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This post is a response to a comment on the Ethereal Voice. But since some of you do not follow The Ethereal Voice, I am going to have to give some background.

As one of its wired quirks, The Ethereal Voice selects an essay that can be found on the web to highlight each week. This week, The Ethereal Voice chose to select a Washington Post article for this week’s Essay of the Week.

The focus of this article/essay was an experiment that the Washington Post did with the famous violinist Joshua Bell. They wanted to see how many people would stop and listen to the man widely considered the best violinist in world during rush hour at a subway station. Now anyone who knows anything about human nature already knows the answer to that question. But for those few of you who cannot already guess, hardly anyone stopped and listened.

Now both the Washington Post and the Ethereal Voice interpreted the results of the experiment as being something that reflected poorly on people in general. But a commentator who goes by the name Michelle on the Ethereal Voice disagreed. She gave us a link to a blog post by the Saw Lady.

The Saw Lady is a busker, and she argues that it was Joshua Bell’s fault that nobody stopped and listened. The core of her argument is this…

The thing is Joshua Bell is a great violinist but he doesn’t know how to busk. There are violinists who are not even close to being as good as he is (such as Jim Grasec or Lorenzo LaRock), yet they get crowds to stop and listen to them. It’s because when you play on the street you can’t approach it as if you are playing on a stage. Busking is an art form of its own. You need to be as good a musician as to audition for any stage gig (the competition over permits is fierce) but in addition to that you have to relate to the audience and be a real people’s person. You can’t hide behind your instrument and just play, with an invisible wall between you and the audience, the way a stage performance is conducted. In busking you use the passers by as if they were paint and your music is the paint brush – your goal is to create a collective work of art with the people, in the space, in the moment with you and the music.

Now as far as the Saw Lady goes, I am sure she is correct. I am sure Joshua Bell made a lousy busker. And as one of her commentators correctly points out, the Washington Post made it even harder for him by choosing rush hour, when almost no one wants to stop.

But I think that to look at the experiment from the angle that the Saw Lady is looking at the experiment it is wrong. She might feel proud that her set of skills can not be easily duplicated by someone who gets paid far more than her. But the real experiment was not about how to be a good busker, it was about how we perceive beautiful and meaningful things.

Joshua Bell did not play the catchiest tunes he knew. Rather, he played the most meaningful tunes that he knew. Even the Saw Lady admits that Joshua Bell is very good. In that context, then, who would you rather be like if you had a choice: John Picarello, supervisor in the post office who recognized the beauty and stopped to listen, or the hundreds of people who hurried by and noticed nothing?

I don’t think that Joshua Bell really wants to be a good busker. And I know I could care less about what makes a good busker. But I do desire to develop the skills to recognize beautiful and meaningful things.

The Washington Post experiment is a lot like life. We are all very busy. We all have little time for all that we need to do. In life, only the people that have the skills which the Saw Lady describes can catch our attention. But is this a good thing?

As the Washington Post experiment shows, by only being open to people who are skilled at playing to the crowd or the things that are eye catching, we miss some of the most beautiful and meaningful things in life. This is true whether we are flipping through a rack of books or we are walking down a busy street corner.

To see meaningful things, we must see past the obvious; we must be willing to make time. We must be able to appreciate beauty even when we are not being played to. As the Washington Post article shows, that is a skill that few of us have.

But I, for one, would rather have that skill than have the skill to be a good busker (not that the two skills need to be mutually exclusive).

One Response to “Discussing the Washington Post Experiment with Joshua Bell”

  1. […] _uacct = “UA-1202685-1”; urchinTracker(); Map of the Ethereal Land The Ethereal Voice Front Page – Politics – Money – Knowledge – Art – Food – Fun Masthead About Discussing the Washington Post Experiment with Joshua Bell By Ape Man | April 16, 2007 – 9:05 pm Posted in Category: Art This post is a response to a comment on the Ethereal Voice. But since some of you do not follow The Ethereal Voice, I am going to have to give some background. As one of its wired quirks, The Ethereal Voice selects an essay that can be found on the web to highlight each week. This Click Here to continue reading. […]

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