For Whom the ‘Bell’ Tolls

True Story:
A man sat at a Washington D.C. subway station during a morning rush hour commute and began to play the violin. It’s estimated that 1100 people passed by during the 45 minutes in which he was there. Only a handful of adults paused for a brief moment to listen, but realizing they would be late for work, carried on. The one who paid the most attention was a three-year-old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurrying, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child continued to walk, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on. When the violinist finished he had collected $32. There was no applause, nor was there any recognition. No one knew this, but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the most talented musicians in the world. He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theatee in Boston where the seats averaged $100. 

This was a social experiment organized by the Washington Post, with a possible conclusion being: if we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?”

– by David Emery 

Many, many times I have passed street musicians, magicians, buskers, caricaturists, ventriloquists, even the occasional Michael Jackson impersonator belting out ‘Beat It’ while doing the moonwalk. And I kept… on… moving. I was probably looking straight ahead, focusing on where I needed to go and thinking about what I had to do. I certainly was not appreciative of that particular artistic moment right in front of me. 

Art has become an ‘extra’, as opposed to being a vital part of society and our everyday lives.

Often, we occupy our time with agendas, meetings, lists of things to do; and then we cross them off. Our mind is set on a fast track, on which we must maintain the pace. As a consequence, we move through our days with blinders, oblivious to the fact that art makes one feel connected, encourages one to believe that there is goodness in life, and allows for the appreciation of quiet moments. As a result of commitment to a time table, we may miss the finer things of life.  

I get it; we all need to make a living, maintain a schedule, and catch that next train to get to work on time. That, too, is a vital part of our existence. But I think there’s a way to amalgamate art into our everyday lives. And I think it’s pretty easy. We have to make the effort to stop.   At first, maybe it’s just once in a while. Then, once in a while becomes more frequent, and that effort becomes a habit. Then, that habit becomes an everyday ritual.  

If you can accomplish that, if you can consistently stop, well, then there’s the potential for a Joshua Bell around the next corner.

I remember the last time I stopped. 

It was the summer of 2012 and I was in Montreal. I had no schedule or agenda for the day.  I was simply walking around. On a cobblestone side street just off St. Laurent Blvd., a man was standing on a crate with a guitar in his hands, singing original folk songs, which chronicled current social injustices. His voice was gravelly and he kept his gaze downward. Clearly, he was far too young to be Dylan… just yet. 

I’m glad I took the time to listen.

Photo: Chris Lee