Stopping for Joshua Bell


Stopping for Joshua Bell

By Mary Pipher

March/April 2009


Last year Joshua Bell, a world-class violinist, was asked by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post to play near an entrance to a Washington, D.C., subway station. His performance was videotaped so that the reactions of commuters could be studied. Bell selected what he considered the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. He stood for hours in a busy station playing one piece after another. Only a few people even noticed him, and at the end of the day, he had collected less than thirty dollars in tips.

Yet all the children who passed him wanted to watch and listen. On the video we can see them tugging on their parents' arms and turning their faces toward Bell even as they are being led away.

One woman did recognize Bell, and as thousands of fellow commuters rushed by, she listened in amazement to his entire performance. Mostly, though, his playing wafted past ears that, in a workday rush, had no room for music. Of course, no one was expecting him in a subway, and many people have no exposure to classical music. Still, they missed an opportunity for transcendence. Since I read about this experiment, it has become a metaphor for me. I have asked myself, "Do I want to rush past Joshua Bell?"

Long ago in Texas, on the fishing dock with my father, I became aware of the power of a moment. That night I realized that time can be conceptualized in different ways and that it can be stopped and expanded into something grander. The Greeks knew this…

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