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In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty?

February 02, 2010

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work. Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work. The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition. No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the top musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. 

This is a TRUE STORY. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. 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? One of the possible conclusions from this experiment: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?


On Friday, February 5th, a second social experiment will be performed, this time by the albinoTree, and it will go something like this: Two men step to the corner of a restaurant in Collinsville, CT; it is a cold February evening. The men play original compositions amongst a collection of cover songs for about 3 hours. During this time, since it will be Friday evening, it can be estimated that 75 to 100 people will pass through the restaurant, most of them on their way to a buzz. Three minutes before the music starts, several tables of diners will arise and leave before they can be bothered. Twenty minutes will then go by and a middle aged man will look up from his plate and for the first time notice there are musicians playing ten feet away from him. He will momentarily put down his fork and then hurry to finish his French Fries with his fingers. A minute later, the musicians receive their first request: “Freebird”. A few minutes after this, a drunk will lean against the wall seemingly to listen, the man will look at the watch upon the wrist of his drinking hand cascading his Bud Light down the front of his trousers. During the evening, the person who will pay the most attention will be a 38 year old man who has recently started learning guitar. As he intently watches the chord changes, his wife will nag him to leave. Finally she will storm out and the man will reluctantly follow, turning his head several times as he leaves trying to make out the chords of the bridge. In the 3 hours the musicians will play, 6 people will ask for requests but then talk during the performance of said request prompting the requester to inquire, “hey when are you going to play my request?” About 20 people will clap and cheer at random intervals while watching the game. On 2 of these occasions the outbursts will coincide with the ending of a song. When the musicians finally finish playing no one will notice. The chatter will continue. No one will applaud. There will be little recognition, except for two people who will go out of their way to approach the musicians and say nice words of encouragement thus nullifying the effects of the ill manors of 73 to 98 people. No one will know this but the guitarist is Al Guimaraes and he believes since the introduction of Rockband & Guitar Hero that Karaoke may be the only future for real musicians. He will have played from his soul, his own compositions and a handful of the best songs ever written, with a guitar that cost $503 in 1989.


Additional possible conclusions from these experiments: 

1. $32 for 45 minutes “work” equates to $61k a year. If you don’t have the overhead of a $3.5 million dollar instrument….you could be making a decent living.

2. In a subway, no one wants to be recognized or vice versa.

3. Never hold your drink on the same side of your body that wears your watch.

4. If we stay on the current path, soon there will be no one for us to pretend we are when we are pretending to be rock stars.

5. When playing sports bars try to get them to put on ESPN classic so you can time your songs endings to key historical plays. 

6. If ever asked to play a request simply say “Sorry, I just played it”. No one will know this not to be true.

7. If beauty really wants to be perceived, it should dress up real slutty.

8. Maybe it’s just too damn cold out there for music.


Come on out and see Rob and I fake the Rockband dream this Friday night at the Crown & Hammer in Collinsville, CT where we will prove once and for all it is never too cold for music… if you put your heart into it.

Cursing that rodent in Punxsutawney,

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