An Uncapped Pen

January 22, 2009

Appreciating Beauty in Unexpected Places

Filed under: About Me,Reading — cindylv @ 12:41 am
Tags: , , , , , ,

I received this email today, and checked SNOPES. They gave it a green light.


A man stood in a metro train station in Washington D.C., and started to play the violin. It was early, on a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes into his playing, 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 case without stopping, as she walked on.

A few minutes later, a man leaned against the wall to listen to him, but then he looked at his watch, and quickly continued on his way. He seemed to be late for his destination.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3-year-old boy. His mother tugged him along hurriedly, but the boy stopped to watch the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head, keeping his eyes on the violinist until he was lost from sight. This fascination and interest was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for awhile. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence returned, no one seemed to notice. No one applauded….there was no recognition.

What none of the scurrying people knew is that the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his street concert in the subway station, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston, where seats averaged $100 apiece.

This is a real 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: In a commonplace environment at an atypical hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be:

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, on a exquisitely crafted instrument, how many other things are we missing?


I admit that I am guilty of the same inattention.  A few months ago, I made a commitment to expand my world.  I make it a point to drive different routes and actually look out the window at the world as it passes by.  I talk to strangers and sometimes even smile at them.  I’ve been exploring my own city and neighborhood streets with a different eye than I have for the last forty something years.  All these changes — and yet almost every day I find a new area of my life to break open and explore my old limits.

This email made me think about my own limiting behaviors with regard to reading.    I love to read.  The problem is that I know exactly what I like and what I don’t like.  I own hundreds of novels and read constantly.  I reluctantly admit that this attitude severely limits my exposure to great writing.  If I focus on reading works that fit my pre-conceived narrow definition of “LIKE IT”, I’m missing 99% of the world’s great writing.  Just like those busy commuters rushing right past Joshua Bell in the Metro station, I rush right past thousands of wonderful books to get to the stacks I already know I’ll love.

And as long as I’m confessing my tendency to be narrow minded and a little prejudiced, I will add that I am incurably lazy.  When I find talented, intelligent writers who are willing to share their recommendations for reading, I jump at the chance to benefit from their research.  Many thanks to Tim Hallinan, Lisa Kenney, and many other generous bloggers who post their monthly reading list on their site!



  1. I remember reading about this story when the experiment took place, although having spent a fair amount of time on the DC Metro, I am not surprised at the behavior. Those beltway commuters are focused and they’re not focused on anyone around them — not that I blame them. Everyone I know who works there has drive or train time you couldn’t pay me enough money to tolerate!

    Thanks for the nice words. Of course you know I only started posting about books I’d read after I saw Tim doing it and copied him :)

    I am still stuck halfway through my December books post (I was a total work slacker in December and read a lot of books). You’ve made me realize that I’m guilty of the same thing that you are when it comes to reading — just in a different way. Sometimes I feel a little weird talking about the books I read and especially now, since I’ve been reading Proust people seem to think it’s a little weird. I’ve realized I tackle books like this a little differently than most people do. When I explained to a friend that I was writing down dozens of words to look up every time I opened up SWANN’S WAY, she kind of laughed, shook her head and said “hey, I don’t want to have to work that hard to read a book”. What I realized is that if I thought of it as work, I wouldn’t do it either. The thing is, I’m pretty weird about reading some of the more challenging books. I’ve started lots that I couldn’t continue with (but do hope to maybe try again someday) and others, even though the reading is very active and I suppose, almost like studying, I truly love it. I really like reading into things and re-reading particularly beautiful or interesting passages. But it’s a whole different approach to the book than if I were to pick up something lighter that I’m able to breeze through. I don’t think very many people really like to read the way that I’m reading now. The weird thing is that it almost feels a little bit like I’ve thrown myself into a category of one. I’m not exceptionally bright and I never studied literature, so doing this is new to me. But it’s not work and when reading a book is more of a chore than something I look forward to, I don’t do it. I don’t get through nearly the titles I normally would doing it this way (I’ve read 1 1/2 books this month compared to 8 or 9 in December), but I really am learning a lot. You only have so much time to read, so if you want to read outside your normal likes, I’d recommend that you pick something that you really want to read for one reason or another and approach it with the thought that you’ll take it much more slowly than you normally would (if you need to).

    Comment by lisakenney — January 22, 2009 @ 6:20 am | Reply

  2. Now, I would have at least appreciated it. :-)

    There was a musician from the Doobie Brothers, Cornelius Bumpus, who felt that he should bring music to people. He would go down into the NYC Subway and play his sax for the commuters. He wasn’t looking for money, but he probabaly took what people generously gave him. We heard about it when Steely Dan mentioned it on their “In the Spotlight” show and both my husband and I feel we may have seen him playing at 42nd street/Times Square. I have never passed another performer, without looking at them. I still don’t give them money, but I do enjoy the performance. :-)

    Comment by angel — January 22, 2009 @ 2:41 pm | Reply

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