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Sweet Music, Tips in the Bucket, an Old Violin

By LeaderTalk Contributor — July 20, 2009 3 min read

The musicians are coming back to New Orleans even if the business investors are not. They are everywhere. They are on the streets of the Quarter and in the clubs and bars on Frenchmans Street. Listen to them play. Feel them. Put whatever you have in their guitar cases and plastic tip buckets because, as near as I can tell, they are all we have left of New Orleans.

And as street musicians, they are all we have of whatever the soul of America ever was.

There is that haunting Washington Post social experiment called “Pearls Before Breakfast”. Perhaps you read it. Or not. Perhaps you were on your way to work in your busy life as a school leader and you were just too stressed to stop and listen.

1,097 commuters raced past the street musician in L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC one January morning, on their way to their beltway jobs as policy analysts and consultants and government workers. They heard him. But they didn’t listen. They kept their heads down and avoided eye contact. They stayed clear of his violin case for fear they would be shamed into fishing for a few loose quarters. Some had their IPods on so they could drown him out. Others had cell phones-- the perfect ploy for the frenetic train patron already enwrapped in the day’s e-mail and text messages.

And that was their loss.

He was no vagabond fiddler begging for a cup of coffee. He was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most renowned classical musicians, playing some of the most elegant music ever created on a $3.5 million Stradivarius that was hand-crafted in 1713. On this particular morning, Joshua Bell managed $32 in tips from a handful of passer-bys who took the time to listen. It was “Chaconne”, written by Johann Sebastian Bach and just a few days before, Joshua Bell had played it in the Boston Symphony Hall to a capacity audience who each paid a minimum $100 a ticket to hear the performance.

Last week Paul McCartney played a free concert on a rooftop in New York City and he had a very different reception.

Perhaps the commuters were just a little more familiar with Paul McCartney than they were with Johann Sebastian Bach. (I know I am.) Perhaps they had allowed a little more time in their morning routine so they could afford a few extra minutes to stop and listen. Perhaps something in the loud bass and amplified foot pedals spoke to the soul of New Yorkers in a way that a violin-- however sweet or eerie -- could not speak to Washington DC bureaucrats in a hurry to make their first morning meeting.

Or is it the context? Or the fear of strangers in a train station? Or a general distrust of street performers? Or the fear of being scammed? Or worse?

Or are we in too big a hurry? Or does the music matter? Or do the arts matter? Or does Washington or New Orleans or New York City matter?

The Washington Post formulated a question for their action research: “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, does beauty transcend?” They hypothesized that it would and that Joshua Bell would draw too big a crowd and pretty soon there would be anarchy. There wasn’t. He played and no one noticed.

Well, almost no one.

In his beautifully written summary of the experiment in L’Enfant Plaza, staff writer Gene Weingarten writes:

There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money,from the 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."

Our students report back for school next week. They will pass by in search of sweet music that genuinely stirs them. I for one, will not abide the adults that rush them past when they only want one glimpse of that brilliant virtuoso that seems to give life a fleeting instant of meaning; or they pop their IPod headphones out to listen to a song whose name they cannot pronounce.

by Kevin W. Riley
El Milagro Weblog

The opinions expressed in LeaderTalk are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.