The Best Busker In The World

When it comes to music, can the general public tell the difference between an average hack and true world-class talent? The proliferation of reality TV singing contests would imply they cannot; but of course that is more about celebrity than either talent or music. Last year, however, The Washington Post conducted an interesting experiment – they placed the world’s greatest violinist in a metro station playing a $3.5 million violin to see if anyone would notice…

Measuring The Value Of Music

The capitalist ethic is nowhere stronger than in America; millions of people structure their lives around work, often in gargantuan office blocks where thousands of people are penned in to cubicles with desks and computers, working long hours for those extra dollars. Given this obsession with wealth and accumulation of material goods, do people even have the capacity to recognise and appreciate beauty and art anymore?

This is the question the Post’s experiment was designed to test. The premise was simple; if one took an exceptional musical perfomance and placed it out of context (in a metro station), would anyone recognise it?

The Finest Tunes Known To Mankind

For the test, the credentials of the performer, his instrument and his choice of music were beyond reproach. The violinist was Joshua Bell, an uncannily gifted performer whose playing, according to Interview magazine, “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.”

Bell’s violin was crafted by Antonio Stradivari in 1713, during the apex of his career when he had access to the finest materials and a craftsmanship that had been meticulously refined. The pieces of music Bell chose to perform included Bach’s “Chaconne”, which Bell refers to as “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect.”

If Nobody Listens, Are You Any Good?

So Bell went out and performed for forty-five minutes in a subway station. Of the thousand or so people who passed by, seven people stopped to listen, at least for a minute. Bell earned about $32 for his virtuosity. No crowd gathered, there was no weeping, hushed silence or rapturous applause.

The results of this experiment are hardly surprising; but they are revealing. The article in the Washington Post is well worth a read, and includes some video footage of the performance.

Through The Ears Of A Child

Of particular note is the one demographic that, without exception, tried to stop and listen to the performance – children. Every child that passed by sought to stay and absorb the performance, but in each instance they were hurried along by their guardian.

Perhaps we should listen to children more – not only that, but to our surroundings and ourselves. There may be great benefit to be gleaned from listening to the world more closely, and actively seeking out those who can express through music the underlying grandeur of spirit that is so often repressed by the incumbence of accumulation.

If you feel you need a reminder of the beauty of classical music, this TED talk by Benjamin Zander is a remarkable reintroduction to the emotion and power of spectacular performance…


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