Stop and smell the concert violinists


The Know-It-All-Brother-In-Law, known to the Acronym Oriented (or A.O.) as the K.I.A.B.I.L., forwarded me this piece, Pearls Before Breakfast, which ran in Sunday’s Washington Post.* If you haven’t yet read it, or heard about it, I urge you to spare the thirty minutes it will take to read the whole thing. The writer, Gene Weingarten, does a masterful job of extending both the dramatic tension and the multiple interpretive strands of a fascinating and telling event.

Have you read the piece yet? No, that’s okay, I’ll wait.

Oh no; I’m still here; don’t worry. Keep reading.

Ah, you’re done? Good. Now I can continue with a clear, spoiler-free conscience. I know that I put the pro in prolix (the gar in garrulous; the verb in verbose!), and I just asked you to read something that takes a good half hour to read. So in deference to your limited and valuable time, dear reader, I’ll just garnish the side of an already full plate with a few questions. Plus, plenty, and by plenty I mean hundreds of folks, have written about it already. (Here are Technorati’s blogospheric findings for the search string “joshua bell dc,” for your edification).

For the moment, all’s I want to do is draw your attention to the piece and invite you to contemplate the various obvious questions spinning off from it: What you would have done had you been in that indoor arcade? You know, hustling off to work of a January morning? What if a different musician were playing a different genre of music, on a different instrument? And, to tie it into this blog’s parenting theme: what if you had kids along with you? Would you be more or less likely to stop and smell the concert violinist?

*The Freakonomics Blog hepped him to it — but wait! don’t link there yet! spoiler warning! get back to it after you’ve read the WaPo article.

7 thoughts on “Stop and smell the concert violinists”

  1. I would be more likely to stop and listen if I had Julia with me. Because I’m a hypocrite… I want her to be the kind of person who will make time in her life for that… even though I’m not.

    I think about myself on my way to work. I’m usually stressed out, I have a headache, I’m ALWAYS running late and usually annoyed about that. I take public transit and I generally try to tune out the private conversations and noise and babble of those around me. I throw up filters to try and protect myself from the constant sensory intrusion that travelling in a crowd with so many people can be. In that scenario I might have paused. I might have turned and looked, but I most likely would have been one of the herd that swept right on by. And I wouldn’t have given money because I brown bag my lunches and rarely carry cash.

    But I think this article fails to point at something, or it points at it so sketchily that the point is lost. Aside from those people standing in line to get lottery tickets, whose priorities are unbalanced? Each person passing the violinist has a decision to make, true, but how many of them have really had their decisions co-opted for them by our corporate culture? What about the fact that we live in a culture and work in environments where the excuse “I stopped to listen to a subway musician” is not considered a valid reason to be late to work?

    I would be more interested and think it more telling of people in general if they’d done this in a park or a mall… a place where people aren’t in the thrall of their jobs. Context is too important to be tossed aside. And as for those people who did stop, well, their context is probably a bit different from everyone else’s.

    Of course, I haven’t read the freakonomics take yet, I may be talking out of an orifice here.

  2. You know, I’m a big out-my-orifice talker myself, so I will cast not one aspersion your way. And I agree that the “frame” or the context of the situation is significant, and it bears not just on how the passers-by received (or filtered) the violinist, but also how the passers-by themselves are analyzed or hypothesized about. At the lunch hour, would things be different? At a subway stop where fewer people were hurtling to 9-to-5, punch-in sorts of jobs, or where more people had more control over the terms of their employment? Where, as you put it, “I stopped to listen to a subway musician” is not considered a valid reason to be late to work.

    Don’t know what to say about the lottery ticket buyers who iced him, though. A smile and a quick bow of the head (if neither time nor pocket change could be spared) is a minimal courtesy that may even have been granted by some, but not caught on film.

  3. I don’t know what I would have done if I had been alone, to be honest. It would have dependend on where I was going and if I had to be there at a certain time. Sad, but true.

    If Miguel had been with me, I’m pretty sure I would have stopped. He is a music lover and I can’t imagine that he would not have been drawn in, since he has been drawn to the accordion player that sometimes plays in the skyways downtown.

