Recognising excellence by Susan Grimsdell

There was an interesting story in the paper recently about one of the world’s greatest violinists and conductors, Joshua Bell.  He has played in the great concert halls of the world including Carnegie Hall and the Lincoln Centre, from the time he was a teenager.  You will pay a lot of money to attend one of his performances.

Joshua Bell playing near the subway station

Subway blues

Several years ago, Joshua took his 300-year-old Stradivarius violin for which he had paid $3.5 million, and found a good spot near a subway station in Washington DC.  For the next 45 minutes he played some of the great violin pieces of all time, two of them by Bach.   While he played, 1097 people passed by, but only 27 threw money into his violin case.  Only 7 were so taken by the beauty of the music that they stopped and listened.  One of those people gave him $20, but the total from all the others was $32.17.  You wonder about the 17 cents! Three days earlier Bell had played at Boston Symphony Hall to rapturous applause, but at the metro station, even those few who stopped to listen did not clap.

Joshua Bell playing in front of an orchestra

Working out what we want

You can draw your own conclusions about this incident.  To me, it speaks to the fact that we are copiers.  We wait to see what others do before we can work out what we like and what we want.  This starts in childhood.  Observe kids at a preschool.  The teacher calls out “who wants to do – whatever it is” and it only takes one child to yell out “Me, me!” For them all to clamour the same.  Or if a child says “No, I don’t want to!” so will the others.

Out of context

When it comes to recognising the superb quality of one of the world’s top musicians, I would have hoped we did have a mind of our own and be genuinely swept away by the beauty of the music,  but as this experiment makes quite clear – we don’t!   Put us in an expensive seat in the Royal Albert Hall and we know exactly what to do and exactly what to say afterwards – “Superb!  A genius! I had tears in my eyes!”, but listen to the very same performance in a setting that does not give us the cues to tell us what to think, and it means nothing.

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