Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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April 9, 2007
By: Kevin Drum

JOSHUA'S FIDDLE....Have you read Gene Weingarten's cover story in this week's Washington Post magazine? Basically, he took a world-class violinist (Joshua Bell) and had him play for about an hour at the entrance to a DC Metro stop to see if anyone would notice. To a good approximation, no one did. The tone of the story is a sort of artificially mournful tsk-tsking over our inability to recognize beauty in the world around us, take time out to smell the roses, etc. etc.

I'm sorry, but this is just idiotic. No one recognized Bell because even famous violinists don't have famous faces. No one cared much about his music because probably no more than five people out of a hundred enjoy classical music at all — and fewer still recognize the difficult pieces he decided to play. What's more, I'd be surprised if as many as one out of a hundred can tell a good violinist from a great one even in good conditions. And despite the claim that the acoustics of the L'Enfant Plaza station were "surprisingly kind," I'm sure they were nothing of the sort.

Plus, of course, IT WAS A METRO STATION. People needed to get to work on time so their bosses wouldn't yell at them. Weingarten mentions this, with appropriately high-toned references to Kant and Hume, but somehow seems to think that, in the end, this really shouldn't matter much. There should have been throngs of culture lovers surrounding Bell anyway. It's as if he normally lives on Mars and dropped by Earth for a few minutes to do some research for a sixth-grade anthropology project.

Sorry for the rant, but something about this article was so willfully clueless and hectoring (though in a sad, gentle way, natch) that it set my teeth on edge. Sure, I'm a philistine, but did anybody else have the same reaction?

Kevin Drum 1:18 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (205)

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David Marchese said something similar at Salon today, so you're not alone. I certainly agree that the premise of the experiment was flawed and the tone of the writer's analysis was the sort of thing that makes people leery of classical music in the first place.

Posted by: ANM on April 9, 2007 at 1:46 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, I had about the same reaction as you, Kevin. The stoopidest part of the stunt was that they did it in the morning. When I used to ride the underground to work everday, I had zero time at all for buskers and bums on the way in. After work was a different story. You'd think that Weingarten would have caught on to the morning problem when the people who did stop all admitted that they'd stay but had to be somewhere. One more thing: I can't speak for DC, but if they'd set Bell up at the cable car turnaround at Powell & Market in San Francisco at noon on weekday in late June, it would have been a mob scene.

Posted by: pinson on April 9, 2007 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

Joshua Bell? who dat?

if Paul and Ringo were there, playing a few Beatles songs, i'd bet a few hundred people would've happily missed their first hour of work.

Posted by: cleek on April 9, 2007 at 1:49 PM | PERMALINK

I didn't read the article and won't, but I do wonder about one thing.

Did Joshua Bell have a hat, or his open violin case, set out for people to toss money into? If so, how much money did he make?

I think this is the question that comes first in the mind of any musician who hears about this.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on April 9, 2007 at 1:50 PM | PERMALINK

High-toned cluelessness is a lifestyle.

Posted by: cld on April 9, 2007 at 1:51 PM | PERMALINK

If you read the article, you'd know he collected about $40.

Posted by: This Machine Kills Fascists on April 9, 2007 at 1:52 PM | PERMALINK

If Norman Rogers were playing the violin at a Metro stop, people would be throwing him quarters and pointing him to the nearest homeless shelter.

Posted by: NSA Mole on April 9, 2007 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

He would have made more if he had a little monkey with him.

Posted by: jerry on April 9, 2007 at 1:53 PM | PERMALINK

It's not surprising most people would pass the violinist by. Even those who might have enjoyed pausing and listening for a while just didn't have that option.

At rush hour, the overriding purpose of most patrons is to get to work on time, not to peruse the station looking for unusually talented musicians or other charms.

Posted by: McCord on April 9, 2007 at 1:55 PM | PERMALINK

The experiment was flawed. Most Americans do not listen to classical music in the first place, and are utterly unable to discriminate between an ordinary violonist and a great one. And the venue would lead most people to assume that the performer was probably not of the first rank, otherwise why would he be busking in a subway?

Posted by: swamp thing on April 9, 2007 at 1:56 PM | PERMALINK

Yes indeed. Condescending and pretentious is how it struck me. As a federal worker, albeit at a different subway stop, it doesn't surprise me that people were rushing to work. People have to be at their desk, in meetings, answering phones and there is little if any tolerance for late arrivals.

If, on the other hand, he had set up shop at the Navy Memorial, 7th and Pennsylvania Ave., around noon on a nice day I have no doubt he would have attracted a crowd. There used to be this amazing blues guitarist there and people would just stand there gape mouthed, listen, mesmerized, toss in a few bucks, and walk away with a big grin on their faces.

Open case, around $32.

Posted by: dmh on April 9, 2007 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

Absolutely on the mark. I'm really glad to hear you make this point. As a resident of the nation's capital, I really thought the article was a cheap shot. Excuse us for not taking vacation time from our jobs to listen to a fabulous violinist play on a weekday morning. That doesn't make us culture-less slobs. Ridiculous!!

Posted by: DH in DC on April 9, 2007 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

to amplify Kevin's point...one or two people, former musicians all, did stop because they could tell a person of rare skill was playing....but the key part was having the training to recognize the skills in the first place.

(on a secondary note, the pieces that Bell played were not obscure...at least not within the classical repertoire)

Posted by: Nathan on April 9, 2007 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't read the article yet (I'm lazy-sorry) but did anybody even notice that it was a famous violinist? All those people and nobody knew who he was?

Posted by: Xanthippas on April 9, 2007 at 1:57 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, they should have done the experiment during the evening rush instead and the article was WAY too long.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on April 9, 2007 at 1:59 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, I don't agree that people, even uneducated in the classics, would necessarily be unable to recognize a rose in the manure. But, as with manure, context is everything, and unless the folks behind this tried at least three different locations and times of day, the experiment is even less than anecdotal. Given the wrong circumstances, the exact same thing could happen to Herbie Hancock, Renee Fleming, or Pat Metheny.

Posted by: Kenji on April 9, 2007 at 2:00 PM | PERMALINK

YES. YES. A thousand times, YES.

With all the posts I've seen about this article, I was starting to think I was the only one that had that reaction. My main thought, reading it, was about my mom, who's a hospital receptionist. If she's late for work, even by a minute (punches a mechanical timecard, you know) she gets "written up." If she gets written up a few times, she can be fired. She's been there for decades, and she worries that someday they'll take that excuse to get rid of her because of succession of tiny raises she's earned over the years. So she's never, ever late.

I thought it was utterly obnoxious for this (I'm sure) highly paid writer to sadly deplore the state of our culture and humanity based on the fact that people have to, you know, get to work. They don't stop to smell the roses! Not like me, the guy who has a writing job and, therefore, flexible hours. (I have a writing job, I'm basing that supposition on my experience.) The poor, sad, blind philistines!

Even the few people who stop are treated with gentle contempt. They don't know what they're listening to, they don't recognize Joshua Bell, how adorable that the grunts enjoy the pretty music!

Story said a lot more about the writer than the crowd. Condescending twaddle.

Posted by: mich on April 9, 2007 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

I think that the critical piece of information here is comparing how Joshua Bell did to how some random mediocre violinist would have done in the same circumstances. I see buskers every day, and know that most of them do several hours at a time in busy subway stations, and judging by the contents of their guitar cases $32 in just 45 minutes is a remarkably good haul, even for a busy station. Maybe someone with some busking experience can enlighten us.

Posted by: Chris W. on April 9, 2007 at 2:01 PM | PERMALINK

The ratio of classical music listeners to non-listeners is about 2.5 per hundred based on CD sales (downloading extended classical works is still in its infancy.) Based on the facts of the recent Joyce Hatto CD forgery scandal the proportion of classical listeners (including professional critics) with any listening skills at all is 0.1 out of a hundred. I can't imagine what the Joshua Bell subway story was meant to prove except that NYT feature editors are really desperate for copy.

Posted by: fyreflye on April 9, 2007 at 2:03 PM | PERMALINK

I didn't take it as a "tut tut" at all.

The exercise simply showed that performing in the subway is a something of a level playing field, no pun intended.

If you don't know anything about classical music or violin playing, that's no reason to get defensive.

Myself, I loved the video excerpts. I had to go over to utube and listen to Heifetz play the Chaconne, just so I could get it all.

One thing we probably agree about: the article was overwritten in the breathy adulation typical of classical music journalism. However lightly people make take violin playing in the subway, violinists will always get a bigger response than any critic. And that's a good thing.

Posted by: Horatio Parker on April 9, 2007 at 2:04 PM | PERMALINK

What if he had set-up a tee-vee showing NASCAR reruns?

Posted by: rusrus on April 9, 2007 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a huge fan of Gene Weingarten (the writer), and liked the article a lot. I didn't get the sense that he condescended towards the people who didn't stop to listen to Bell. I think he drew two conclusions: that we're too busy, too distracted, to pay attention to what's around us, and also that we're far more subject to context than we think we are. There's a great illustrative example given by an art curator in the piece... people react to the value of something, not based on its inherent value, but because of what clues its context gives us about what we supposed to think. I also noted that the only people who really stopped to listen were people familiar with classical music and, specifically, the violin... they knew exactly how difficult Bell's playing was. Again, not surprising... but it does say something about our own (and the Washington Post's) expectation of what's valuable, what's Good. An interesting and provocative article.

Posted by: yagur on April 9, 2007 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

I'm with Kevin. The conclusion to be drawn from this experiment is not that ordinary DC-ers have no appreciation of beauty, but that Gene Weingarten has no appreciation of reality.

Posted by: lampwick on April 9, 2007 at 2:05 PM | PERMALINK

one person recognized him.

he was somewhat disguised though (I think he would have been recognized by more people here in NY...Bell, although immensely talented, has engaged in plenty of self-promotion).

the article did note the "if he's playing in the subway he can't be that good" effect. well, duh.

of course, the real point is simply that only a small fraction of even classical music fans have the ability to discriminate between merely competent and superb playing. the differences are too subtle for most of us to discern. (thus the classic conundrum that a heralded performer can give a mediocre performance and still receive a standing ovation while a merely competent performer can give the best performance of her life and receive mostly polite applause.)

put differently, I know a lot more about wine then the average Joe but my palate loses its ability to distinguish degrees of quality at about the $100+ range...the number of people who actually can distinguish between a great first growth and a great second growth Bordeaux is exceedingly small...it doesn't mean that there's not a difference...just that not even most oenophiles are capable of distinguishing it.

Posted by: Nathan on April 9, 2007 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

Same reaction.

I consider myself a classical music lover, but when I'm riding the metro to work in the morning my mind is basically mush and is thinking of anything but highbrow music. This was a poorly thought-out stunt that proves exactly nothing. If Joshua Bell gave an announced free concert on the Mall, I'm sure he would attract a substantial crowd.

Posted by: Virginia Dutch on April 9, 2007 at 2:08 PM | PERMALINK

I can't get the video clip to load, but as far as I can tell most of the Metro passengers were within reasonable listening range of Bell for only a few seconds as they walked past. No doubt ambient noise was considerable. Given the little time in which the passengers could hear Bell's playing, most probably couldn't appreciate his talent even if they were knowledgeable about music.

Posted by: Peter on April 9, 2007 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

I haven't read the article yet (I'm lazy-sorry) but did anybody even notice that it was a famous violinist? All those people and nobody knew who he was?

What were they supposed to do, anyway, if they recognized him? Point at him and shout "Hey! You're Joshua Bell! And you're playing Beethoven's Sixth Violin Sonata!"

Posted by: andrew levine on April 9, 2007 at 2:09 PM | PERMALINK

Is Joshua Bell the famous violinist who snorted his father with the cocaines?

Posted by: M.J. on April 9, 2007 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

Forty Bucks an hour. That would give him an income of about $80,000 a year. Considering that the test was given during the worst time of the day, you can probably estimate that he would average around $60 per hour or $100,000 per year. I bet that is more than most classical musicians normally make. Nearly all the musicians I know have to supplement their income by teaching.

Posted by: Ron Byers on April 9, 2007 at 2:10 PM | PERMALINK

What you're reacting to, I think, is that the piece (as you describe it) isn't so much about classical music as class (socio-economic). It doesn't sound "high-toned" to me -- it sounds snooty.

Posted by: larry birnbaum on April 9, 2007 at 2:11 PM | PERMALINK

Virginia Dutch:

um, that was the point of the article.

Posted by: Nathan on April 9, 2007 at 2:12 PM | PERMALINK

Take a chill pill, Kev.

