The Invisible Musician: A Test of American Indifference

More than 1,070 people walked by with barely an acknowledgment of the violinist’s musical presence as they busily traveled to work. The violinist appeared to be a regular street performer, but he was actually a commanding performer who often earns $1,000 a minute. However, the humiliating experience of people hastily passing by his heartfelt performance quickly changed his expectations, as he claimed, ‘I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up.
The performer was not just any musician; he was Joshua Bell, a musical prodigy renowned for his passionate violin playing. In an experiment conducted last year in Washington D.C. by the Washington Post, with Bell playing a crucial role, commuters on their daily routes to work were tested to see how they would respond to a classical violin being performed by a famous musician in a busy public location.
Would a crowd gather over the beautiful music of a violinist who usually performs for audiences who pay top dollar? Would people give him money for his established talent?
In the time that Bell played at a metro station in Washington D.C., only seven people actually stopped to listen for about a minute. Twenty-seven people hurriedly gave Bell some money, but the majority did not stop to enjoy the performance.
After reading the details of the experiment, I questioned whether I would in fact stop to listen to elegant, classical violin music performed by a musician to whom I often listen because his music relaxes me, but I realized I would probably place more emphasis on getting to my destination on time than listening to the music.
What does that say about me? Furthermore, what does the lack of attention given to Bell in Washington D.C. say about Americans?
If our priorities are solely on work and promptness, then perhaps we miss the beauty that is right before our eyes. A number of experiments could have been conducted in which beauty of a different nature was displayed, and it is likely that few people would have bothered to take notice.
On the other hand, the context of the experiment could have had an important influence on its results, which made me think about how this experiment would have turned out in the context of a typical school day on the campus of UC Irvine.
All UCI students know too well the experience of rushing on Ring Mall to classes, work, meetings and other pressing demands on our time. However, if a celebrated musician like Bell were playing on campus at a busy section of Ring Mall in which many students would likely walk by, would students bother to stop, listen and enjoy the moment?
I think Bell would be ignored on the campus of UCI even more than in Washington D.C. because, let’s face it, the great number of students with iPods probably wouldn’t bother to take their headphones off to hear some classical violinist basically disguised as a creepy homeless person. Perhaps some students would call security because they couldn’t talk on their precious cell phones when some guy is making ‘noise’ while they schlep to their next class.
Classical music may not attract many college students or daily commuters in our nation’s capital, but shouldn’t beautiful music be worthy of some merit, at least enough merit that it causes people to stop for even a minute to appreciate the simple beauty of a well-played song on a difficult instrument?
Perhaps what is so striking about the experiment is the complete indifference shown to Bell while he poured his heart into the performance. Interestingly, it was only young children that demonstrated an immediate attachment to the music and a desire to hear more without treating Bell like he was invisible.
I think it is either funny or sad that children appreciated the music more than adults who were too hurried to even be bothered. The contrast in the behavior of children and adults in the experiment is a significant reminder of how our priorities and tastes change with age. However, one thing that doesn’t change with age is the importance of appreciating the small things in life.
College is unique in that we still have time before we enter the real world of the workplace. Soon, many of us will take our places amongst the commuters going to work each morning. Life may pass by as a blur if we no longer recognize people who have something worthwhile to offer, if you just bother to really look.