Joshua Bell in the subway: what does it mean?

On January 12, 2007, Joshua Bell took his Stradivarius violin to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington, D.C. and played great classical music for 43 minutes. According to the subsequent article in the Washington Post, more than one thousand people passed by. Only one person recognized him; only seven stopped to listen for even as much as a minute, but some people tossed money into his case as they hurried by. Bell collected just over $32.

The incident probably says a lot about American culture, but apparently no one agrees just what. Just the other day, it was retold on NPR’s “Morning Edition” as a story of how Americans are in too much of a hurry to stop and appreciate beauty.

I decided to look it up. Some folks at the time commented on how classical music is lost on the masses. Others claimed that the stunt simply showed that classical music is essentially irrelevant to modern society. Still others lamented that children wanted to stop and listen, but their parents wouldn’t let them.

The fact is that many people play music in public places and earn good money for it. It’s called busking. One successful New York busker noted that Bell is a great musician, but didn’t have any idea how to busk.

The story and its implications for classical music therefore are a bit more complicated than the Washington Post story implies. Surely the audience for classical music is small. It always has been in this country. On the other hand, it has always had an intense following. It still does. Joshua Bell is one of its big stars. Why then, did no one stop to hear him? Why did only one out of more than a thousand even recognize him?

As the busker said, a subway station is not a concert hall. No one has gone there deliberately to listen to music. A busker must work to attract an audience. Part of that work involves choosing spots to play where people are most likely to stop and listen. A subway platform, as noisy as it is, would have worked better. People standing and waiting for a train have no place to go. Once they get off the train and head for the street, they are in a hurry to get someplace.

Once in a suitable place, a busker must work to attract an audience. It’s not enough to put down a case and start playing without making some attempt to engage potential listeners. Bell, an excellent concert artist and inexperienced busker, did not do so.

That, and the fact that children wanted to stop and listen, sufficiently dismisses the argument classical music’s social irrelevance. Successful buskers can and do attract a paying audience playing classical music. Children, who have not yet learned to let someone else define their tastes for them, love to listen to it. There is nothing wrong with classical music.

As I have written in previous posts on the distinctions between popular and classical music, arguments about the relative merits of Beethoven and whomever else is more popular at the time (Henri Herz in the 1820s and 30s) have been going on since even before Beethoven died.

People all over the world pay good money to listen to Beethoven’s music. Who today but a scholar has ever heard of Herz? Where is a mass audience for any popular music more than fifty years old? Fifty years from now, who of today’s greatest stars will still be attracting an audience as big as Beethoven’s?

The Washington Post put Bell up to playing at the subway station more or less as a prank. The real lesson has nothing to do with how people are in a hurry to stop for beauty (although most Americans certainly seem to hurry past it all too routinely). Rather it has to do with what the busker pointed out about the difference between a concert hall and a subway platform.

Ever since Theodore Thomas took his orchestra on tour, classical musicians have worked hard to build an audience. One of his rivals invented music appreciation classes. The trouble with using either concert building or classroom experiences to “educate” the public is that it implies that the music is hard to understand and the people are somehow deficient in taste.

Neither message seems likely to produce more than sullen attention any more. And yet classical music, like Bell in the subway, sets up a concert venue and waits for people to show up. It gets the same small segment of society all the time. What can we do to attract an audience? To present music where they are in such a way they want to hear more of it? I’ll bet we can learn a lot from buskers.

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