I have one or two albums of Joshua Bell's; I listen to classical all the time. I'd like to think I would have recognized Bell had I walked by. That's not to say I would have had time to linger, but I would have tried to give him something in recognition of his skill.

Street musicians are quite common in the NYC subway and even more common in Paris, where they actually have to audition in order to receive a street performer's license. Part of the problem in DC is that hearing quality performances on streetcorners is unexpected.

I think the article is meant to be a lighthearted way to raise the question about the role of beauty in our everyday lives. In Barcelona you can walk right over Miro and Picasso tile designs embedded in the sidewalk. In Paris and in dozens of other cities throughout Europe you walk by grand architecture, sculpture, murals.

It's uplifting to be surrounded by beautiful art and music. The article is superficial in the sense that it doesn't explore the impact of Bell's playing on the people who couldn't stop -- maybe some of them did recognize Bell and the quality of his performance, they just had other obligations.

Imagine what a nicer place Washington DC would be if it got a reputation for quality artists performing inconspicuously around town. You might actually look forward to fighting the traffic.

I think artists need to do more of this to keep the tradition of quality live performance constantly revitalized. Use it or lose it. Especially classical -- we almost lost classical radio in DC thanks to Dan Snyder's banal sports talk radio.

Posted by: pj in jesusland on April 9, 2007 at 2:13 PM | PERMALINK

I had the same reaction as Kevin, not because of the type of music or acoustics of the venue, but because people were trying to get to work.

I'm retired now, so I find myself stopping to enjoy a number of things that I didn't during the years when I had no freedom to linger. I needed the paycheck that would surely have been withheld had I showed up late for work with the explanation that I had run across a wonderful violinist on my way. I think more people fall into the category of not having flexible work hours than those who do.

Posted by: Emily on April 9, 2007 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

My bad, $60 per hour would put him at $120,000 per year. Not bad for a classical musician not named Yo-Yo Ma.

Posted by: Ron Byers on April 9, 2007 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry, but there's just no way I am going to notice him unless he's on the wrong side of the escalator.

But if he's holding up my walking on the left side? I'd probably notice him as I tossed him over the side with the rest of the tourists.

Posted by: khead1 on April 9, 2007 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

I had a similar reaction as well, even though I thought the article was kind of interesting. It made me think, though, about the way we expect some music (and some performers) to be treated as So Important We Should Stop Everything We're Doing And Stand In Awe.

Posted by: nolo on April 9, 2007 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

I'm with you.

The fatal mistake I think was a.m. at L'Enfant Plaza. Had it been in the afternoon, when people have more time -- the outcome would have been different.

Musicians routinely play outside the DuPont metro entrance on 19th Street, particularly on Fridays. A lot of people hang out at nearby tables. If the musician is good, I've seen people just lingering and listening. The musician gets a lot of tips. Joshua Bell should play there. He'd do well.

Also any lunch hour, any warm day, in any park. A good location.

Posted by: Harpo on April 9, 2007 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, you're a philistine, with cats.

If the experiment had lasted a week, let's say, and Bell had played both the morning and evening rush hours, there would have been a cumulative response.

Beautiful music is beautiful music, in spite of the high-culture dorks who write about it. That station's commuters would have come to "own" their new performer, having change ready for donation and making time available to listen.

And Kevin, ask any busker. You can find amazing acoustics in the most unlikely places.

Posted by: skeg on April 9, 2007 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

I enjoy classical music very much, especially works by Mozart. However, violin solos are like a nail gun to the temple as far as I'm concerned. Not to belittle a musician's dedication, but something about the high pitched squeals and rubbing of the strings sends me running for mute button. I'm afraid I would have hurried by him also.

Posted by: Joshua Norton on April 9, 2007 at 2:16 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, yes, I fully agree with your reaction. I'm also a classical music lover, with several amateur musicians and one professional in the family.
When I first saw the link via www.aldaily.com, it sounded like a great read. But the arrogance and condescension, and sheer wordiness, of the prose was a huge turn off. And then in the midst of it the writer describes Joshua Bell in the shallowest of terms ("hot," etc.), which makes the whole thing a farce.
This was a neat idea, although doomed from the outset by the reasons already mentioned by other commenters. But the writer of this article is an pretentious adolescent who needs to grow up, while shedding the patronizing tone.

Posted by: me too on April 9, 2007 at 2:16 PM | PERMALINK

Mr. Bell is a much better musician than I am, but he is no Aiman Mussakhodzhayeva.

Posted by: Brojo on April 9, 2007 at 2:18 PM | PERMALINK

Here's a minor scoop for Kevin Drum --- this isn't the first time Joshua Bell has done this sort of thing. My wife and I heard him play the very same Bach Chaconne in the atrium in front of the Harvard Co-op in Cambridge. This was 20 years ago, though, before he was famous.

Posted by: astigmatist on April 9, 2007 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

What's more than bizarre as that the author, Gene Weingarten, in his weekly humor column in the back of WP magazine, plays the Dave Barry neanderthal, giggling uncontrollably over fart jokes. But in this article he's a culture buff who can't stop telling us that he was actually in the same room with Joseph Bell. You heard me, Joseph Bell! He let me hold his violin! Then we went out for drinks and talked for hours! It was fabulous!

Posted by: Alan Vanneman on April 9, 2007 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

say one thing positive for the story. it did fill the news hole.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on April 9, 2007 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

What were they supposed to do, anyway, if they recognized him? Point at him and shout "Hey! You're Joshua Bell! And you're playing Beethoven's Sixth Violin Sonata!"

No, they were supposed to walk by and shout "Freebird".

Posted by: C.L. on April 9, 2007 at 2:19 PM | PERMALINK

Yes, I had exactly the same reaction. I am a classical music fan--I go to numerous concerts, and have a massive CD collection--but if I were rushing to work in the morning I'd go sailing right by Joshua Bell too. At most I might think as I walked by, he's pretty damn good to be playing in the subway. Rush-hour commuters are single-mindedly focused on getting to their offices--what an astonishing revelation. It was an incredibly silly article, and incredibly long too.

Posted by: Badger on April 9, 2007 at 2:20 PM | PERMALINK

The article is long winded, and the philosophical asides a bit, well, sophomoric, but the story is a good one. If you play the video clips, the sound is actually amazing, even if acoustically challenged. I would like to think my attention would be caught...The best line (and the most telling) is from the shoeshine lady. Its the only time she hasn't called the police on a street performer invading her territory. She might not have known what she was listening to, but she was enjoying it well enough.

Posted by: lisainvan on April 9, 2007 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

I thought it was interesting that the children all wanted to stop and listen to the music. I did think the article was kind of pretentious, but I wonder sometimes if we squish the joy of little things out of our kids in our rush to move along.

Posted by: Teresa on April 9, 2007 at 2:21 PM | PERMALINK

As another DC resident I had somewhat conflicting thoughts. I'm an opera subcriber and a fan, and would like to think I would have stopped, but who knows if it was during rush hour. That's really the cheap shot, doing it during rush hour. How about doing it during lunch, where people might have time to think about it and listen.

Although I disagree that the tone was "tsk tsk". Perhaps the most aghast reaction came from the single person who actually recognized him. She was horribly offended that people through quarters at him like Phillistines.

People are busy. Even people who like classical music are busy. Putting an internationally known musician of any kind wouldn't necessarily get noticed.

One unrelated note: A friend of mine was a guitarist for a platinum-selling rock/pop band. He swore that the BART (San Francisco Area) train stations had great acoustics and used to go there to noodle out new tunes. He said people always through money down, even if he didn't have a hat or case open.

Posted by: Rock Star on April 9, 2007 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

The L'Enfant Plaza station does in fact have marvelous acoustics. I haven't read Weingarten's article yet, but I used to commute to the L'Enfant metro and it has one of those very long escalators. Even if you walk up (huff huff), it takes a while. And the street musicians very often had it staked out, because the sound is quite beautiful. The stone walls and the long narrow space are like a cathedral, with a long decay.

I know my classical music, and I can say in all honesty that if I had heard *any* violinist playing the Bach Chaconne, which Bell started out with, I would have stopped in my tracks and listened through to the end. That is one of the most cosmically stunning works in the entire repertoire.

Posted by: wally on April 9, 2007 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

The irony here is that for years, Joshua Bell has spent more time on crossover albums and fluff than he has on pieces like the Bach Chaconne. Classical musicians doing crossover middle-brow albums and concerts is an artistic compromise and a silly attempt to increase CD sales, but in this case is doesn't seem to have made him any more recognizable. For horror movie fans: the Chaconne is the piece played (on the piano) by the severed hand in Peter Lorre's "The Beast with Five Fingers," (1946).

Posted by: jim on April 9, 2007 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

The article made me sad, as did your reaction to it. Granted, I was a music performance major and I love classical music, but as the article showed, you don't have to be a trained musician to appreciate the beauty of the performance. Sure, as a scientific experiment, it sucked, but it's still a depressing comment on life in DC. Take the time to smell the roses, people!

Posted by: JRW in DC on April 9, 2007 at 2:22 PM | PERMALINK

Every experiment is flawed without a control.

Weingarten needs to run it again with Paris Hilton standing around without any underwear on, and compare commuter reactions.

Posted by: Disputo on April 9, 2007 at 2:23 PM | PERMALINK

The Supreme Court placed an incompetent and corrupt dwarf in the White House in 2000, and seven years later major figures in American media haven't yet noticed.

A violinist busking going unnoticed? He hasn't EVEN invaded a Starbuck's on immoral justifications.

Posted by: bdr on April 9, 2007 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

I loved the article and didn't think it was snooty at all. In the article, the author notes Kant's belief that appreciation of beauty depends completely on context and that Kant himself would have probably just walked by-- whereas children were the only demographic that consistently tried to observe. America's work ethic is quite different than what you find in other parts of the world. I didn't take any of that as condescending.

Posted by: kchiker on April 9, 2007 at 2:25 PM | PERMALINK

I enjoyed the story, but I didn't think much of the conclusions drawn. The sound was amazing.
Going to work on time was obviously the most important thing for these people. To do a fair test, Bell should have played in the evening.
By the way, whether they recognized his face was totally beside the point. No one would need to see Pavarotti's face to recognize an amazing voice. Likewise, listening to that music would have clued any one familiar with violin music that this was a world class player. He played in tune, for god's sake! Do you realize that there are probably only a handful of people who can play the violin reliably in tune, let alone make wonderful music?

Posted by: marky on April 9, 2007 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

Come on guys lighten up.

To me the article was talking about how busy and driven we Americans are not how poorly educated in the arts we are. While I can agree that as a scientific experiement it left a lot to be desired, are all of you complaining because you really think the article was bad or because you feel a little guilty knowing you would run by without giving him a second look as well.

Yes, we are slaves to our jobs and for some of us the consequences of being late can be catastrophic, so we put on our blinders and get there as soon as possible. Yes, picking the morning commute is harder than the after work commute, but isn't that the point. Do you really think the French or Itlians would have been so quick to brush past him without a second glance? Yes, they are better educated in classical music than we Americans are, but they also have a totally different approach to work than we do. I love my country and all that we are able to accomplish, but you have to think about the quailty of life issues as well. We live in a society where someone's mom can be fired for being a few minutes late to work on more than one occassion regardless of the quality of work she does while on the clock or if she makes up the time by staying late. This article shows the problems Americans have with relations to our jobs and work not problems recognizing beauty.

We are a nation that lives to work instead of a nation that works to live. Maybe if we started to change that a lot of the problems in our society would begin to heal. People would have time to listen to great works of art in a subway station and kids would have parents that spend more time with them than on the "Jones Account". I am not tryiong to make a judgement on any one person's life or reasons for working hard, I am just saying as a nation we are more obsessed with what we can afford to buy than what we are offered for free.

Posted by: Lib in Texas on April 9, 2007 at 2:26 PM | PERMALINK

The most obvious point ignored by the article was that almost every true music aficionado passing by would have had an ipod on and so wouldn't have heard the virtuoso.

But I have to disagree with the gist of Kevin's post and the comments. The fact that only one person was aware enough to notice something extraordinary and then flexible enough to spare a few moments out of his day to pay attention is a sad commentary, if not on our levels of taste then on our level of busy-ness.

The truly salient point, while it may be an annoyingly easy point to score, may have been the point made by the woman from Brazil quoted in the article as saying that in Brazil a huge crowd would have gathered without a doubt. I think that's probably true.

The weirdness that the article discovers may not be the weirdness that it thinks it discovers (lack of good taste) but something more insidious: how our urban workers are plugged into the clock and into their own streams of media in ways that prevent them from responding authentically to events in the world around us.

Sort of like the SCLM!

