Do you remember the famous Pulitzer Prize-winning social experiment when Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten enlisted renowned violinist Joshua Bell? A winner of the Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music, Bell, who regularly undertakes more than 200 international engagements a year, spent part of a morning playing incognito at the entrance to a Washington Metro station during a morning rush hour. Weingarten set up the event “as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste.” He wondered, “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”
So, on Jan. 12, 2007, about 1,000 morning commuters passing through the L’Enfant Plaza Station of the subway line in Washington, D.C., were, without publicity, treated to a free mini-concert performed by Bell, who played for approximately 45 minutes, performing six classical pieces (two of which were by Bach) on his handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin (for which Bell reportedly paid $3.5 million).
As Weingarten described the crux of the experiment: “Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?”
Three days earlier, Bell had played to a full house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where fairly good seats went for $100. But on this day, he collected just $32.17 for his efforts, contributed by a mere 27 of 1,097 passing travelers. Only seven people stopped to listen, and just one of them recognized the performer.
The Washington Post reported that people said they were busy, had other things on their mind. Some who were on cell phones spoke louder as they passed Bell to compete with the so-called “racket.” Many were listening to an iPod.
Ironically, one person reported that he was listening to a song about the woman of his dreams, but couldn’t express the depth of his feelings for her if she were standing in front of him. He had to lose her to realize it. This social experiment was about failing to see the beauty of what’s plainly in front of our eyes.
If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written, if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?
I think we do miss a lot in our rushed world. And it’s hard because we have jobs to keep, bills to pay, children to carpool and errands to run. And it usually has to be done … now.
But “thank God” for Shabbat. Thank God because we have been given one day, every week of the year, where we get a chance to slow down and take the time to appreciate what is right in front of us. But what about the six other days of the week? What are we missing? We all need to remind ourselves, myself included, to slow down everyday, even if it is for a moment, and look up and notice what’s around us so we can appreciate it. Whether it’s a violin concerto in a subway system or noticing beautiful architecture or art on the wall, we must try to remember to stop and see the beauty around us. Hear the music, see the world, feel the presence of our fellow human beings. When we let that in, we gain a piece of the divine and then we can truly appreciate the gift of life that we have. JN
Rabbi Jeremy Schneider is the spiritual leader of Temple Kol Ami and the immediate past president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.