Playing By Ear: Pearls Before Breakfast

Concert violinist Joshua Bell performs at a Washington, D.C., metro station on Jan. 12. [Source: NPR/washingtonpost.com]It’s the flaneur’s dilemma. Do you linger on the street to savor the scene? Do you rush on like an automaton so you won’t be late for work? You aren’t alone. As Henry Thoreau said, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Gene Weingarten decided to put Washington commuters to the test. He persuaded concert violinist Joshua Bell to fiddle like any other busker at a subway stop to see if anyone would notice. A thousand people heard Bell one morning last year. Only one passerby recognized him. Another, the one who lingered longest, knew he was listening to a virtuoso. Everyone else hurried on their way.

Weingarten turned the exercise in participatory journalism into a feature story for the Washington Post magazine. On Monday he won a Pulitzer Prize for feature writing. You can hear him describe the experiment in a 2007 NPR interview. And you can still read the story, Pearls Before Breakfast. Here is how it begins:

He emerged from the metro at the L’Enfant Plaza station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job. L’Enfant Plaza is at the nucleus of federal Washington, and these were mostly mid-level bureaucrats with those indeterminate, oddly fungible titles: policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, consultant.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

On that Friday in January, those private questions would be answered in an unusually public way. No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made. His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend? Read more.

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2 Responses to Playing By Ear: Pearls Before Breakfast

  1. ms modigliani says:

    “Pearls before breakfast” is a brilliant piece. I can hardly pull myself away from it to meet students and faculty this morning. The integration of the video enhances the piece and intensifies the story telling element.

    Thanks, Mark, for making it accessible on your site.

  2. Mark Willis says:

    The combination of text and embedded video in the online version is a pioneering new way of telling what used to be a magazine story. The effort has paid off: it’s one of the most-viewed content pages on washingtonpost.com. Even though a thousand people walked by Joshua Bell that morning, millions have read the story and heard the music online. Bloggers and students of the long tail should take heart — the attention comes eventually.

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