Posted by: Ottoe on April 9, 2007 at 2:27 PM | PERMALINK

I enjoyed the article, and agree completely with pj in jesusland's post above. I didn't really find it condescending, just an interesting case study in musical sociology.

Also, Kevin is completely wrong to take the angle he did by dissing the acoustics. Just from the crappy lo-fi video footage, it is quite obvious that the guy sounds AMAZING in there. Which is not to say that I would have recognized it if I was in a hurry to get to work. But that's kind of the point.

Posted by: nub on April 9, 2007 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

However, On the other hand, If it was Disney's Goofy playing the violin, badly, The crowd would have been enormous.

Posted by: James on April 9, 2007 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

Gene Weingarten is another symptom of the Post's terminal condition, living proof that pomposity may make one ridiculous, but ridiculous is not the same as funny.

Posted by: kalkaino on April 9, 2007 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

Hell, I payed 50 bucks to see Joshua Bell last year. And he only played for 30 minutes. I could have seen him for free for an hour. He's good but he's no Itzhak Perlman, or Stephane Grappeli, for that matter. And Midori is cuter.I wonder if Bell preened at the subway like he always does on the concert stage.

Posted by: repug on April 9, 2007 at 2:30 PM | PERMALINK

When I came across the part where this experiment was being run in the morning rather than the evening rush, my instant reaction was 'game over.'

In the morning, as at least two commenters have already pointed out, people are half-awake, and just trying to get to their jobs on time; they don't have the freedom to take notice of that violinist on the platform. In the evening, they're awake (if tired) and are more likely to be able to spare a few minutes to hang around and listen to the music.

If they'd done this experiment in the evening, that might've been interesting. Morning? Not so much.

Posted by: RT on April 9, 2007 at 2:31 PM | PERMALINK

I didn't get the impression that they actually expected anyone to recognize Bell (even though one person did) so I don't know if that is a totally fair criticism.

I am also not sure it is really a commentary on America's lack of interest in or knowledge of classical music.

To me it is more of a commentary on how busy everyone is that for those without cellphones/ipods that the music didn't even seem to register with most people much less that people could (have the time) or would bother to stop and actually listen. Saying that, people zone out in the Metro system I know I did when I rode it. For many it is their time alone - no boss, spouse, kid, or other demand on their time/attention - for others they just are in a hurry to get where they are going.

Posted by: ET on April 9, 2007 at 2:32 PM | PERMALINK

Maybe using Joshua Bell was his control. Next, he's going to have Keith Richards play at the metro, and see what happens.

Posted by: craigie on April 9, 2007 at 2:35 PM | PERMALINK

If he wanted folks to take notice he should have used Hilary Hahn.

I'm just sayin'....

Posted by: Trollhattan on April 9, 2007 at 2:37 PM | PERMALINK

Gotta tell you though............if this were a metro station in Kiev or elsewhere in eastern Europe there would have been a crowd around him. People would have stopped and they wouldn't give a shit if they had to get to work or not. I know...I have seen it happen with just unknown but good musicians over there.

Posted by: Borg Waner on April 9, 2007 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood
And he played real good
On his clarinet, for free.

Now me I play for fortune
And those velvet curtain calls
Ive got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if youre a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.

Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their t.v.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony...
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free.
- Joni Mitchell

Posted by: Ralph Kramden on April 9, 2007 at 2:38 PM | PERMALINK

This is just an example of how context is important in the whole world of art. If the Mona Lisa was hung in a garage somewhere without it's fancy frame, odds are the average person would not recognize it as a "masterpiece". Take the art out of the context of the museum or the theater or whatever and odds are people will not recognize it for what it is. That's not a commentary on American civilization but on human nature.

Posted by: shoeshineboy on April 9, 2007 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

I have to disagree completely here. There may have been parts of the article that came across as condescending, but the subject matter is inherently pretentious.

It may have tsked-tsked a little bit, but let's face it: the world would be a better place if people took a little time to smell the roses on the way to work. When I lived in NYC, I loved seeing the performers in the subway stations and now I miss that dreadfully. The article may have had its faults, but I think it had a point.

Posted by: TomT on April 9, 2007 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

Hmm. I don't get the negative reaction. It was a "stunt" (as both Bell and the story itself admit), not intended as a scientific experiment. No claims or estimates are given as to the prevalence of people who in a different circumstance would have recognized Bell or his competence. That it was done at rush hour was entirely appropriate - when else should they have done it? When the platform was empty? I found the article quite interesting, particularly for the observations of the former or current amateur musicians ranging from beurocrats to deli employees, all of whom recognized that they were in the presence of something special. The video vignettes are great as well.

The point of the article wasn't that the great unwashed can't appreciate beauty, it was that the circumstances of our lives make even the extraordinarily beautiful difficult to discern.

Some seem to feel that the article as an overly precious attempt to prove that we choose not to "stop and smell the roses." If so, it succeeded. If you want to refute the premise by arguing that people are busy during rush hour, then you've conceded the point.

Posted by: rb on April 9, 2007 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

If Bell were in Kiev, he'd have been shot by Putin.

Posted by: not really on April 9, 2007 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK


It proves nothing, of course. But I'm certain I would have recognized that the violin playing was superb even under the circumstances. Any decent musician would.

Whether I would have stopped for any length of time is another story. But when I do hear good music playing in the subways in NY, I always give generously. l

Posted by: tristero on April 9, 2007 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

Having never used public transportation, I can tell you that this approximates what I believe to be true--it is only the cogs of society that use public transportation. No one with the means or the education to recognize a fine violinist would be caught dead trying to stuff coins into the slot of some Metro train thing or whatever. Anyone with the capability of recognizing this performer was driving to work in a fine automobile or was being transported by a vehicle with a paid driver and security. Perhaps they were listening to a recording done by Mr. Bell on their way past the Metro stop! Ha! Wouldn't that turn the tables? I think so!

And which Metro stop does he claim all of this took place at? Some of those stops in Washington DC are in decidedly liberal areas of high crime and gunplay. I am told that some people have to carry mace and body armour just to get to the Treasury building.

Posted by: Norman Rogers on April 9, 2007 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

Im not a philistine, but this is not a town where people are deterred from work because they encountered a good musician. It's not common for musicians to engage in urban free lancing around the metro stations at least partly because this is a hyper scheduled town that gets to work earlier rather than later. If they had set him up on the mall on a nice Saturday at 10:00 am or later, well, maybe the result would have been different. Certainly, you can see musicians at choice spots at night and on nice weekends and while they might not attract a crowd, people do stop and give money. You would think someone who lives around and writes about Washington D.C. would have figured all of this out.

Posted by: Barbara on April 9, 2007 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, I was all ready to have that same indignant reaction to the article, but after reading it (and I imagine very few commenters actually did) I found my rage dissipated.

My three remaining reactions are:

1. Sadness that I missed it.

2. Gratitude -- I'd never heard the Chaconne before, and now I know about it. It's like finding buried treasure.

3. Amusement at the savage anti-anti-elitism here on display.

Posted by: Laertes on April 9, 2007 at 2:44 PM | PERMALINK

I had a similiar reaction; however, I took the article's use of Kant and Hume as almost a tongue in cheek way of alluding to how extravagent the idea was.

Posted by: Frank in Omaha on April 9, 2007 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

I second this. Weingarten is a great writer. His "The Great Zucchini" deserves a Pulitzer. He is not at all condescending (as you or perhaps Atrios put it). Lighten up, Kev.

Posted by: Nick on April 9, 2007 at 2:45 PM | PERMALINK

I've never heard the name 'Joshua Bell'.

How the hell would I recognize his face or his music?

Posted by: Rob on April 9, 2007 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

I just thought the article was way too long. It had the sense of a guy who had a certain amount of space he needed to fill.

No one cared much about his music because probably no more than five people out of a hundred enjoy classical music at all — and fewer still recognize the difficult pieces he decided to play. What's more, I'd be surprised if as many as one out of a hundred can tell a good violinist from a great one even in good conditions.

Well, yes, that was part of the point.

of course, the real point is simply that only a small fraction of even classical music fans have the ability to discriminate between merely competent and superb playing. the differences are too subtle for most of us to discern.

Even more yes.

Posted by: Dave in NYC on April 9, 2007 at 2:46 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, you really are an idiot. The pretension here is yours in that you evidently are so stuck in your own pre-conceptions of what point someone writing an article about a famous violinist playing anonymously in a Metro station would be trying to make that you utterly failed to grasp the openended nature of Weingarten's experiment. It was a meditation on all the issues that you raised without definite conclusions. My respect for you just dropped about 95%.

For those who raise the issue about why L'Enfant was used, apparently for legal reasons it was the only station that could be used.

Posted by: sj on April 9, 2007 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

If you want to hear a violinist play the Bach Chaconne, go here:

Posted by: music lover on April 9, 2007 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

Somebody needs to feed the inferiority complex that drives many voters into Rush Limbaugh's anti-intellectual embrace.

Posted by: ferd on April 9, 2007 at 2:47 PM | PERMALINK

"And which Metro stop does he claim all of this took place at?"

The station at the L'Enfant plaza. This fact was easy to miss, buried as it was in the first sentence of the piece.

See my above remarks about how few of the torch-and-pitchfork crowd here gathered bothered to read the article.

(also, scratch one "anti" from above)

Posted by: Laertes on April 9, 2007 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

I tried making money while playing the dangling sax at the Farragut West Metro Stop.

I didn't make any money, but I did get propositioned by Al.

Posted by: Jay on April 9, 2007 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

Norman, nice try, however people pay top dollar in the D.C. Metro area so that they CAN use its metro system with minimal inconvenience. It's not hyperbole to state that being within walking distance of metro probably adds $200,000 to the value of a three bedroom house.

Posted by: Barbara on April 9, 2007 at 2:48 PM | PERMALINK

Well, I thought it was a nice piece, and I think your reaction is incredibly irritating.

Posted by: brooksfoe on April 9, 2007 at 2:50 PM | PERMALINK

From the article: "cute elides into hott [sic]"

? ! ?

Posted by: r on April 9, 2007 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

And a lot of this is based on the assumption that ordinary street musicians suck.
That's simply not true. They run the gamut from terrible to amazingly good. So Joshua Bell on a street corner is not the framework-shattering event they think it is.
And nobody busks morning rush. If you were giving gourmet meals away, with the proviso that you had to sit down and eat it, most people would pass you by.
My reaction would be, in this situation, to make a mental note of how good he was and come back to the station at lunchtime to see if he was still there. Of course, nobody checked for that.

Posted by: pbg on April 9, 2007 at 2:52 PM | PERMALINK

Nobody recognized Joshua Bell cuz he ain't on the cover of Us magazine. I like him, but wouldn't know him from Snoop Dog.

Posted by: noshrub on April 9, 2007 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

I am an amateur violinist so probably would have stopped and listened. The article made me a little sad, but I do agree, it was stupid to have him play during rush hour. I agree with the post that said he should have stayed for a week and built up a buzz. In NYC he would have attracted attention right away I bet!

Posted by: Jan on April 9, 2007 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

I am told that some people have to carry mace and body armour just to get to the Treasury building.

It must be wingnuts carrying the body armor, since most rational human beings understand you have to wear the armor for it to be effective.

And I'm sure the only driver Norman's had is his mother.

Posted by: NSA Mole on April 9, 2007 at 2:56 PM | PERMALINK

Putting your last two posts together, let's all pay much more attention to public utterances, particularly of the cell phone kind. If we listened, commented, took notes, recorded, grinned and elbowed the person next to us...maybe the yappies would cut it out. On the other hand, two people I wanted to hear from called me yesterday...both while standing in line, one at an airport, the other at a buffet. As for the charming and talented Mr. Bell, he wouldn't get much of a crowd for a concert hall appearance on Friday at 8 a.m. Buskers and panhandlers could have told him the best times and places.

Posted by: mle on April 9, 2007 at 2:59 PM | PERMALINK

On any level, we have taste in our ass, pressed for time or not... (Kincaid,Serrano,Warhol,Hockney).
You can lead a whore to culture, but you can't make her think.

Posted by: Bruce on April 9, 2007 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

I've listened to classical music all my life and my kids (horrors) are serious violin students who've met and heard Josh Bell. I will tend to agree that the experiment wasn't capable of making any sort of scientifically sociological findings, but if you read today's online discussion at the Post website, you'll find out more about the conditions that tended to force the date/time/place they chose (HINT: DC's Metro System bureaucracy didn't cooperate).

