Can mediocrity appreciate greatness?
Often it is lamented that greatness is dead. We are told that people yearn for it, wish to see it before them, dream of it. But is greatness something that most people can appreicate? Or is greatness something recognized only by the few?
What would you do if you found greatness before your eyes? I ask because it is not self-evident. Perhaps you would appreciate it, admire it, and bless that moment where you were allowed to see and experience it. Then again, perhaps you would simply walk on by oblivious to its existence.
On an early, chilly Friday morning the rushing commuters at the L’Enfant Plaza metro station, in Washington DC, were scurrying to work. As they came up the escalator they could hear the music of a violin wafting, echoing through the halls, bouncing and reviberating with an unusual richness. It would be almost impossible to ignore the notes dancing about their ears. But ignore them they did.
At the top of the station, not far from the main doors, stood a man with a violin and for almost an hour he played his heart out. And for most of that time he was ignored. Yet in his hands was a violin worth millions of dollars, a Stradivarius that was handcrafted 63 years before the Declaration of Independence was written. It is believed that he paid $3.5 million for that instrument. And the man with the violin is considered one the greatest classical musicians alive today, Joshua Bell. One publication said of his music that it “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.”
In an experiment the Washington Post asked Bell if he would mind playing while they secretly videotaped the responses of commuters at a local metro station.
This man would receive standing ovations from an audience that would pay very large sums of money to hear him play.
So how did the typical Washington, DC commuter respond? They didn’t. They walked past with no acknowledgment that he was there. Between each piece of music Bell pauses briefly as if expecting applause, they always applauded, loudly and enthusiatically before. But that Friday morning no one applauded. Bell said that his “expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” Of the few who dropped anything in his violine case most dropped some loose change, some only a few cents.
Few actually stopped to listen. One man who did admitted he knew nothing about classical music technique but “Whatever it was it made me feel at peace.”
The reporter describes one woman with her three year old son. She wasn’t interested but this child couldn’t stop watching and listening. As his mother rushed him out of the building he kept pulling and turning to look back, to watch, and to listen. No discernable group of people paid much attention. Neither men, nor women, nor any particular ethnic group; they all were just as likely to ignore the sound of greatness—all except one group. “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.”
I suspect that there is a lesson here for us. We do have a natural tendency to yearn for greatness. Especially as children we seek it, and often when we don't find it we imagine it, and just as happened that Friday morning parents pull us away from it. Often the adults around the child discourage “dreaming.” There is no such thing as heroes, no such thing as greatness. Settle. Why be different? Children in America are patiently taught to stifle that desire for the great and to embrace mediocrity. And, if perchance one’s parents have not sufficated this desire, the child is subjected to twelve years of government schooling. And when the educators are finished even mediocrity is beyond many.
When Bell watched the video of that day he said that he could almost understand why busy people didn’t stop to listen. But what was beyond comprehension was that for most he simply didn’t exist. “I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible.”
Even some who noticed him ignored the music. One government official said she just “didn’t hear that much" because she was wondering what he was doing there and if he made much money. For most he was simply not there.
Reporters took the names and phone numbers of 40 people who walked past Bell that morning. Each was told he or she would be called later to be interviewed about commuting. Each was asked if anything unusual had happened that morning. Only one said it did. John Picarello immediately said there was this violinist at the station. The reporter asked him if he hadn’t seen musicians in the station before. Picarello had, he says, “But not like this one.” He said he had “never heard anyone of that caliber” before and he stopped and listened. And he noticed that everyone else was just walking past in a blind stupor. “Other people just were not getting it. It just wasn’t registering. That was baffling to me.”
Another of the very few who stopped to listen was Janice Olu. She stayed as long as she dared and then whispered to an undercover reporter, who was standing next to her: “I really don’t want to leave.”
Before the experiment the staff at the Washington Post discussed how to deal with problems. And the problem they most anticipated was how to control the crowds. They assumed that surely several people would recognize one of the most famous violinists in the world. If they did the crowd could grow dramatically and quickly. They worried over nothing.
That morning only Stacy Furukawa recognized Bell. She had attended a free concert he had given at the Library of Congress. She stood and listened to him as he finished his subway concert. And when he was done she told him that she had seen his previous performance. She told the reporter: “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of city do I live in that this could happen.”
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