The great violinist Joshua Bell, a one-time child prodigy, and now an internationally acclaimed virtuoso, agreed to give a recital in a Washington DC subway station during the morning rush hour. The proviso was that nobody would know about his appearance before-hand; he would be completely incognito.
Bell was 39 years old, tall and mop-haired, and showed up as pretty much every other non-descript street musician in jeans, long-sleeved T-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. He removed his violin from the case and left it open at his feet, seeding it with a few dollars and change. He stood next to a trashcan, under an arcade at the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station (the heart of federal bureaucracy), and faced his audience.
Over the next 43 minutes, he proceeded to play six classical compositions that are among the most difficult and evocative violin pieces ever written. During that time, 1,097 people passed by; how many stopped what they were doing to hang around longer than one minute? Seven people. Twenty-seven people gave him some money, which totaled $32.17, most of them dropping it on the run. 1,090 people passed by without even turning to look. This boggles my mind, but it doesn’t really surprise me.
We are so focused on multitasking that every activity — from walking to exercising or reading — is accompanied by watching TV, listening to music, cell phone conversations or instant messaging. We are so inundated with stimulation that it’s hard to be in any moment or respond to anything spontaneous. In the case of Joshua Bell, there is also the preconception that no great violinist/musician/thespian is going to be playing the subway circuit. Finally there is a general contemporary attitude of “mind your own business” and “don’t get involved.” So instead of finding yourself by some stroke of magic in the right place at the right time, you can’t recognize it because you are someplace else.
It is said the Messiah will arrive at the gates of Jerusalem dressed like a beggar and that he will not be recognized because no one will stop to listen. Unless we step away from all our ordinary preoccupations, we will never appreciate the magic of the serendipitous moment when something awesome is made visible.
Take a break from what you think you have to do, and you may find that the best seat in the house is only four feet away. It could change your life.