That said, I think there's a big bunch of overreaction here, by Kevin and others. Heaven knows DC's culture and atmosphere needs a break from the Jersey Barrier Mentality that has become a staple of the War on Terror (TM). Like the lady from Brazil, I also wonder how this would have "played out" in other countries such as Venezuela or Brazil (or China for that matter) which have growing classical music activity and general knowledge on a level that does make americans seem pretty clueless about it.

Posted by: Bill H. on April 9, 2007 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

Had they run this experiment during the rush home, you would have undoubtedly seen more people stop and listen.

The article's writer clearly has the attitude of "you dumb plebes", much the same as the talk-down tone of the media to bloggers.

Posted by: Tread on April 9, 2007 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

I think it was an interesting idea, really. And I'm sure that most people would be familiar with Ave Maria, even if they couldn't name it. It would probably make more sense to have him do it at the end of the day, when people would have more time to stop, but it looks like most people didn't even give him a glance. If it says nothing else, it is a comment on Americans' fear of street/homeless people. It might say a lot of other things about people not having time to enjoy something like that, the lack of interest in classical music, and the preference for home entertainment rather than a live musician, etc. It wasn't perfectly done, but I thought it was an interesting sort of experiment.

Posted by: steve ex-expat on April 9, 2007 at 3:04 PM | PERMALINK

That isn't how I took the article at all. I don't think they were expecting anyone to recognize him, that wasn't the point. I took it more that Bell is considered a brilliant artist, and in our modern world, where we are all very busy and have to get to work on time, is there any rare and unexpected beauty that could override our daily grind? And isn't it sad that our society is structured like that? I am not a classical music fan at all, but it left me wondering if there are people who are talented enough that they transcend their listeners' usual tastes.

The article also made me think about how we don't appreciate beauty until we are told by experts that it is beauty. Like if he is charging $100 a ticket, he must be good, but we wouldn't appreciate a busker. I wondered how many talented musicians have for whatever reason not had the breaks that Bell has had, and instead end up down and out as street musicians. Would we still appreciate the beauty of their music?

I found the article thought provoking.

Posted by: J.B. on April 9, 2007 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

I was a professional violinist for 40 years and have performed the Chaconne myself a few dozen times, a few of them in unconventional places (like a crowded bar in the middle of a blizzard). Acoustics or not, one of the things that listening to music like that is that details matter a lot, and that is why classical concerts are silent except for the playing. One violin, unless amplified to the point of distortion, will be mostly swallowed up in a busy underground station at rush hour and most of what makes a performance "great" as opposed to "good" or just "adequate" will be lost even to a discerning ear. Not to mention that the experience that such music provides the listener is like meditation --- in its inwardness --- as easily try to find enlightenment in a mosh pit! The whole thing is foolish.

Anyway, in my estimation, Joshua Bell is not the most compelling performer on the violin...like many he has a surfeit of chops and a deficiency of soul. Mostly I suspect he was just exercising his not-insignificant ego. Maybe he learned something.

Posted by: JRosen on April 9, 2007 at 3:05 PM | PERMALINK

He should try it at Times Square.

Posted by: Mysterious Traveler on April 9, 2007 at 3:06 PM | PERMALINK

Someone asked how this compared to your average busker. It's a good question, but one that depends greatly on the city.

In SF, where playing in the BART/MUNI station is well respected, competition for the good traffic/acoustic spots is brisk. Though mornings are always worse (your point about people needing to get to work is true), one can average anywhere from $20 to $60 per hour for the two hours between 7:30 and 9:30. At nights, it's higher, and noon at one of the places people like to sit and eat lunch can be as much as $200 for a two hour "performance," which is pretty good money by musician standards.

In DC, you're not supposed to be allowed to play in the Metro. An indication of Mr. Bell's skill is that nobody asked him to leave. People may not have known what he was playing, but they knew he was good. They might not have put it in those words, but their actions tell an important story.

I confess that, though I play a half dozen instruments and have played professionally, I don't much care for all that many classical pieces, and my knowledge of them is therefore basically limited to the few I do like and the few dozen I taught myself to learn how to play the violin, bass and cello. As such, it's unlikely I would have stopped for more than a few minutes.

That said, I do try to toss something into anyone's case if s/he is busking. Whether or not they have great skill, and I've heard every level of skill on the street, from terrible novice to innovative virtuoso, it's hard to play the street. You have to keep smiling, keep trying to make a connection with people who are trying to get through their own lives. But when you do, it's a beautiful thing.

I agree that the article was pretentious, and unaware of the reality of busking for most musicians, espcially here in DC. But I, unlike the author, was impressed by the taste of the listeners to not kick the artist out, and not at all disappointed with $40 or so in an hour.

Posted by: Ron on April 9, 2007 at 3:08 PM | PERMALINK

I live in San Francisco and go through the Montgomery street metro station, which often has several clusters of musicians in several different generes playing to the passersby. There's on guy who plays clarinet who I always look forward to, even though I only slow down a little as I pass by. One morning he was playing Naima by John Coltrane and I got goosebumps. On one other occasion, somebody walked up to a different jazz player, this guy was on a standup bass, I think, and gave him several dollars and said "you're a life saver."

Even more interestingly, a string quarter often plays in the same station and almost always they draw a cluster of people who seem to have been physically arrested by the music.

Whenever I see these onlookers, I feel some envy toward them. Even at live performances, the music doesn't always inhabit me the way it seemed to inhabit these people. But when I make the choice to stop and look and listen a little while, I start to pickup on what they're experiencing.

One thing I'd also point out is that the montgomery street station's open area is significantly larger than the one in the bell video. If you only give people about 4 seconds to demonstrate their ability to recognize the grandeur of an expression of art, they're not going to do well.

Posted by: timfsull on April 9, 2007 at 3:11 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry, in my post just above I meant "Finland", not Brazil. Those two countries are *so* much alike!":-o

Posted by: Bill H. on April 9, 2007 at 3:12 PM | PERMALINK

This was my first taste of Gene Weingarten's work, and I loved it. It made my morning. And most t of the objections that I've read by people here were actually dealt with in the article, leading me to wonder how many people read it all the way through.

This is the kind of thing you're supposed to read liesurely over coffee. Spend some time with it. He wasn't pointing fingers at anyone of deriding anybody's taste. He simply had a thought and the wherewithall to pull off a magnificent prank and then spend some time musing about it.

Perhaps its the framing, or perhaps it's that we're all so serious and upset at the state of world affairs, but it looks to me as if just as many people passed by this article in a rush to get somewhere else as passed by a superb musician making superb music.

Posted by: Slideguy on April 9, 2007 at 3:13 PM | PERMALINK

I have no doubt that if performers of the artistic stature of Julius Cheeks, Archie Brownlee, or William Edgar John returned from the grave to perform in the same spot at the same time as Joshua Bell that Gene Weingarten would walk on by utterly clueless to the artistry he was ignoring and/or dismissing.

I have never understood the argument of so-called "classical music" fans to think what they appreciate is of a higher quality than all other forms of music, by all other cultures, from all the eras of mankind's evolution.

Posted by: James K Power on April 9, 2007 at 3:15 PM | PERMALINK

I'll second the 'Powell & Market turnaround.'

There is always someone there - the Tap Dancing Guy, or various steel drum player.
The BART station below often has 2 or 3 performers of varying quality. For the most part, it OK but not great. If I stop to listen, it has to be something out of the ordinary, and standard classical music is less likely to stick out.
If one person out of a hundred stops to listen, that is a good catch, IMHO.

Posted by: MobiusKlein on April 9, 2007 at 3:16 PM | PERMALINK

Sounds to me like Joshua Bell did pretty good. I know a lot of very talented, highly skilled, hard-working musicians who would be glad to make $30 to $40 for 45 minutes work.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on April 9, 2007 at 3:21 PM | PERMALINK

In Weingarten's defense, he never claims to be a classical music fan, or knowledgeable about it.....in fact he described in the chat how little he does know about the genre. Which is fine from the standpoint of trying to appreciate something.

Try reading the article, folks.

Posted by: Bill on April 9, 2007 at 3:25 PM | PERMALINK

I really enjoyed the article. I think you're
missing the point - I felt it was much more a knock
against the concept of elitist "high art" than a
knock against the inhabitants of DC. Take away
the trappings of fancy clothing, high ticket prices,
and publicity, and is there anything particularly
compelling in the music and performance itself ?
And the answer was equivocal - kids were fascinated,
a few people with serious interest in the violin
or classical music got it; for the rest of us, it's
just noise and we've got other things to do.

Also interesting were Bell's own comments: that he
felt very nervous performing in a context where
the audience wasn't on his side from the start;
and that he really got motivated to try to get a
reaction. Also loved his comment that he could
actually make a living earning $40/hour like

In full disclosure, I'll say that I play the
violin, have spent a couple of decades hacking
through the Bach partitas in private, and have
played (folk, not classical) in subway stations.
The acoustics are usually quite flattering for a
solo instrument or small ensemble, though of
course a big orchestra would turn to mush from
the excessive reverb.

Posted by: Richard Cownie on April 9, 2007 at 3:26 PM | PERMALINK

I have no doubt that if performers of the artistic stature of Julius Cheeks, Archie Brownlee, or William Edgar John returned from the grave to perform in the same spot at the same time as Joshua Bell that Gene Weingarten would walk on by utterly clueless to the artistry he was ignoring and/or dismissing.I have never understood the argument of so-called "classical music" fans to think what they appreciate is of a higher quality than all other forms of music, by all other cultures, from all the eras of mankind's evolution.

Again, it would be wise for those who wish to comment on the article to ACTUALLY READ IT before commenting. If you had read it, you would realize how not all to the point of the article your comment is.

Posted by: sj on April 9, 2007 at 3:27 PM | PERMALINK

Personally I don't care for classical music, but I wouldn't mind cashing in on it. After reading this article, I can imagine all those pensive erudite folks clogging the metro passageways appreciating music they don't have a clue about. I tell you this town is f..up with showoff wannabees.

Posted by: el loco on April 9, 2007 at 3:31 PM | PERMALINK

I thought the article was a bit of a waste of space. Couldn't help but think, though, that the results may have been a bit different if: a) the violinist was not restrained by the WaPo's selection of music and instead was allowed to select a few more numbers that might have better recognition capability for the masses and b) the act was pulled off during the afternoon rush rather than the morning rush.

Posted by: bubba on April 9, 2007 at 3:35 PM | PERMALINK

m.l.e.: I can assure you that Joshua Bell could pack in concert hall at 8:00 a.m. on a Friday. he is a perennial sellout...and one of the very few classical musicians to actually make a seven-figure income.

J.B...although I'm not a musician myself, I come from a family of string musicians...some of whom make a living at it. the reality is that a violinist (or most other instruments for that matter) of rare skill will be identified as a prodigy at a young age (if they have the parental support to take up the instrument in the first place)...after that scholarships will pave the rest of the way. seriously.

with that said, pulchritude, showmanship and self-promotion make the difference between a mega-selling performer and your average Juilliard grad making a middling income teaching and occasionally performing.

Posted by: Nathan on April 9, 2007 at 3:36 PM | PERMALINK


on what planet is Ave Maria not about as recognizeable as any piece he was going to play?

Posted by: Nathan on April 9, 2007 at 3:37 PM | PERMALINK

It's interesting how many defensive comments there are here, in line with Kevin's own. Kevin admits he doesn't know quite why he's so upset. I suspect the same is true for many other posters. DC's basic fear of culture, and buried sense of its own lack, seems to me what's at play. Yes, we have grand, fancy institutions of high art, which function for senator's wives and others on whom culture is a respite for what's considered important. As many people here have said, many other cities around the world, and elsewhere in the US, have a far greater open-ness to art. They also have Metro systems with lots more music and art allowed within them. But we, in our dedication to business and power, have it socialized out of us. And then somehow get upset when its pointed out.

Posted by: phred on April 9, 2007 at 3:38 PM | PERMALINK

I read the article yesterday, and as a New Yorker, my only reaction was that it must be something about DC culture. I imagine that there are subway stops in NYC that would be equally filled with people rushing to get to work who wouldn't take the time to stop and smell the roses (Wall Street area, for instance).

But I know for a fact that most people in NYC's subways *do* stop for a moment and throw a dollar or two into the hat.

There seems to me to be a cultural difference in that people in certain lines of work will relate to streeet culture differently than others. In NYC, there's not really a time of day that the subways are empty (except very late at night). Yes, the subways are more packed from 8 to 10am and 4 to 7pm, but they aren't empty the rest of the day. People go to and leave work at all hours, and I see them pause and listen and toss a quarter in the cup all the time.

Maybe it's because the MTA encourages buskers by auditioning them and giving them permits to play. This guarantees lively music and performances of all kinds, and keeps the quality at a certain level.

