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The Washington Post Magazine is way into experiments these days. Two Sundays ago, it sent a woman off on a seasonlong odyssey to become a baseball fan. Huge failure.
Yesterday’s stunt came off a lot better. The mag positioned acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell, complete with his multimillion-dollar Strad, at the L’Enfant Metro stop one morning in January. The idea was to see where one of the “nation’s great musicians” could “cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour.” The Post prepped well for the experiment—-it videotaped Bell’s performance, counted the number of commuters streaming by him, and nailed interviews with many of them. Author Gene Weingarten filled in all the background and teed up the drama.
The piece’s major failing was interpretive. It declared Bell the “Flop of L’Enfant.” On what basis? Well, on the rationale that no crowd of commuters gathered ’round him to hear his rendering of Bach’s incredibly complicated “Chaconne” and Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria.”
In Weingarten’s words:
In the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run—-for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.
Shocking—-people going to the subway are in a hurry!
The real story was sitting inside of Bell’s violin case. Over 43 minutes of performing, people dropped in $52.17—-or an hourly rate of $72.80. As Bell himself noted, that’s not bad money. So, the story here is not that Bell was the “Flop of L’Enfant”; he killed. The story is that people REALLY appreciated his artistry and said so with their wallets.
The great failing of this great experiment lies in benchmarks. If the Posties had posted an average busker the next workday, in the same spot, at the same time, they’d know for sure whether the masses care for beauty.