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Subway Busking

April 13, 2007

I know this has been in the news a while, but being that I’m a musician and a violinist, I can’t help but add my 2¢. (Dave this is different for Mac users. Alt and 4 will do it.)

So Joshua Bell decides to dress ordinary and play in the Subway to see what happens. Everybody should recognize the celebrity, give him a ton of money and appreciate his playing, right? Of course this didn’t happen and everyone is in shock. How could we live in a society where we cannot appreciate true art? Can we not take the time out of our commute to listen?

I do not feel that this lack of appreciation or obvious recognition proves anything. First, the context of this experiement is very important. When you decide to go to a concert, you pay for your ticket, you may dress up, you may go to dinner or cocktails after, but most importantly, it is something you’ve decided to listen to. In our society (especially in larger cities) we have media, music, art thrown at as constantly. It is only a matter of survival to block some of this out. Otherwise, we would walk around like over stimulated zombies all the time, and many of us already do. The fact that this was in a large city also contributes to how much people will respond. If they were to try this in a smaller town (lets say our Saturday Market for example) where art isn’t constantly being thrown at us, they may have gotten a larger audience and more recognition.

Secondly, I want to point out that the difference between Joshua Bell and many other performers is going to be subtle. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to belittle what the “superstar” performers do. It’s just that many people won’t hear the differnence between him and another performer without extensive training in music or listening. The beauty of what he does compared to the average performer (be it in the subway or on the concert stage) would be the subtlties. I just can’t see that being recognized to someone who is preoccupied with getting to work.  It may have made a considerable difference if it was the lunch hour or the afternoon.

I do think it’s important that our society gives people exposure to art and music. However, I also believe in the importance of choice. After someone has had the proper exposure to something, isn’t it wonderful that they can choose to make it important in their lives? It is equally wonderful that they can choose to never look or hear art again. That choice shouldn’t make them more or less of a person.

Washington Post – Joshua Bell in Subway

7 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2007 9:47 am

    I’m so with you on this one. So much of music is subjective, and I’m sure there are probably people out there that think Bell sucks for one reason or another. The problem here is people in our society are so damn busy trying to survive that they just can’t stop to smell the roses, or they think they can’t. And just because they gave no external sign of noticing doesn’t mean they didn’t internally either. It was an interesting experiment, but the conclusions were a bit dubious.

  2. April 16, 2007 6:08 am

    I generally stop to listen to (great sounding) buskers unless I’m in a hurry. I imagine many of those people were in too much of a hurry to process what was going on — the timing of during the morning commute wasn’t great.

    I enjoyed watching the clips with that news story. Actually, about halfway thru, I reserved a couple Joshua Bell CDs from the local library. Even if he didn’t have an impact on the subway, he had an impact in all the people who read the story.

  3. Gray permalink
    April 17, 2007 7:54 am

    I head the report of this on NPR. Although interesting, my first thought was that he may be an experienced concert performer, but that he is also a neophyte busker.

    I play in an indoor/outdoor coffeehouse during the summer, and I know that the strategy for success there is completely different than it is on stage. The expectations are quite different, but perhaps not much different from the expectations of secular baroque chamber music performance. It’s kind of fun to be able to direct patrons to the bathroom using only one’s eyebrows while playing a woodwind next to the philodendron.

    One of my personal issues is that music should not simply be a spectator sport that should only be heard in frozen form through recordings, or in large halls. I want everyone to play or sing music and for it to be performed live in ordinary circumstances that are part of the the daily fabric of our lives.

    Thanks for an interesting post.


  4. Jodie permalink
    April 24, 2007 9:11 am

    Gray, I totally agree with you that music shouldn’t just be experienced through recordings. A few of the articles I read in response to this said exactly that, and I disagree with that completely. (plus I need an audience so that I can continue to perform). Music is something that is different live and should be up close and personal. That’s what gives it the energy. I think everybody should have to sit in the middle of the symphony orchestra at least once. The excitement and energy is totally different from that perspective. Everyone would be starting up instruments and learning to play after that experience.

  5. Lee permalink
    April 28, 2007 2:35 pm

    I saw some of the video from his “performance”. Boy I wish I had been able to be there!

  6. Doug permalink
    May 9, 2007 5:45 pm

    What a neat story & commentary on music,life demands,choices & music in public spots.I was merely trying to find meaning of”subway busker” .I grew up in Lovington, NM, lived w/ family in Albq 4 great yrs & now return to N.New Mexico for regular”green chili fixes”. We once had my youngest son (bass) & his girlfriend (violin) play @ dinner @ our home…perhaps my most memorable music experience. Thanks.

  7. Jodie permalink
    May 9, 2007 9:19 pm

    Lee, I wish I had seen it too!

    Doug, I’m a New Mexican myself and miss the green chilies a ton. Luckily we’ll be visiting soon and I’ll be able to get a green chilie fix.

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