But I come back to the thing that keeps me living in NYC: people here are different than they are in major cities in the rest of the country.

And I'm eternally grateful for that.

Posted by: David Fenton on April 9, 2007 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

James K. Power: The saddest part of the American music scene is the mindless self-segregation it inspires among listeners. As the child of an opera/classical music obsessed mother, I learned that people who truly love music love a lot of different (not necessarily all) kinds of music. My friends thought my mother was freak because she made them listen to opera if we had to car pool anywhere on a Saturday afternoon. They would ask her: What kind of music do you like best? And she would say: I like good music. And they would say: But what do you consider to be good music? And she would say: Music that I like. She and my aunt developed a crush on Billy Joel (yeah, I know) and went to see him live anytime they could. My mother also refused to buy a stereo until 1975 because she found recorded music to be uninteresting.

Musicians in the metro are rare, but like a lot of other musicians they usually build up an audience over time. A one time experiment doesn't seem fair.

Posted by: Barbara on April 9, 2007 at 3:42 PM | PERMALINK

And no one points out the obvious--

Put the execrable Dave Matthews in the tube and have him strum his guitar and sing his sad-sack little tunes and the masses would bow before him and squeal with excitement.

There is an appreciation for beauty in this world; there's just no accounting for taste, you see.

Posted by: Norman Rogers on April 9, 2007 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

nathan: ave maria was one of 10. The rest were not pieces readily recognizeable.

Posted by: bubba on April 9, 2007 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

Yup, Gene, you da bomb. How 'bout a few more needles in DCs bloated sense of self-importance? Can't wait to see what outraged letters there'll be in the Post mag next week.

Posted by: phred on April 9, 2007 at 3:54 PM | PERMALINK

And if I remember correctly, the piece specifically states that the WaPo intentionally chose most of the pieces to be selections that would not be instantly recognizeable by the masses.

Posted by: bubba on April 9, 2007 at 3:55 PM | PERMALINK

To quote the article: "The musician did not play popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest."

Posted by: bubba on April 9, 2007 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

I liked the article, but it would have been better if it had ended with someone beating Bell up and running away with the violin. The fact that it did not made me doubt that humanity has fallen to the depths the media usually wants us to think it has.

Posted by: mark on April 9, 2007 at 3:57 PM | PERMALINK

bubba: whatever. what they mean was that he didn't play Stairway to Heaven

Posted by: Nathan on April 9, 2007 at 3:59 PM | PERMALINK

nathan: really? are you that obtuse? It is clear from the text and tenor of the article that they didn't chose "flight of the bumblebee" or "the barber of seville" or any number of tunes that show up in bugs bunny cartoons. stop being such a pretentious douchebag.

Posted by: bubba on April 9, 2007 at 4:02 PM | PERMALINK

"And if I remember correctly, the piece specifically states that the WaPo intentionally chose most of the pieces to be selections that would not be instantly recognizeable by the masses"

Yes. The Bach Chaconne in D minor is not a tune
that many people will hum, but it's unquestionably
a great piece of music, and astonishingly impressive
in its original form for solo violin. I think
the intention was to take a performer, an
instrument, and music that all have impeccable
credentials in the world of classical music, and
see how what impact they would achieve on random
people in an unglamorous setting - like a jury
without previous exposure to the facts of a case.

Posted by: Richard Cownie on April 9, 2007 at 4:03 PM | PERMALINK

This is particularly amusing to me. A month ago, I was in a building that contains a concert hall, and heard a wonderful violinist practicing along with a pianist and cellist. I slipped into the hall, sat in the back, and listened, as it slowly dawned on me that Joshua Bell was the violinist. I listened for about five minutes before making my way off to the very thing I was now five minutes late for.

So there you have it - I conducted almost exactly the same experiment, and stuck around for five minutes - on a Sunday - in a place that was actually a pleasant spot to listen to music. I'm one of those one in a hundred Kevin postulated might be able to tell the difference, and am a part-time professional musician. And I stayed for five minutes.

People have other things to do, and/or don't care.

Should I get furious when I walk home today past a beautiful sculpture, and realize that none of the 400 people in view are gazing at it admiringly? Are we to pretend that it would have been different at any point in human history, or in any place?

If someone wants to hear the violin played at a virtuoso level, there are CDs available for purchase and regularly scheduled concerts. If someone wants to hear music while on the Metro, they'll wear an iPod and make sure they don't miss their train.

Posted by: casper on April 9, 2007 at 4:03 PM | PERMALINK

An article selected by an editor to run on the front page of a Sunday magazine in a major newspaper doesn't have the benefit of the collective vetting and moderating process which web posts are submitted to.

This objectively explains the higher relevance of successful web posts versus Sunday-magazine front-page articles.

Many hands make light work. Non-interactive, non-collaborative publishing mechanisms like newspapers are becoming quaint and irrelevant when compared with the fiercely competitive blogosphere publishing mechanisms.

It's good to remember that this sort of argument echoes the "free-market" kind of arguments you often hear conservatives make (usually when they're on a stealth mission to gut some efficiently-provided government service such as supplying water or electricity, by privatizing it).

Let's hear it for competitive, free-market publishing! WaPo has screwed up so royally in so many ways with their deceptive Iraq War cheerleading and their ombudsman scandals, that I don't feel sad or surprised when their subscription numbers go down or when they publish irrelevancies like this.

I like Walter Pincus' WaPo articles. That's the only "brand-name" I recall positively in connection with their "product".

Posted by: stefanx on April 9, 2007 at 4:04 PM | PERMALINK

I was ticked by the article too, but I think it provided some useful information. If you plan to make a living as a street musician, don't waste your money on violin lessons. Take Jerry's tip, and buy a little monkey :-)

Posted by: synykyl on April 9, 2007 at 4:05 PM | PERMALINK

Pretty much the same reaction as Kevin's.

Also, tempo matters a lot in the subway context. I've seen good, fast-paced percussion buskers get good crowds. Especially novelty, stomp-like groups.

Posted by: bob on April 9, 2007 at 4:10 PM | PERMALINK

Granted, it's too much to expect hordes of people to stop for 30 minutes on their way to work. Still, it's a bit astonishing to see so many people -- most of whom would probably claim to be "educated" in some sense -- walking right past one of the world's best violinists, playing one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, on one of the greatest violins ever constructed in all of history. And most of them don't even do a double-take.

Posted by: Stuart Buck on April 9, 2007 at 4:18 PM | PERMALINK

I skimmed the comments and didn't see anyone mention the pre-experiment predictions. Leonard Slatkin (NSO conductor) expected a bit more attention and money ($150) while Weingarten's Post editors were afraid of drawing a big crowd. We can all of us be very wise after the fact, but how many would have gotten it exactly right before. (Researchers prove that humans try to create consistent stories for facts, and that's what we're doing here.) I'd bet a lot of us might have said--it only takes a couple people to stop and pay attention and you'll soon draw a crowd. For everyone who said, of course no one paid attention, they were on their way to work, how many of those people while driving to work would have slowed to rubberneck at an accident?

Posted by: Bill Harshaw on April 9, 2007 at 4:20 PM | PERMALINK

Yeah, I'm totally unconvinced right now by the arguments that the piece wasn't about the poor benighted masses who don't appreciate beauty. Didn't you read the part where he refers to the people walking by as "ghosts" and calls Bell the only real person there? That doesn't come off as a little critical?

The problem with the story is that the writer's airy assumption that people choose to ignore the music. He never bothers to address the reality that for many people, stopping to listen is simply not an option. If he'd bothered to ask people whether they would have prefered to rush to work or spend a few minutes relaxing and enjoying some music, it would have undercut his story.

It has the flavor of those stories wherein a writer informs you that visiting Europe, spending the summer at the shore, etc. etc. is a necessity of life. Well, yes, maybe it would be ... if you could afford it. How nice to have the option. And how obnoxious to be so blind to the possibility that many people don't. Pile the condescension on top of that and you have one well-intentioned but truly oblivious article.

Posted by: mich on April 9, 2007 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

OMG, what if I walked by him and didn't recognize him?!

I'm not sure if I would have been able to maintain the correct balance of self-righteous populism expressing how busy I am in the morning with a knowing cultured high brow to show that I'm more than just the average above-average music listener.

I guess that I would have pointed a finger at somebody to show that I'm above something. But at who and what?!

Maybe I need to schedule 12 minutes every other day to more music appreciation -- classical and nonclassical (so as not to upset anyone).

Or I could stop taking the Metro so as to avoid the further possible contact with artistes.

There must be something in youtube about this...

Posted by: Jen on April 9, 2007 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

jerry wrote: "He would have made more if he had a little monkey with him."

Yeah, then this guy walks up to Joshua Bell and says "Do you know your monkey pissed on my shoe!" and Joshua Bell says "No, but if you hum a few bars I'll fake it."

Posted by: SecularAnimist on April 9, 2007 at 4:25 PM | PERMALINK

Bill Harshaw wrote: "We can all of us be very wise after the fact, but how many would have gotten it exactly right before."

Well, anyone who's actually watched street performers or who has been one would probably have a pretty good idea. I think I'd have been pretty close, since I've done both, albeit not in DC.

Posted by: PaulB on April 9, 2007 at 4:28 PM | PERMALINK

"on what planet is Ave Maria not about as recognizeable as any piece he was going to play?"

That depends on which version of Ave Maria was selected. Only one or, at most, two, I think, would be readily recognizable.

Posted by: PaulB on April 9, 2007 at 4:31 PM | PERMALINK

Ah, I see it was the Schubert, the only version likely to be recognized. Having said that, though, I have to wonder how many people really would recognize it? I would, of course, since I've heard it quite a few times and I like classical music. To the average individual, though, I suspect the only time they've been exposed to it for any length of time is in Disney's Fantasia or as a background theme in a movie or commercial.

Posted by: PaulB on April 9, 2007 at 4:41 PM | PERMALINK

And I'm totally unconvinced by the argument that 90% of the negative reaction I'm witnessing here isn't prompted by a resentful, boob-populist contempt for classical music.

It was an article about the fact that we -- WE -- don't stop to appreciate beauty and excellence in our surroundings. We don't. We're focused on other things. I do believe that those who are aware and alert enough to their environment to note beauty and excellence, and engage with it, are making more out of their time on this earth than those of us who cruise through, oblivious. And this experiment did provide an opportunity to observe and think about how much we all may be missing as we go through our narrowly focused, distracted days.

Then again, I've been spending a bunch of time lately with followers of the Zen sage Thich Nhat Hanh. So maybe I've just got "mindfulness" on the brain.

Posted by: brooksfoe on April 9, 2007 at 4:45 PM | PERMALINK

A so-called "experiment" that proves nothing. How many of you can say "will get yelled at if we don't show up on time"? Sadly enough, people who probably did have enough control over their schedule to be able to take a break were the ones in the cars and limousines going past the station.

What they should have done is repeat the very same performance that evening at the same location--and see how many people would stop.

I've seen a lot of classical buskers in or near Shinjuku station in Tokyo--most of the time they're not gathering money but using it as a lure to sell their CDs for 2000 yen. I've gathered a nice little collection.

Posted by: grumpy realist on April 9, 2007 at 4:57 PM | PERMALINK

"To the average individual, though, I suspect the only time they've been exposed to it for any length of time is in Disney's Fantasia or as a background theme in a movie or commercial."

Or possibly a funeral, maybe a wedding.

Posted by: bubba on April 9, 2007 at 5:01 PM | PERMALINK

I read and enjoyed the article. I suppose having been a long-time reader of Gene Weingarten's column made it impossible for me to think of the piece as high-brow or pretentious. (Weingarten is a humor columnist whose schtick tends toward making fun of himself for neanderthal cluelessness.)

Although not a Metro rider myself, and even though I'm a music fan, I imagine my reaction would have been like most of the passers by. I'm confronted with (accosted by?) beggars and buskers everyday, some more aggressive than others. Years ago, I reached my limit in trying to talk to them and discern whether my dollar would be going to a "worthwhile cause." Now I just walk by.

I'm sure I would have done the same with Bell, unless his playing cut through my mental muck and particularly arrested me for some reason.

Posted by: JRP on April 9, 2007 at 5:11 PM | PERMALINK

the article was fine. the high mindedness about "high mindedness" is just celebrating being an ignoramus. if you took offense at the article its probably because you know inside youd be one of the morons that rush right on by great art hurrying to get to your stupid job.

to me the point of the article is that people are ignorant of art. in our modern society they have to be explicitly told whats good because they have no clue or training or education to be able to discern what actually is for themselves. but i bet they can tell you who makes the best hi-def flatscreen and whos the best on american idol.

