If you don’t read The Washington Post, you should devote a few minutes to this piece from last Sunday. Joshua Bell played his Strad in a DC metro station, and pretty much no one cared.

Surprising? Well, perhaps not. The Post called it an “experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste.”


You get what you pay for, right? Plunk down $100 for a front orchestra seat somewhere, and the performance damn well better be good. In fact, if it’s not, you should probably start lying to yourself pretty quickly so that you don’t feel bad about spending the money. Hence, the “Emperor’s New Clothes” aspect of many high-profile expensive experiences with the arts.

Conversely, if the music is free, how good could it be?


If a guy in a T-shirt and baseball cap has to put his case in front of him at a subway stop, does that automatically say anything about the quality of the music he’s making? If the trappings of a musical experience don’t make the aesthetic decision for us – if we have to listen or look ourselves and decide – then we don’t trust our own perception enough to know what we like and what we don’t.

Then again, perhaps these folks did listen for a few seconds and decide they didn’t like it.


A tough one. Be late to work because the sound of Bach swirling around the subway was seductive? For some people, this is a no-brainer. And there’s no judgment or criticism intended. If your job security is threatened by a late arrival, I’d be hard pressed to convince you that Bach was worth it.

But I don’t think that was the case for a large portion of these 1,000+ commuters. It’s more about our unwillingness to accept even pleasant intrusions. The children all tried to stop and stare and listen. That says it right there. (Probably too easy for me to pontificate because I’m still coming down from the high of two weeks’ vacation, but more of that later.)

An Unblinking Assessment of Public Taste?

I don’t buy into this one. The many variables at work here pretty effectively trump the way “taste” enters into the equation. And taste implies choice of one art form over another, rather than an abstract level of quality.

Pick a genre. If the music were jazz or bluegrass, and the musician were equally acclaimed, I believe the scenario would’ve played out similarly. In yesterday’s online chat, Weingarten noted that “Nearly 20 years ago, Bruce Springsteen did a similar thing in Copenhagen, where he joined a street musician to perform “The River.” Not many people noticed him, either.”

For every complex problem there is an easy answer, and it is wrong. (H.L. Mencken)

If you have another 10 minutes to spend on this, then skim through the online chat with Gene Weingarten. I have absolutely no clear thoughts about this experiment, except that I’m so glad the Post did it and wrote about it.

Peace comes dropping slow. (Yeats)

I’m back in the saddle after some time off, and I can’t decide whether I never want the effects of my vacation to wear off, or if I’d better get back to busines as usual. I have a speed addiction. It has served me well all my life, but I need to temper it. It’s astonishing how much clarity can be gained by sacrificing speed.

And so, I’m determined to stay in low gear for a little while, enjoying the traction.

TAFTO 2007

My contribution to Adaptistration‘s 2007 TAFTO (Take a Friend to the Orchestra/Opera) is due to be posted on April 11. Check it out, and while you’re there, read all of this year’s contributions.

One Comment


Thanks for your post– I too found the experiment with Joshua Bell fascinating.
Glad to see you’re back in the saddle– I enjoy reading your posts.

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