Imagine the situation. You are on the way to your job, it is early in the morning. As you step out of the Metro train, you see a violinist standing next to the exit. An empty box for money is in front of him, and some CDs are scattered on the floor. Does the situation seem familiar to you? I bet it is. Only this time this musician is a famous one, he gave a solo recital in a big hall for 1000 listeners yesterday and his CDs are produced by the leading recording company and were even nominated for some important prizes. Do you think I am telling you stories? Not at all! My story is based on a real fact.
In April 2007 Joshua Bell, one of the leading violinists, agreed to participate in the experiment conducted by “Washington Post”. He was asked to play the most beautiful violin melodies in the metro in the rush hour. The idea behind this experiment was to observe the people’s behaviour: will they stop and listen? Will they hear the beauty of his playing? Will they give him money – if yes, how much? Tricky questions. The journalists of the “Washington Post” were curious about many things: about the context of musical performance, listeners’ perception, and priorieties. They also wanted to know how the musician felt and what he experienced.
So what would you expect? If you think, that the crowd recognised that he was very talented, you share the view of Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra whose prognosis was: 35 out of 1000 would recognise the quality and stop and listen. Now finally the results: in 45 minutes only 7 people stopped by and listened for less than a minute. Twenty-Seven gave money on the run – to make a total of $32. It leaves more than thousand people who hurried by and did not even pay attention. So the experiment showed that the people did not recognize the exceptional talent and did not appreciate the beautiful and unexpected moment in monetary terms.
It was interesting to read about how Joshua Bell perceived the situation. Apparently, he was even more nervous than in Carnegie Hall as he was wooing the people’s attention, was not getting any. He experienced “The awkward times: It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops.” I guess it is a vicious circle for many talented musicians: if they do not get back the positive feedback from the audience, their performance gets less confident and they cannot show their best. It reminds me of a recent performance of one rising star pianist where the audience greeted him with the standing ovations at the very beginning. Very different situation.
I was fascinated by “Washington Post” experiment and questions kept coming to my mind. I guess we all agree that the context matters. I experienced it myself several times when I had gigs in the restaurants or exotic bars with seemingly interesting concepts of classical music for everybody, but our attempts failed. I was often frustrated and blamed me for choosing the wrong pieces, not being “cool” enough, not being 100% confident, not explaining the music etc. till I realized that the expectations of the audience in these locations made the performance of anybody impossible. It is the effect of priming too – how different stimuli influence our perception of the situation!
Yes, perception matters! How many times have we experienced it the other way round that the good branding strategy works for musicians who do not strike us as being extraordinary talented! There are tricks like glamour, sex-appeal, approval of the stars we all know, the references by the people we consider to be experts, the institutions like competitions, prestigious festivals, participation in a masterclasses with stars, you name it. There is always a matter of subjectivity when it comes to discussing the artists’ names and their performances. I heard people say that in order to be successful; you have to appeal to at least 60 % of your audience. So the subjective opinions of the majority will turn the opinion into the objective ones, right? The other day I followed a heated discussion about the Rachmaninov 3d piano concerto performance in Facebook. The opinions were so different that it led me to think that there is no single recording (including the composer playing himself) that would be regarded by the majority as acceptable.
It leads to the next question: how can we measure the beauty of music we hear? How can we measure the talent? Can we measure the beautiful playing of Joshua Bell by the amount of sold tickets, CDs or people who would forget everything, stand still, and listen in the morning? In order to measure something, we need a benchmark, some kind of indicator. The measurements are made possible by comparisons. I am thinking of an imaginary situation, I am stranded on the uninhabited island like Robinson Crusoe and there is one musician there, playing. Believe me, he/she will sound like Paganini, in the moment when I get my smart phone out and check out the same pieces on the YouTube, I would know more about his/her performance. No wonder we have competitions to measure the talent and decide whom we want to see on a big stage in the future.
Another striking thought. Have you ever thought that music, no matter how beautiful, can be perceived as the disturbance? Some kind of noise? The metro experiment shows that our lives have priorities. Beauty and search of beauty in the morning is not high on the list. The phenomenon that John Lane described in his book “Timeless beauty: in the Arts and everyday life”. I like the idea when he is saying that we need beauty in our everyday’s life, we are human only in contact with beautiful. It is our instinct to search for beauty. It gives us inspiration and makes us more creative. John Lane says that in the past we were more instinctively tuned to the beautiful. Do you remember the books from the 19th century where men would sacrifice their lives for the sake of one kiss by a beautiful lady? Manon Lescot, Tosca, Paganini wondrous playing, Liszt charisma. Immanuel Kant says that the beauty is a combination of measurable facts and personal opinion colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer. I did a small experiment myself: I made a compilation of the Rachmaninov Prelude op. 32 Nr. 10 with a totally unknown pianist, my favorite pianist Horowitz, my first piano teacher, Lugansky, Matsuev and Van Clyburn. I listened to the recordings without looking at the names at different times: before and after taking the meals, very early in the morning, or when relaxing in the evening or in the metro and was so surprised that my opinion was oscillating and was always different depending on the situation. At the beginning, I was influenced by my own taste: everything that Horowitz plays is the best, and then I read in the Internet that Lugansky interpretations of Rachmaninov are the best and it changed my opinion, the unknown pianist looked very attractive in YouTube etc. Nevertheless, one fact was disturbing: when I was in a bad mood or hungry or in a hectic, no pianist was playing beautifully in my headphones.
There is an old philosophical question that I would like to ask you: if a great musician is playing beautifully but no one wants to listen, is he or she great? What is your opinion? I would like to start a discussion and am very excited about your comments!


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