Posted by: ron on April 9, 2007 at 5:14 PM | PERMALINK

And One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was about a wacky hospital. The article was about how our lives are so rushed, so hurried, so focused on the pine needles that we can't take a minute to recognize beauty. That we have to set aside specific times and dates and places to relax and enjoy those things that make life worth living and that this is tragic. Hell, even the length of the article serves to make the point--that we'd rather read hundreds of disconnected blog posts about the minutiae of political horse races rather than wander through a lugubrious article on a lazy Sunday morning. It's insane on its face.

It's not about the fucking metro stop, or Joshua Bell's stature, or even whether or not you like classical music. It's about how the lives of "mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles" may be missing some kind of essential harmony that gives meaning to the weekly drudgery.

But yeah, thinking that maybe people's lives need to slow down so they can hear one of the greatest musicians on the planet--that's elitist.

Posted by: Chris on April 9, 2007 at 5:17 PM | PERMALINK

I'm no big classical music fan, but I admit I would have recognized the young and handsome Joshua Bell. There are a million people from TV that I wouldn't recognize, though, so I guess it just depends on what you're into. Still, it seems odd and kind of Eurocentric to assume that classical or "serious" music is somehow the very definition of beauty, as opposed to other forms of music or other forms of beauty. Think of the guy in American Beauty who thought a plastic sack floating through the air was beautiful.
All in all, if it proves anything, it just proves that the guy that wrote the article likes Bell's music, and that people are preoccupied and busy. It's like Maslow's Hierarchy: first you take care of your survival needs, then you get to address the issue of beauty.

Posted by: chrisssss on April 9, 2007 at 5:25 PM | PERMALINK

I bet most people who pay $100 or more to see Joshua Bell in concert don't know how good he is, but they give him a standing ovation anyway. The 'experiment' was nonsensical. There is beauty everywhere that we see and that we miss. In fact, there is beauty in someone who could walk up that escalator in L'Enfant Plaza two steps at a time then run by Bell just for the personal exercise.

Posted by: Mark on April 9, 2007 at 5:28 PM | PERMALINK

Social engineering disinformation claptrap. Trial baloons to see how much
more nonsense Americans who have been ripped-off, lied to and propagandized
against their own best interests for generations will continue to swallow. There is
in fact a massive conspiracy, and it is no theory. Far from being interested in "beauty"
and "smelling the roses", horseshit like this is part of the reality that no one at any time
is ever simply left alone in peace, freedom and security, but rather those birthrights
themselves and every other are constantly subverted and co-opted in service to quisling
chisling agendas of the most pernicious character, always wrapped up in innocent-
seeming contraptions such as this. If great musicians and the many people who may
enjoy the serendipity of running across them and hearing them play is now at this late
date an issue of such concern, and if anyone wishes to support the general notion and
importance of them, then discontinue the long-conducted policy of invariably harrassing
both the street musicians and their audiences whenever they do spontaneously appear,
as they have every right to in any actually free, fair, open and democratic society, which
ours no longer is and has not been at least since the day oleaginous b-movie hack phony
Ronald Regan first took the oath of the highest office in our land. As to what the musician
played, and how many in the audience knew it, that too is nobodys business, except somone
with some social axe or another to grind, presumably something to the effect of "well, look
how untutored the masses are". But what, after all, can be expected when education funding,
or rather more precisely the lack of it, despite ever-increasing taxes taken to pay for ideologically-
driven curricula has left every child behind. If musical appreciation and the arts are so gosh darned
important, then genuinely adequate funding for them ought not have been slashed to nothing
and the remaining pittance given over to religious zealots and ideologues, along with the power
to regulate and parse the disbursement of those public funds, especially as this crime against
anything other than junk culture was perpetrated by the very same parties who have nevertheless
eagerly substituted Jerry Springer, in-your-face Rap Contests and totally unregulated lying
propaganda for any decent classical or other musical programs on our public airwaves and
in our culture at large. Supporting the arts and artists is one thing, hijacking them to enforce
some ambiguous class-driven argument is quite another, as doing so in and of itself shows
disrespect and disregard both for music and for musicians themselves. Taken in this context
an uncommonly fine violinist has been made to look like nothing so much as an innocent
and cruelly harried monkey tethered to a grossly fat profiteering accordian player with the physignomy of Dick Cheney, straight out of a Thomas Nast cartoon from the days of Boss Tweed. Or are we terribly mistaken?


Posted by: Liberty on April 9, 2007 at 5:35 PM | PERMALINK

You have to wonder how Weingarten feels about the headline that ended up on the piece, "Pearls Before Breakfast", which, while not actually calling the commuters "swine", kind of raises the question.

Posted by: DonBoy on April 9, 2007 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK

I read some of the article, but I thought that it was generally condescending. I pay attention to musicians in subway stations. When I was in chicago, there was this woman who played flamenco music on the weekends at the red/blue transfer downtown. I would watch her while she played. But, the fact that I'm supposed to look at a CLASSICAL musician and know who this guy is and am supposed to care? And, more importantly, if I don't, I'm classless?

I can explain conceptual art. I'm nowhere near classless. I don't appreciate having my sensibilities insulted by the Washington Post. Someone I read recently called the Post abstruse, and it made me wonder. This article has helped to give me a tangible way to show how the Post hates its readers and plays up to an elitist, upper class audience.

Posted by: Ace on April 9, 2007 at 5:38 PM | PERMALINK

if George Will disguised himself and tried to sell copies of his opinion columns on the Metro, how much money do you think he'd make?

Posted by: Glenn Whiteside on April 9, 2007 at 5:44 PM | PERMALINK

In 1967 I walked right by a band set up and playing near Sproul Plaza in Berkeley, wondering why people had stopped to listen to this woman screech. Turned out it had been Big Brother and the Holding Company.

Posted by: Jim Bartle on April 9, 2007 at 5:47 PM | PERMALINK


Very much so. Well put. A true test would be playing not in the lobby, but on the platform proper in the tube. The acoustics are usually better, and people are just sitting around waiting for the train and so are more inclined to absorb. Most people who play for money play there for that reason.

Posted by: patience on April 9, 2007 at 6:05 PM | PERMALINK

Anyone who's ever done street performing knows that it takes a pretty thick skin to deal with the indifference and sometimes even hostility from the public. Most really successful street musicians are also quite theatrical. Frankly, Bell did quite well. $40 for an hour's worth of busking is a gold mine, even in Manhattan. But if he put on a pair of tap shoes, a skirt, and a rainbow colored wig, he'd have made a lot more...

Posted by: picaresque on April 9, 2007 at 6:07 PM | PERMALINK

"One violin, unless amplified to the point of distortion, will be mostly swallowed up in a busy underground station at rush hour and most of what makes a performance "great" as opposed to "good" or just "adequate" will be lost even to a discerning ear."

But, again, he was playing at the top of a long escalator. If you're riding the escalator, it's very quiet, and the acoustic is extremely resonant. It's too resonant for a concert hall, but it gives a really lovely and lush sustain to the music. I used to take that escalator every day, and even an amateur on a cheap electronic keyboard made a very pretty sound.

Posted by: wally on April 9, 2007 at 6:13 PM | PERMALINK

I admire your political commentary, and regretfully agree with your admission that you are also a philistine.

Posted by: yellowdogfox on April 9, 2007 at 6:24 PM | PERMALINK

Such a collection of different impressions! Being a classical musician I was blown away by this article and at the same time wasn't surprised by the results of the 'experiment.' No one was expected to recognize Joshua Bell's face but were expected (some anyway) to notice his music-making as being something extraordinary. One man, not a classical music afficiado, was affected by the music, hung around a while, and ended up throwing a bill in the violin case, the first time he had ever done such a thing. Why many commenters choose to think of classical music as elitist any more than pre-1950 literature, philosophy, art, economics, history, etc., is beyond me. The role of public education should be to educate American children about all the great ideas in all fields. Sadly, the arts are pretty much neglected and music history and appreciation is totally neglected. If it's elitist to want ordinary citizens to reap the benefits of a greater knowledge and acquaintance with the arts, then I'm an elitist. I hope you're willing to let the couch potatoes who take no interest in politics and don't vote (i.e., 50% of voting age citizens?) just keep sitting...

Posted by: nepeta on April 9, 2007 at 7:01 PM | PERMALINK

1. Nobody beat him up and
2. Nobody recognized him from American Idol.

All's well that ends good.

Posted by: BroD on April 9, 2007 at 7:06 PM | PERMALINK

Correction to 7:01 post: 64% of voting age Americans voted in 2004.

Posted by: nepeta on April 9, 2007 at 7:09 PM | PERMALINK

Oh please, get over yourselves.

The article itself discusses the cultural context argument and it is apparent from some of the comments above that many have not read it.

This argument is funny : Americans don't listen to classical music BUT if he had played at evening rush or in the park or not at L'Enfant...

As Edna Souza, the Brazilian shoeshine woman, said "If something like this happened in Brazil, everyone would stand around to see. Not here."

Rejoice in your musical tastes, watch out for ass jawbones and don't make excuses.

Posted by: Babson on April 9, 2007 at 7:12 PM | PERMALINK


Get over yourself. This article didn't purport to be a scientific "experiment" or whatever else your fevered imagination wants it to be. Just because you would have walked by this guy without a second glance is no reason to attack the piece (and the author, you called him a liar over the acoustics).

Posted by: Exalted on April 9, 2007 at 7:17 PM | PERMALINK

I wish I could respond to everyone's comment but alas, dinnertime. Just one, and not even one of much relevance:

" Classical musicians doing crossover middle-brow albums and concerts is an artistic compromise and a silly attempt to increase CD sales"

I think you're wrong. It is not an artistic compromise to collaborate with either popular artists or those from other musical cultures.
Usually musicians enjoy 'almost' all music and enjoy the collaboration between the best of all worlds. Music is really a universal language.
And, for sure, the best artists who do collaborate are not doing so to boost CD sales.
For some it could be a 'reaching out' to include more people in their audience but not for mercenary reasons.

Posted by: nepeta on April 9, 2007 at 7:33 PM | PERMALINK

odd--i thought the tone of the article was just fine, not in the least condescending or elitist. in fact, i'd say the author bent over backward to put the whole experiment in context, and invite reflection rather than knee-jerk reactions of any kind. mileage varies, i guess, but i enjoyed that piece, and i don't give a rat's ass about classical music.

Posted by: chiefscribe on April 9, 2007 at 7:40 PM | PERMALINK

Still reading that WaPo trash eh?

Posted by: MarkH on April 9, 2007 at 8:47 PM | PERMALINK

Ah the Phillistine crack.

Historically the Phillistines had a more complex culture than Israel at the time they clashed. So the proper historical phrase should be "Sure I'm an Israelite..."

Posted by: MNPundit on April 9, 2007 at 8:47 PM | PERMALINK

Too late to read the posts, read the article. This has probably been said.

This says more about our society in a whole load of ways than about Mr. Bell, his violin, and his music.

When people have time I have seen crowds form and listen, and give. Go to London's Covent Garden and see.

About a year ago, I saw a PBS program about the Minniapolis Symphony Orchestra, (I foget where, Eastern Europe?) A couple of them bumped into a piano accordion player playing Vivaldi's Four Seasons absolutely brilliantly. Soon their were about 30 members of the orchestra listening intently. They listened through to the end and applauded generously. I don't know how much they gave, but what an audience, huh?

Posted by: notthere on April 9, 2007 at 9:01 PM | PERMALINK

It could be worse

And, in the NYT, usually is. As insufferable as they are when they excoriate the philistines, they are much worse when they sell out to the philistines, which they do on a daily basis. Over the years I've been reading them, they've gotten steadily worse on serving as a throw rug for the materialistic lifestyle of the rich and wanna-be famous. I used to just try to ignore those sections of the NYT, and flip quickly to the excellent hard news and at least adequate opinion content. But the sickening lifestyle junk is growing in volume, and lately it's been three strikes all across the board on quality, so I'm letting my subscription run out.

Posted by: Glen Tomkins on April 9, 2007 at 9:02 PM | PERMALINK

No I don't agree at all. The main point of the article was how much time people had to spend picking and buying their lottery tickets, yet they paid no attention to the music behind them. The lottery line was very long and in easy listening range of Bell. No one in line paid any attention. One man interviewed later that day could remember every number he played in the lottery, but didn't remember there was a musician there. He was however disapointed when he was told that Bell (who he was supposedly a fan of) was playing within 20 feet of him. The point of the article is that we take time for the things that we find important (the lottery) and that beauty isn't one of those things. I think the elitist point of view is actually the one that says "you classical music fans are a bunch of snobs and I'm way more important/hip/relevant than you are".

