The Best Article I’ve Ever Read . . . Really!

Please just give Gene Weingarten this year’s Pulitzer for journalism and be done with it.

And please take ten minutes to read his thought-provoking article Pearls Before Breakfast from the 4/8/07 Washington Post Magazine.

Gene wondered, “What would happen if you took a renowned violinist, (whose latest album has been called “unfailingly exquisite, a musical summit that will make your heart thump and weep at the same time”) and positioned him inside a D.C Metro Stop on a workday during the morning commute?

What if you asked him to play six compositions, each considered “masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls?”

What if you took this experiment one step further and asked him to play these musical works of art on a rare, multimillion dollar Stradivarius?

Would anyone notice? Would any of the hundreds of people streaming by take a minute to listen to a free concert by “one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made?” As Weingarten posited, “Would beauty transcend in a banal setting at an inconvenient time?”

In the 45 minutes that Joshua Bell played, (yes, the Joshua Bell who played the soundtrack of the movie The Red Violin and who packs them in at concert halls around the globe), only 7 (!) people paused long enough to acknowledge his performance.

The other 1070 people? They all rushed by, oblivious, not even noticing or caring about the miracle in their midst.

Weingarten’s point? There are several. One of which is to quote W.H. Davies who said, “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stop and stare.” At what cost are we so busy, so driven, that we have lost the ability to see, hear and be grateful for beauty?

Another intriguing insight, “There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the few people who stayed to watch Bell from the vast majority who hurried past, unheeding. Whites, blacks, Asians, men and women were all represented. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Kudos to Gene Weingarten for his absolutely brilliant writing and for this thought-provoking social experiment. Please take the time to read his article (and view a video clip of Joshua Bell’s “D.C. Metro Concert”) at

Then, get back in touch and let me know, “Would you have stopped to listen to Bell if you had been rushing to work?” Why or why not? What does it say about our society that people were lined up at the lottery machine, punching in their numbers and hoping for a payday, but wouldn’t even turn around to note this phenomenon?

  1. Hi, Sam. Great blog site!

    This is an interesting premise, and while it’s disappointing that so many didn’t notice, I think the issue lies more with the context and venue of the presentation. And that’s the problem with the premise… that the only thing the people in that area had in common was that they were in a hurry and were supposed to be somewhere else. Anyone promoting something needs to know their demographic and the best ways to reach them, and give them some advance notice of an event that they would hate to miss. He was indeed “art without a frame”. Beautiful music is beautiful music, wherever it is, but some people will appreciate that best in their car on their own time, or on their iPod on their break, or at a concert hall… or at a Metro stop if they’re not hurrying to get somewhere, which probably isn’t often the case on a workday during morning commute.

    And of course a kid will want to stop and hear the music… they’ll also want to stop and pick every dandelion they see… pull every toy off the shelf at the store… jump in every puddle, etc. Kids are very rarely in a hurry to get somewhere, at least not in the sense of punching time clocks. (That’s why potty training can be so difficult!) Not to diminish Joshua Bell’s virtuosity or the greatness of the material he performed, but for the kid thing, at least, I don’t think it would have made much difference if it was some random guy playing a sloppy version of “You Are My Sunshine” on a dime store harmonica… A lot of kids would still want to stop for that, just because it’s something different and musical and a performance for them to watch. Not that many kids can’t appreciate the differences in the quality of art, but regardless, the fact that they will indeed often take interest in whatever kind of performance might be going on makes that argument questionable in terms of the aesthetic.

    I also imagine that a lot of the other 1070 people probably did appreciate the playing for the few seconds as they walked by. “Wow, that guy can really play,” was probably a quick thought on many minds as they rushed off to their work. You just can’t stop to really “consume” art at any particular time, necessarily. We’re also in a world filled with media, available at our fingertips like never before. Every artist is essentially busking, no matter where they are or how big they are… some just have a lot better spotlights on them, much bigger tip jars, and much bigger crowds hanging around them while they busk at Carnegie Hall or the Sydney Opera House. But it helps to have that “frame” around the art.

    This part especially stood out to me…

    >>The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls.

    Exactly! Befitting cathedrals and concert halls… not a busy bus terminal on a weekday morning.

    So anyway, it was an interesting experiment, but I suppose I disagree with its implications, or at least, it seems that the way it was done wasn’t likely to show a very positive result, and therefore its judgement on the people who walked by is questionable. You never know how many people are on the verge of being fired if they don’t get to work on time, or who have a myriad of difficulties in their personal and professional lives… and stopping to listen to music by some guy in a bus terminal, no matter how esteemed he may be among classical esthetes, just isn’t possible or practical in the moment.

    If I were in a desperate situation to get to work, I’m sure I would have tossed in a dollar and kept going, maybe only because I’m a musician who’s played for tips many times before, but I would have felt no compunction to stop under those circumstances, and I wouldn’t appreciate anyone thinking I’m deaf and blind to art in my life because I supposedly couldn’t recognize the brilliance in front of me. I also know that if I wasn’t in a hurry, I would have stopped and enjoyed it for longer. So the key here is the time and place… Try the same experiment at a coffeeshop on a Saturday night, and I’ll bet the crowd coming in and would stick around and applaud and be much more generous with their tips.

    Very best,
    Eric Herman

  2. One more thing I wanted to add…

    Some of the hurried business people rushing by were probably the same people who shell out $100 to go see Joshua Bell in a concert venue on a Friday night, but if they were late to work or to their business meetings, they might have been fired or lost commissions and then guess what… they can’t afford that $100 ticket anymore!

    I’m not saying that there isn’t some validity to the idea that we are often too busy and focused on deadlines and business to appreciate the beauty all around us, but just that this particular premise wasn’t really the best way to illustrate that.

    Take care,

  3. Hello Eric:

    Thanks for taking the time to leave those thoughtful and insightful responses. It makes my day when someone takes the time to share their reactions to my blog.

    Any others out there who want to take a minute to let me know if you’re finding this blog interesting and useful — and if there’s something you’d like me to post about?

Leave a Reply

Want a speaker you can trust to thrill your audience from start to finish - with original insights, laugh-out-loud humor, relevant examples and inspiring stories that motivate them to act?
Work with Sam and the IA team to position, message and craft your presentations, books and priority projects so they win buy-in from your target audience and decision-makers.
Want to create intriguing, one-of-a-kind ideas, projects and communications? Our books, videos and e-learning products show you how.
Want recent insights, examples and action steps on how to create interest, earn respect and connect with anyone? Our blogs (often featured in Fast Company,, etc.) show how.