Would passers-by notice if one of the greatest violinists in the world today worked the street in Washington, D.C.?
Today the Washington Post magazine runs a fascinating piece by Gene Weingarten called Pearls Before Breakfast to find out.
The answer, essentially, is "no." But there were a couple of exceptions. One was a former violinist:
The cultural hero of the day arrived at L’Enfant Plaza pretty late, in the unprepossessing figure of one John Picarello, a smallish man with a baldish head.
Picarello hit the top of the escalator just after Bell began his final piece, a reprise of "Chaconne." In the video, you see Picarello stop dead in his tracks, locate the source of the music, and then retreat to the other end of the arcade. He takes up a position past the shoeshine stand, across from that lottery line, and he will not budge for the next nine minutes.
People who pay to see Joshua Bell play in a concert hall can pay up to $1000 a ticket. When the editors of the magazine discussed what might happen, they worried about crowd control:
In a demographic as sophisticated as Washington, the thinking went, several people would surely recognize Bell. Nervous "what-if" scenarios abounded. As people gathered, what if others stopped just to see what the attraction was? Word would spread through the crowd. Cameras would flash. More people flock to the scene; rush-hour pedestrian traffic backs up; tempers flare; the National Guard is called; tear gas, rubber bullets, etc.
No such luck. But there was one group who "got" Bell immediately, interestingly:
There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.
Interestingly, on his own another great musician–Neil Young–tried a similar experiment a few years ago in Scotland. He had no trouble drawing a crowd, despite wearing the craziest hat you ever did see.
Make of this what you will. Weingarten’s conclusion:
If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?