Posted by: eliz on April 9, 2007 at 9:12 PM | PERMALINK

Sigh. If only he'd been playing The Devil Went Down to Georgia. The slow pokes in the crowd might have been stimulated to hurry the hell up.

Posted by: Berken on April 9, 2007 at 9:26 PM | PERMALINK

I read the article before Kevin blogged about it and I had a different reaction. I thought the article was fun and interesting and the snob factor never entered my mind.

Chill. It was just interesting. As I read it, the I had the same thought that many of the commenters here had, i.e., what do you expect from people on their way to work. When I go to work I have a bit of tunnel vision. Got the get there on time so I can leave on time.

So, the reaction was understandable thought not totally predictable. What if the lady who recognized him had shown up near the beginning instead of the end? Could have turned out differently if she had told someone else his identity. A crowd may have gathered.

Posted by: little ole jim from red country on April 9, 2007 at 9:28 PM | PERMALINK

Dude, lighten up. The article clearly quoted some
psych saying such experiments meant nothing,
people use context etc.
All said and done, I think most of us would
still like to think that we've time to "stop and
smell the roses". The article was just a light
illustration that, perhaps, we don't.

Posted by: Raj on April 9, 2007 at 9:36 PM | PERMALINK

jesus, some of you seem to be taking this pretty personally!

there is (was) a live chat conducted by weingarten about the article here:




(sorry if someone else posted this - i didn't read all 168 comments.)

in any case, some of you people need to lighten up. i hold no brief for weingarten, but he's not the snooty type.

your pal,

Posted by: blake on April 9, 2007 at 9:39 PM | PERMALINK

OK, I am probably posting this way too late.

First of all, I read the article, and played the clips. Despite the bad quality of videos, and the difficulty of downloading, the music is simply AMAZING!!! I say this as a person who has NO CLUE about classical music, and just listens to a variety of music (whatever sounds good). The quality should have been enough to get at least half the people (no matter how busy they were) to pause, if only for a second. Yes, the article is long-winded, but so what.

Funny that (even though I am too lazy to find links) I can swear that both Kevin and Atrios (or at least the typical posters at both places) can go on and on about their favorite music/singer/band and call them geniuses. I guess snubs exists anywhere, we just don't realize it when it's our own clique doing it.

As 'rb' said up thread, the point wasn't that the great unwashed can't appreciate beauty, but (in addition to context, which was rb's point) my conclusion is exactly opposite. The article stressed that you could really find ANY criteria to separate the two groups (those who appreciated it, and those who didn't). There is now 'GREAT PRETENTION' among people (including Americans) that they recognize beauty and art. Many of these people would have easily paid $100 to listen to him in a concert and would brag about it later. But they didn't recognize a great player under their own nose. Many were of course too busy, but many also (pay attention to the lottery customers) simply and frankly had no taste. The computer programmer guy comes across very badly (and perhaps that's why Kevin, Atrios, and other NET guys are not so pleased with the article.)

Sorry about the long post. I close with some of my favorite quotes up thread:

Joshua Bell? who dat?
if Paul and Ringo were there, playing a few Beatles songs, i'd bet a few hundred people would've happily missed their first hour of work.
Posted by: cleek on April 9, 2007 at 1:49 PM

Every experiment is flawed without a control.
Weingarten needs to run it again with Paris Hilton standing around without any underwear on, and compare commuter reactions.
Posted by: Disputo on April 9, 2007 at 2:23 PM

Maybe using Joshua Bell was his control. Next, he's going to have Keith Richards play at the metro, and see what happens.
Posted by: craigie on April 9, 2007 at 2:35 PM

Posted by: ghost2 on April 9, 2007 at 10:03 PM | PERMALINK

o.k., i've read more comments.

i particularly liked the commenters who not only didn't read the article, but didn't read it in the wrong paper. it was the *washington post*, not the *new york times*.

i know communist rags are hard to tell apart, but kevin named the paper in his post for god's sake.

your pal,

Posted by: blake on April 9, 2007 at 10:04 PM | PERMALINK

People who complain that Bell should have been asked to play on the afternoon, or in a park at lunchtime, are missing the point. Or perhaps they're making the point without knowing it: if they'd been in a position when they were culturally conditioned to have the 'appropriate' appreciation, they'd have been appropriate.

Posted by: ahem on April 9, 2007 at 10:10 PM | PERMALINK

The parts that jumped out at me were the parts dissing the people who actually stopped.

As for those who walked by without acknowledging the artists presence -- duh. You're asking for money in a public space unsolicited. You haven't built up a crowd to critical mass where audience members feel some level of anonymity. You're wearing the hat of crappy baseball team. It's the morning commute.

I'm sure he surprised people. Separating them from their routine, their thoughts, their anonymity, and their money is another matter.

Posted by: amerlcan buzrd on April 9, 2007 at 11:01 PM | PERMALINK

What an interesting and unusual topic! I regret that I didn't get here earlier.

1) I tried twice to finish the article. Found it rambled on and on, and I lost interest twice. It isn't rush hour. I am sitting in my living room with nothing to do and no place to go. It is 4:30AM, and I am dealing with jet-lag. So I am forced to conclude that the article itself isn't a thing of beauty.

2) Gene Weingarten takes the response rate as dismal because the number of people who passed by was large, yet so few people exhibited observable responses. People didn't immediately exclaim, wow! a brilliant world-class musician! But one doesn't expect world-class musicians in such an environment and still seven people stopped to listen for at least one minute. All the children--who are less likely to inhibit their responses--responded. Twenty-seven people out of nearly 1,097 voluntarily gave money--that's 2.4%. That strikes me as a decent for a 45-minute, unsolicited, out-of-the blue performance at rush hour.

My own behavior might be typical. I enjoy street musicians. I listen to them with great pleasure and gratitude as I move through the environment touched by their music. But I almost never stop because I am always running late for something, and I almost never give money because I tend not to carry pocket change. And because I am not going to "pay" for my unsolicited experience, I typically avoid making eye contact or reacting.

So it seems to me that the fact that few people responded says more about the power of an ambiguous, transient social situation than about their appreciation of beauty.

Posted by: PTate in FR on April 9, 2007 at 11:29 PM | PERMALINK

Boy, Kevin and most of you missed the boat.

Did most of you miss the artist worrying that people might not like him? What about his comment that $40 an hours seemed like a pretty good wage?

What about someone that found the experience so peaceful that they actually gave money for the first time?

What about the shoe shiner that thought to not call the police this one time?

This article wasn't some spiteful indictment of our lives. This showed the variety of reasons people had for paying attention or not paying attention. I think in all honesty most people bothered by this story were in fact just feeling guilty that they may have been one of those that didn't stop.

So to all, lighten up a little. Pay attention to the things happening around you and just maybe you to will be surprised by something as several of these people were.

Posted by: RC on April 9, 2007 at 11:33 PM | PERMALINK

Geez, a whole lot of basic misreading going on of a fairly subtle piece of writing. I certainly expected better of Kevin and this group then this.

In any case, as for the obscurity of Joshua Bell, he can't be that obscure since he shows up in tomorrow morning's "Dennis the Menace" comic strip (I live in Tokyo, a day ahead, so I've already seen it in today's International Herald Tribune). Unless you're arguing that "Dennis the Menace" readers are part of the elite?

Posted by: Calton Bolick on April 9, 2007 at 11:38 PM | PERMALINK

It's an intriguing experiment. Reminds me of one of those jobs set up for seminary students in the way-back-when -- man moaning in an alley way during the break between classes, seminaries rushing to classes somehow don't hear his pain.

And that's where this has gone oh so wrong. Back in the early '70s when that experiment was done, there weren't iPods or Walkmans. Poor Mr. Bell was confronted with isolating individuals tasked with getting to their desks with the least intrusion possible... What's to understand? He earned each and every one of those $32.

By way of contrast, I had the opportunity to strike with my car an individual who stopped, while crossing against the light, to pull out his ear-buds to answer the phone in the middle of the street.

Given all this, Bell was lucky that anyone was capable of listening...

Posted by: jnb on April 9, 2007 at 11:39 PM | PERMALINK

I'm a classical music fanatic and have been one for decades. Before reading that article, I had no clue who Joshua Bell is, because, well, I get most of my music through Winamp and old CD's, so newer names like his don't really stick out in my mind.

But there's another reason: I don't really care about virtuoso musicians. When I listen to Joshua Bell play Bach, I hear Bach, not Joshua Bell. I have never been able to understand the hero worship that surrounds some virtuosos. I suppose if I had spent many years studying to play the violin, I would appreciate the individual musician more for his craft because of an appreciation of the sheer difficulty of performing it well, the same way that I guess a skate-boarder can probably appreciate Tony Hawks' stunts better than I can.

But when I hear Bach's Partita, I hear Bach, not Joshua Bell. He is just part of the medium, like the CD label or the speaker stereos. I'm not trying to take anything away from the guy, but the true brilliance is in the music that was written down more than 200 years ago that has borne through to today. There are underlying ideas in the written notes that the performer conveys to us, well or bad (well in Joshua Bell's case). Listening to the same work over and over again, over the course of years, it's our duty and pleasure as listeners to pick out what it is, exactly, that Bach intended to convey, the fine details of his message, the overall architecture of it, and its place in his total output.

I probably would have stopped to hear Bell, if I had had the time.

Good for the kiddies in the article, though. They have better ears. All you parents of youn'uns out there -- raise your kids on classical music. It's better to be exposed to it young, that you can carry it with you for the rest of your life. Just like it's better to learn a second language like Spanish when you're young. You can do it later in life, but it won't internalize in the same way. My daughter got a full-course brainwashing, and it's one of the few things I can be proud of doing as a parent.

Posted by: Dumbo on April 10, 2007 at 12:23 AM | PERMALINK

So basically most of you siding with Drum are admitting that your commute to work is just like the 1984 Apple commercial.

Wow, maybe the author of the article had a point?

Posted by: wtf on April 10, 2007 at 1:07 AM | PERMALINK

This article really struck a chord (no pun intended) with me. I am married to a South American, and have
lived in both Europe and Canada for many years. Although I have made my living in this country for the past 4 1/2 years, I am sorry to say that I
find living in this country to be perniciously
dehumanizing. I would be willing to bet that
the same experiment carried out in Europe or South
America would produce strikingly different results.

On another note, I also find that this article
resonates with the origin of the current Iraq
debacle. I was in Europe on 9/11 and I can say
that by 9/12 it was already clear to me and everyone I was associated with that the US was jumping the rails. In subsequent years, I watched
in morbid fascination the abject failure of the US
press (with the exception of William Pfaff) and
the acquiescence of the American people. In a
very real sense, the majority of people in this
country have been enslaved by their jobs such that
they no longer have time to reflect on beauty or
consider the implications of what their government
is doing in their name. Sorry to be harsh, but
thats my two cents. Critics can be assured that
I am already planning my exit strategy from this country.

Posted by: jt on April 10, 2007 at 1:54 AM | PERMALINK

RC has it about right:

{Did most of you miss the artist worrying that people might not like him? What about his comment that $40 an hours seemed like a pretty good wage?

What about someone that found the experience so peaceful that they actually gave money for the first time?

What about the shoe shiner that thought to not call the police this one time?}

In fact, I'd go so far as to say that all the negativity reveals a deep insecurity towards the arts. Don't understand something as "squishy" as artistic expression? Bash the hell out of it, it'll smother the ignorance. It's a typical American response, actually.

I'm quite surprised, though, that Kevin would be one of those, since I've held him in such high regard over the years. I can understand reading it and not being moved and then moving on, but to post on it?

What if the article had all the in-depth research and reporting, but was about...say...a big Baseball Star who was hanging out in the subway seeing how many commuters would recognize him? Same experiment, although with no monetary yardstick by which to measure "success." But same brilliant writing, quoting, say, Ted Williams on the nuances of pitching, digging up the history of the origin of the game, interviewing passerbys on why they didn't recognize the "big" star. Would all you negative posters been so negative about THAT? I sincerely doubt it, since you understand baseball...Everybody does...but ART? C'mon Kevin and everyone else...just be open to something new and exciting, ok?

I'm posting because I'm a jazz musician living and working in New York City, and a classical violinist friend of mine sent me the article yesterday, which I opened up and read while eating breakfast. TOTALLY BLEW ME AWAY! Especially, since I've played often outdoors (Central Park, etc.) in the past. I totally knew what was going on there. But what put tears in my eyes was the brilliant writing, research, and story-telling of the piece (digging up a letter from Brahms to Schuman's wife about one of the pieces? great stuff! ...Discussing theories of beauty? Fantastic!...Hearing that Joshua Bell was actually nervous getting ready to play? YES!).

