27 March 2011

Between a Bach and a Hard Place

On a Friday morning in January 2007, a violin virtuoso, Joshua Bell, performed an experiment at a subway station in Washington, D.C.

Bell, a superstar within the classical music world who has recorded more than 35 CDs, was dressed unrecognizably, and had a cup in front of him, the usual street-musician's silent request for donations. He stood in L’Enfant Plaza during morning commuting time, playing Bach’s Chaconne, from Partita No. 2 for Solo Violin in D Minor.

The music, the musician, and the instrument -- a Stradivarius violin -- were all ideal for giving the morning commuters an impromptu gift, and for testing whether a crowd would develop. Would people appreciate that this was something great, or would the usual compulsiveness of rush hour, of a busy day just getting itself underway, block such recognition? Would the hard place of their work life block out the Bach?

I must report the achingly sad results. Adults paid Bell, Bach, and Strad almost no attention. They hurried along, sometimes dropping a dollar into Bell's tin cup, but even doing that only in the usual distracted way.

Is there any good news? Yes: the children. According to a Washington Post reporter who reviewed videotape of Bell’s experiment: “[T]he 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.”

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Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.