the handles of his dresser drawer to pluck out music he had heard her play on the piano. His parents got a scaled‑to‑size violin for their then five‑year‑old son and started giving him lessons. A bright student, Bell took to the instrument but lived an otherwise normal midwest Indiana life playing video games and excelling at sports (tennis and bowling), even placing in a national tennis tournament at the age of ten.  Bell studied as a boy first under Mimi Zweig, then switched to the renowned violinist and pedagogue Josef Gingold after Bell’s parents assured Gingold that they were not interested in pushing their son in the study of the violin but simply wanted him to have the best teacher for his abilities. Satisfied that the boy was living a normal life, Gingold took Bell on as his student. By 12 Bell was serious about the instrument, thanks in large part to Gingold’s inspiration.  At the age of fourteen, he appeared as a soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Riccardo Muti. He studied the violin at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, while managing to graduate from Bloomington High School North in 1984 – two years ahead of schedule. In 1989, Bell received an Artist Diploma in Violin Performance from Indiana University. His alma mater also honored him with a Distinguished Alumni Service Award only two years after his graduation. He has been named an “Indiana Living Legend” and received the Indiana Governor’s Arts Award.

Joshua Bell3

He made his Carnegie Hall debut in 1985 (at 18) with the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. He has since performed with almost all of the world’s major orchestras and conductors. As well as the standard concerto repertoire, Bell has performed new works — Nicholas Maw’s violin concerto is dedicated to him, the recording of which won Bell a Grammy and gave the world premiere of the work in 1993. He performed the solo part on John Corigliano’s Oscar‑winning soundtrack for the film “The Red Violin.”  He also made an appearance in the movie “Music of the Heart,” a story about the power of music, with other notable violinists, and he collaborated with film composer Hans Zimmer by providing violin solos for the soundtrack for the 2009 film, “Angels and Demons,” based on Dan Brown’s 2000 novel.

Joshua Bell2

Bell’s instrument was made in 1713 during what is known as Antonio Stradivari’s “Golden Era.”  Bell had seen the violin and came across it again, only to discover that it was about to be sold to a German industrialist to become part of a collection. Bell was reportedly “practically in tears.”  He sold his current Stradivarius for a little more than two million dollars and made the purchase of the more valuable violin. His first recording made with the Gibson ex Huberman was Romance of the Violin in 2003.  It sold more than 5,000,000 copies and remained at the top of classical music charts for 54 weeks.  Bell was awarded the Avery Fisher Prize on April 10, 2007, at Lincoln Center in New York City. The prize is given once every few years to classical instrumentalists for outstanding achievement.  He has a son, Josef Matricardi Bell, born 31 July, 2007.


Joshua Bell performed in Union Station in Washington, D.C. on September 30, 2014, over 7 years after he posed as a street performer in the Metro, and nobody noticed him. On this day in 2014, he made sure everyone did.  At first glance, his performance bore no resemblance no resemblance to his famous subway performance seven years earlier. Hundreds of spectators packed into the main hall of Union Station, sitting on the hard floor, trying to squeeze close to the front along the edges of the room, and some even climbing on construction scaffolding to see over the mass of people.  He played with nine students from the National Young Arts Foundation.  It was said that “this is a lot better than the first time. A lot better, trust me.”  Better, that is, because people were actually paying attention. This performance was “a do-over for the people in Washington, not a do-over for Bell.”  The one greeting everyone said “We accept your apology.”  After the 2007 performance, there were a few moments which Bell found particularly painful to relive: “The awkward times,” he calls them. It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops, and the same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment.

But this time, after first movement, the station echoed with booming applause, whoops and cheers. Bell beamed as he said, “This is more like it!” Then, looking out at the impressive crowd, he says, “The only thing I regret is we don’t have an open violin case for tips this time.”


He didn’t consider this performance “redo;” it was a reimagining. Bell didn’t like the answer he found last time, so today he created a different one. He wanted to prove that art could transcend, if only you give people a little nudge. “I think the whole idea is that if you give people a chance to listen to music and let them concentrate, then it means something,” Bell told TIME afterwards. “And this shows even in a train station that people can be totally focused.”  Finally, almost a decade later, Bell got the answer he was looking for when he first donned his baseball cap and descended into the Metro.  “I thought of it as closure,” he says. “It was a perfect end.”  Then he laughed: “I don’t see myself ever doing this again.”  Following the performance, Bell said, he would hop on a train.



2 thoughts on “Joshua Bell’s experiment

  1. Finally took the time to read this. I find it interesting, but not surprising, that the children noticed and wanted to stop and listen to him play. Yes, they don’t understand about keeping schedules, but still…. It only takes a moment (unless you’re like me and get drawn in and lose track of the time). Even still… I stopped for a moment tonight to watch the ending of the sunset. I wish I’d noticed sooner but there are no windows close to my cubicle at work. What I saw was spectacular with lots of deep orange and red colors that reflected across the valley. IT WAS BEAUTIFUL! So I get home a little later. But then I don’t have a family at home waiting for dinner. There are some perks to living alone. I get to stop and watch sunsets.

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