In fact, I forwarded it on to about 40 musician and artist friends of mine (my wife is a visual artist here in NYC, too) and NOT ONE of them had the reaction that Kevin and 80% of the posters here had. In fact, I was just astonished that Kevin even wrote about the article, let alone all of you negative posters were out there. How on Earth could you not be moved by that momentous piece of writing?

I've seen the ugly head of insecurity raise its head time and again when it comes to the arts. Just try to be open to something new...that's all. Have an emotional response - it's boring, it made me sad, angry, etc. But then try to say why it did that. I read through all the posts, and there's not one person who could articulate WHY the article was pretentious...Anyone out there care to explain to me where on iota of pretension exists in that fantastic article? Please?

As the genius composer Duke Ellington once said: "There are only two types of music - good and bad." This from the man who coined the term, "Beyond Category."


...they smell AWESOME!!!

Love from the Arts in New York Cit-ay!


Posted by: Vins on April 10, 2007 at 2:13 AM | PERMALINK

The Weingarten piece has been passed around among musicians I know all over the country, always with positive notes attached. Kevin, and the majority of the commenters here, seem to have read something in the piece that I missed entirely. It seemed entirely good-natured to me, on both the musician's and the writer's part.

Posted by: DGans on April 10, 2007 at 2:13 AM | PERMALINK

When I read the article I didn't click the video links and wait for them to load and play. IF you haven't done that yet give it a try. It LOOKS out of place entirely--- the violin performance against commercial carpeting - utilitarian trappings and finishes. The music that is being played is rapid and personal, while the crowd is rapidly moving but IMpersonal. It is like everybody's running *away* from the experience. It kind of reminds me in a very obscure way of the irony of Michael Moore's "Rabbits-Pets or Meat" lady.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on April 10, 2007 at 2:27 AM | PERMALINK

Dumbo says: "I probably would have stopped to hear Bell, if I had had the time." ... I think Dumbo should read jt's comments at 1:54AM few times and internalize it.

I think Vins comment at 2:13AM is spot on, especially when he says, "... that all the negativity reveals a deep insecurity towards the arts."

This comes back to being uncomfortable with seeing the truth about yourself. As I said (few posts up), I know NOTHING about classical music, and don't recognize the pieces, or the difficulty of playing them. BUT I could APPRECIATE the amazing beauty of Bell's music, probably on the similar level as the shoeshine lady, or the guy who just felt peaceful. And that's what great music is meant to do.

I usually don't comment on blogs, just read them. But lately the knee-jerk bashing and superior attitude of blogs (from rebellion to entitlement/indifference/commercialism in 3 short yearts) really ticks me off. Bashing journalists because they don't do their jobs has a purpose; bashing an article because of your own insecurites is just childish.

Posted by: ghost2 on April 10, 2007 at 3:21 AM | PERMALINK

Those who listen to the sound track cannot escape hearing the quality of the playing; it was miraculous. But there was this flaw in the study; people don't want to miss the train.

Posted by: frank logan on April 10, 2007 at 3:24 AM | PERMALINK

I guess I'm just a sentimental fool late to the party, but I need to tell you, Kevin -- I loved the piece. And Weingarten's Monday morning chat.

Of all the music performances I've enjoyed over the years, one from 20 years ago stands out.

A young guy played violin on the street and it pierced straight through my heart. I was touched and will always be grateful for that intrusion into my regular ol' day.

I wonder what happened to that kid.

Posted by: Tilli (Mojave Desert) on April 10, 2007 at 6:08 AM | PERMALINK

PS -- "as if he normally lives on Mars and dropped by Earth for a few minutes to do some research for a sixth-grade anthropology project." describes Weingarten to a T. That's what I like about him.

A couple of his stories these last few years have been somethin' else (see his Garry Trudeau and The Great Zucchini pieces).

Posted by: Tilli (Mojave Desert) on April 10, 2007 at 6:26 AM | PERMALINK

I'm with those is think that choosing Morning Rush Hour is part of the point. They're all in a hurry, and for what?

I thought it was a great article. I didn't take it as a slap to D.C., or Government Workers in particular, but rather to all of us.

Some of the comments here were priceless as well, in particular Securanimist. Too busy to even read the article, but not too busy to post a comment. THAT speaks volumes about this country as well!

Posted by: Leopold! Leopold! on April 10, 2007 at 9:03 AM | PERMALINK

There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog: www.SawLady.com/blog
She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters... I thought you might find it interesting.

Posted by: Michelle on April 10, 2007 at 9:15 AM | PERMALINK

Ah, the comments became better and better the longer the thread has run.

Thanks, to Vins and Tilli (Mojave Desert)as well.

The $40 for an hour reminds me of a comment by Perleman on NPR a few years back - He was on with Marc O'Conner and some Pedant objected to the useage of the term "fiddler" - Perleman said that the difference between a violinist and a fiddler was about $50 and that he was proud to called a fiddler.

Posted by: thethirdPaul on April 10, 2007 at 9:38 AM | PERMALINK

As someone who gives money to street performers I'm sure I would have liked to have stopped and listened to something beautiful, but like the people who were there I would have been heading to work. It would have been the same if the Fratellis had decided to perform in the same spot. And in both cases I would have known the names but not recognized the faces that go with the music.

I will say I am disappointed in the whole posting and comments though. Classical snobs can be a royal pain, but reading some of the remarks here I'm reminded that the "anti-classical" crowd can be just as tiresome and full of themselves. I sound just the same when the media is endlessly promoting NASCAR or American Idol.

So sue me, Kevin. Will classical music make you a better or smarter person? Hell no! But I sure get tired of the sneers because I do like it...and ballet and opera and theater too! And yes, you were too sneering.


Posted by: GB on April 10, 2007 at 10:40 AM | PERMALINK

it was a good piece, funny actually. But, correct also that the timing was very poor. It should have been at lunch time or in the evening. Lunch time might have been perfect, not rush hour! Actually, I like the story because a few years ago I took my then violinist daughter back stage to meet him. He was already gone to the hotel to watch the NBA playoffs. His mom was there, met us and took us over to meet him at the hotel bar. He was very gracious and welcoming of my 12 year old daughter as we disrupted his viewing of the game. Not only is he a great violinist, he is a great guy!!

Posted by: Skip Cornett on April 10, 2007 at 11:45 AM | PERMALINK

Did it ever occur to Weingarten that maybe people can take notice WITHOUT stopping? Some people may have gotten to work and thought to themselves,"hey that sounded pretty good." Or didn't he go that far?

Memo to Weingarten:

It's called rush hour because people are rushing to work. They don't have time to mill about like its intermission at the Met.

The elitist aren't even hiding their disdain for the masses anymore.

Posted by: Daryl on April 10, 2007 at 11:53 AM | PERMALINK

Surprisingly, no one has mentioned that classical music is a dead market that lives on government subsidies and/or charity. It apparently can't live on its own merits in the marketplace.

And surprise, surprise, this violin stunt pretty much proves the point. Very few people actually care about classical music.

The author of the article is a pretentious twit.

Posted by: Michael on April 10, 2007 at 1:18 PM | PERMALINK

Posts like this remind me of why I read and enjoy this blog so much, despite being significantly less liberal / more centrist than Kevin. Kevin's a hardheaded, pragmatic liberal, not one of the annoying artsy/holistic/new age twits who dominate the left. I love it when someone calls 'bullshit' on crap like this, and Kevin did it masterfully. Rock on!

(BTW, I personally love classical music. But, come on. On my way to work is not the time to test my love of beauty, nor my patience)

Posted by: Shag on April 10, 2007 at 2:14 PM | PERMALINK

If he had been posted at the Au Bon Pain at Union Station, he would have done way better--more people wasting time eating pastries, people coming from multiple transportation systems, and buying newspapers at the bookstore. Poorly executed exercise that will now never be able to be repeated cuz the cat is out of the bag.

Posted by: Lauren S on April 10, 2007 at 2:57 PM | PERMALINK

PPS - This was tried with a top-tier Belgian violinist on a Belgian beach in summer. Apparently he only made enough for a ice-cream cone and those sunbathers weren't in any rush.

Posted by: Tilli (Mojave Desert) on April 10, 2007 at 3:58 PM | PERMALINK

Daryl: Weingarten addressed your exact point in his article. Did it ever occur to you to actually read the article before criticizing?

Posted by: nivra on April 10, 2007 at 4:09 PM | PERMALINK

Funny, how some of the comments here of late seem to be all for the workings of the "market" when it comes to classical music (i.e. "music that I don't like") on a discussion site where normally many people express a great skepticism of market forces when it comes to things like delivery of medical care, family issues, energy etc.

The other thing that strikes me is how some of the snootier anti-classical music language bandied about (elitist) seems vaguely reminiscent of the epithets the Chinese Government used against all Western artistic and other influences during the Cultural Revolution. Ask some of the kids in the Venezuelan conservatory system whether they think this stuff is useless, or elitist garbage. Oh wait--sorry, Venezuela doesn't count, since they send over heating oil to the US and that isn't a purely "market" driven exercise.

Posted by: Bill H. on April 10, 2007 at 4:21 PM | PERMALINK
Funny, how some of the comments here of late seem to be all for the workings of the "market" when it comes to classical music (i.e. "music that I don't like") on a discussion site where normally many people express a great skepticism of market forces when it comes to things like delivery of medical care, family issues, energy etc.

Yeah, because entertainment products don't have the features that are specifically cited as problematic for the market working for those other things.

Its not that the market always works well or always works poorly. The market works in certain conditions and fails in other conditions.

Posted by: cmdicely on April 10, 2007 at 6:38 PM | PERMALINK

Methinks Mr. Drum doth protest too much. Had somebody put, say, the President, or the Speaker of the House, or some such overinflated political poobah worshiped by political writers out in the station and the same lack of attention had happened, Mr. Drum would have written the very same article.

Posted by: Charles F. on April 11, 2007 at 8:50 AM | PERMALINK

$40 dollars an hour (more like $44) net is a pretty good rate if you ask me, especially for a musician. The most I usually get for gigs is $25/hour. If this was a "real" job in which your employer and you paid taxes and fees, the gross rate would have to be in the $55/hour range. That is a salary of over $100,000 assuming 40 hours a week for 52 weeks. Not too bad.

Of course you better be married to someone with health insurance, but your hours are your own and you have no boss.

Posted by: MIkeyes on April 11, 2007 at 11:02 AM | PERMALINK
Funny, how some of the comments here of late seem to be all for the workings of the "market" when it comes to classical music (i.e. "music that I don't like") on a discussion site where normally many people express a great skepticism of market forces when it comes to things like delivery of medical care, family issues, energy etc.
Yeah, because entertainment products don't have the features that are specifically cited as problematic for the market working for those other things.
Its not that the market always works well or always works poorly. The market works in certain conditions and fails in other conditions.

Have you paid any attention at all to the music world at all? There is obviously a market failure because musicians have such difficulty getting compensated fairly for their work. You know, the RIAA and all that? Napster? Etc.

It's a case where the free market (in the form of the big record companies) has not served either the consumer or the producers of the product.

And suggesting that $40/hour is good pay (as others have done in this discussion) is ridiculous when you consider that Joshua Bell has a $3.5 million dollar Stradivarius. A friend of mine who is a very fine violinist/teacher would be *thrilled* to average $40/hour for all his work. He makes less than $50K per year and last year had to sell his $30K violin in order to pay some bills. Now, he's happy with the $16K violin that he replaced it with (he never loved his old instrument, and violin making is experiencing a renaissance, in which the new instruments of today are much better quality at lower price than was the case 20 years ago when he bought his more expensive instrument), but the cost of getting a fine instrument is a huge capital investment for any musician. A good bow alone can be $5K.

Tell me another career in which you have capital investments approaching $50K before you even set up shop and even then just to get to the middle rung (not even close to the top end of instruments that any last chair 2nd violinist in a major orchestra would have as a matter of course) that would consider $40/hour (without benefits) to be acceptable pay?

The arts are very obviously a case where the free market cannot possibly work successfully, precisely because the social benefits of the arts are not easily translated into the currency of the free market. It's *exactly* like the healthcare system problems. In fact, it's even less amenable to market-based solutions, in my opinion, because at least in the case of healthcare, one can quantify some of the losses from poor health and am inefficient delivery system in $$$.

What does it cost society to not have young people going into the arts?

Posted by: David Fenton on April 11, 2007 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK



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