    This whole thing is rather sad but it is even more depressing to think that our children may end up growing out of their appreciation for music, art, poetry by forgetting that all of those things are found everywhere, everyday.

  4. Okay, finally delurking after months of covert enjoyment of your blog.
    I’m lucky enough to work in the not-for-profit sector, in an organization where “stopped to listen to a busker” would totally count as a good reason for being late to work. Not everybody is so fortunate.
    I noticed when in London that Londoners go out of their way not to make any sort of contact with others in public, as though the tiny bit of privacy afforded by no eye contact was immensely precious. I lived in Papua New Guinea for a couple of years, and there too, in a culture where personal space and privacy are premium concepts, people created private space and time by not making eye contact, by turning their backs. On our ways to work, in the brutal hustle of urban life, sometimes that little space where we look at and notice nobody is the only peace we get. Sadly, some of those folks could probably have gotten some peace and joy from listening, but that’s kind of how urban life is constructed, I think. Overstimulation.
    I try to stop and listen whenever I see a busker on the street. I try to make eye contact. I don’t always leave money, but the act of making music in public for strangers is such a vulnerable thing to do, I try to give a little mental applause to the people brave enough to do it. Even if I can only stop for a few seconds, I try to stop, listen till the music comes to an obvious changing point. If the song ends, I clap. I don’t know if it’s just Calgary, but even in the context of people onstage, I see a distressing number of musicians ignored when they play. Not in the auditoria with the expensive seats, but whether it’s a cover band or a busker or a concert violinist, the act of making music is so brave and joyful, I never understand how people can treat it as though the musicians were no more than a radio. Maybe we’ve got too many radios, and not enough live performances in our lives anymore.
    I’m rambling. I would have stopped. And if I had kids with me, I would have stopped.

  5. Thanks for the post and for helping that article zig-zag across the country. I’m originally from near DC and my mother commutes through a station near that one, so when I sent her the link for the article, she replied:

    “thank you SO much for sending that! I had started reading it in the
    Sunday Post magazine but hadn’t finished it and then couldn’t find the
    magazine, so I really appreciate being able to finish it. But this was
    even better than reading it in the magazine because it had the video and
    audio. Amazing, just amazing story. Really, thanks a lot!

    I love you and I love it that you knew I would love this story!”

  6. Having just left the DC area, I would have to admit (sadly) that I would have been one to have stopped briefly, thought “this is lovely I wish I could stay,” but then have turned away, rushing off to whatever “utmost, critical, the earth-will-stop-spinning” moment I had to be at two minutes earlier. To be honest, I believe you could have placed him anywhere in the city, at any moment of the day (shy of outside the Kennedy Center), and the response would have been the same. I had weekly soccer practices on the ellipse in front of the white house. We were never more than about 100 yards away from the front lawn. Presedential limos, helicopters, police, secrety service, would be flittering about, sirens blaring, and no one would bat an eye (whether you liked or disliked the man in charge). I was taken aback the first time Marine One flew less than 100 meters above my head (and I detest the man)…and because of this I got a soccer ball kicked in the gut.

    In the more than three years my partner and I lived out there, I can count on one hand how many good friends we made. Friends that we actually did stuff with, on a semi-regular basis: two. To be in the center of our Federal Government, and to watch the wheels go round was amazing, an experience i will never forget. It jaded me, that’s for sure, but now, things are different. I see my friends I “left behind” and I almost feel sorry for them. They are lovely people, but so caught up in what they are doing that they forget to stop and smell the roses. I feel so distant from them now, and not long ago I was one of them. I thought I couldn’t live my life without it being like that. The adjustment, i will admit, to this small town pace has been difficult. But I will say I have experienced more “living” in the last 6 months, than I did in total in DC. And if I were faced with the same option today, I would probably stop. Life is too short.

    Thanks for pointing us in the direction of this article. I haven’t checked the Post for a few days…btw, I haven’t left any comments before, but have been reading your blog for a while now. Beautiful writing, even more beautiful pics…congrats on the new addition, and I’m sorry for your loss of your beloved pooch. Thank you for always sharing such insightful prose.

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