Awasu » 32 bucks and change
Thursday 19th April 2007 1:42 PM [General]

I wanted to write about this when it came out in the Washington Post the other week but didn't, partly because I've been really busy but also because I've been mulling over what to make of it.

By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

Thing is, this was the guy who was playing [1]:

A onetime child prodigy, at 39 Joshua Bell has arrived as an internationally acclaimed virtuoso. Three days before he appeared at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston's stately Symphony Hall, where merely pretty good seats went for $100. Two weeks later, at the Music Center at Strathmore, in North Bethesda, he would play to a standing-room-only audience so respectful of his artistry that they stifled their coughs until the silence between movements.

What happened probably won't come as a surprise to most people, as we collectively shake our heads in disappointment.

In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run -- for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

Amusingly, he was really nervous about the whole thing [2]:

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.

The article explores the idea that that we judge things in the context of its surroundings and Seth Godin concurs, saying that "[i]f your worldview is that music in the subway isn't worth your time, you're not going to notice when the music is better than usual (or when a famous violinist is playing)".

But I think this is completely wrong. If it had've been Britney or Kylie, you can be damn sure there would've been a riot within minutes.

I've written before about how I think that a lot of what is wrong around us can be explained by the fact that people are fundamentally lazy and I think it applies here as well. It's actually not that easy to tell the difference between a great musician and one who's merely really good. For most people, jazz is little more than a lot of wrong notes and to really be able to dig it, you either have to be a jazz musician yourself or have done a lot of serious listening. Classical music is perhaps a bit more accessible but it's still beyond your average schmoe to tell the difference between someone like Bell and a lesser mortal.

It takes a lot of work to get to the point where we can make such distinctions and so instead, we rely on other people to tell us what's good and what's not. Mass media and marketers tell us who is worthy of our adultation and we ignore everything else :bah:

I'm on my way back home after an extended trip out of town and I've been having a lot of fun catching up with old friends, many of them musicians. It's getting to be that every time I get back into town, someone else has become a national superstar and this trip has been no different. But I look at my other friends who are still banging out covers in the local bars and there's really not much difference between them. Why did one get famous, rich and all the girls but the other is still stuck churning out Wonderful Tonight and Hotel California every night? :bah:

I remember going to see the Dalai Lama speak when he visited Melbourne many years ago and while it was good to see him in person [3], I was a bit disappointed in how little real content there was in his talk. It wasn't much more beyond "People, be nice to each other and the world will be a better place", which is OK in itself but for this, he got a five-minute standing ovation. I kid you not :blink: If I had've got up and said exactly the same thing, I would've been laughed off the stage :roll:

It's not just a cult of the celebrity, we're just too damn lazy to listen to what's being said, think about about what's actually going on and make our own opinions. Guy Kawasaki is right on the money when he says:

If anyone from the Washington Post reads this, I have two suggestions: First, take a so-so violinist, hand him a Stradivari, introduce him as a wunderkind from the Black Forest, let him play as the opening act at a ritzy concert, and see if the audience fawns over him.

Second, get Steve Jobs to sell iPods for forty-five minutes in a BestBuy in South Dakota and observe what happens.

Suggestions, indeed. I wonder what would happen :roll:

[1] I really dig that he was cool enough to try this :clap: When I become a world-renowned saxophonist, I'd certainly be willing to try something similar :-)
[2] I've done a lot of busking myself and can confirm that it is indeed a completely terrifying experience :-) Getting up on stage with a bunch of complete strangers to play a song you've never heard before is way less stressful. At least you've got the other guys up there with you banging out the core of the song. Playing solo out on the street, you are completely naked
[3] He's just like he is on TV, a cool dude with a wicked sense of humour :-)

One Response to this post

I work for Guy Kawasaki. Thanks for your comment about Guy and the link to his post: Violin Monday!


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