Take Time To Stop And Appreciate What’s Right In Front Of You: The Anonymous Violinist

Writers of personal finance like myself quite often get into a mode where everything we write and talk about is done with a forward facing outlook.  We write with the idea of making things better either in the next couple of years or 20, 30 or 40 years down the road.   It’s always done with a future reference, often while making sacrifices right now in order to make things better later.

One thing I think we often forget to do, however, is to make sure that we appreciate the here and now, and be thankful for the things we have right now. If we aren’t thankful and appreciative, we can often miss the amazing things that we already have right in front of our face.

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The Anonymous Violinist

This past week a friend shared an amazing story they had seen on Facebook that clearly demonstrated just how easy it is to not appreciate the extraordinary when it’s right in front of us.  We can easily take things Joshua Bell Subway Violinistfor granted, especially when we’re not focused on living in the present.  This short version of the story came from that Facebook post:

A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes.During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.

Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.

The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.

In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.

No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars.

Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats average $100.

This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of an social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?

As a violin player myself I can appreciate even more than some just how amazing Joshua Bell’s playing is. He plays with emotion and grace, and some of the pieces he plays in that subway are extremely difficult, even for a professional to play.  He gave a virtuoso performance, but hardly anyone noticed.

We Miss The Extraordinary Because Of The Context

I love this story because it speaks to just how easy it is to miss the extraordinary things in our lives. We miss the important things for unimportant reasons. We get focused on our career, but don’t take time to focus on our family and spend time with them.  We focus on saving for retirement, but never focus on having fun or focusing on the ones we love now.   We save for our future, but avoid giving to help others now.

Many of those people who passed right by the virtuoso violinist in the subway are probably the same folks who may have paid for an expensive ticket to hear him play at the symphony.  They weren’t expecting to see him there in that context, and as such they didn’t appreciate his playing. By the same token, far too often because we’re going through hard times we don’t recognize all of the blessings that God has given us in the midst of our troubles.  Because of the context we can’t appreciate.

Now, our God, we give you thanks, and praise your glorious name. 1 Chronicles 29:13

Appreciate And Be Thankful For The Here And Now

For me this story really stressed the importance of appreciating and being thankful for all of the extraordinary blessings that God has given me in the here and now, even in the midst of hard times.  Focusing on and planning for the future is a good thing, but if it keeps you from seeing the wonderful and beautiful things around you right now, you will have lost.

For more a more detailed look at the story of the violinist in the subway (which won a Pulitzer prize for the writer at the Washington Post), click here.  To see him play in another context, watch this video.

Here’s some video of the virtuoso violinist, Joshua Bell, playing his 3.5 million dollar violin in the subway that day for uninterested passerby:

What are your thoughts about this story? Tell us in the comments!

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Last Edited: 27th February 2012

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  1. says

    It’ a great story… and has the distinction of being a popular forwarded story that’s actually true. You don’t have to be Joshua Bell, though… There’s a lot of good musicianship among buskers and subway dwellers — at least in New York.

    • says

      I’m sure that’s true that there are plenty of good musicians in the New York subway, there certainly were when I visited.. It’s just a cool story though to hear of a virtuoso like this who one night has an audience paying $100 a ticket, and then the next is virtually unnoticed in a D.C. subway, despite the fact that he is playing an extremely difficult piece..

  2. says

    I read about this story previously on facebook too. I can’t help but defend the people who walked right by. A large percentage of them probably just aren’t big on classical music and as a result just weren’t knowledgeable about the music to appreciate the skill and difficulty level. He made a point of playing in a fast paced environment where he knew people would be too busy to have a chance to stop and appreciate it. He knew it wouldn’t have close to the same effect if he had done this where people were actually waiting for the train or at a less hectic time of day.

    Despite the artificial nature of this ‘experiment’, people do need to stop and appreciate things more. People are often in such a rush that they block out true beauty right in front of them.

    • says

      There’s no need to defend the people walking by I don’t think. I think part of it is that context matters, and that it can be hard to appreciate things you might otherwise depending on the context. I may have just walked right by as well if I was on my way to work, in a hurry.

      The experiment was posed to the violinist by a columnist for the Washington Post, who set it all up, including the place, time and getting video – just to see how many people would in fact stop and enjoy it. You may be right that the place and time may not have been opportune if you wanted to see a number of people stop and listen. Maybe a busy shopping center or something?

  3. Patrick says

    I think the lesson from this story is that violin concert tickets are way too expensive. For many people, attending classical music concerts is a show of status. I question the necessity of social experiments designed to make busy commuters feel bad about how they’re living their lives.

  4. Tyler S. says

    Having lived in the DC area for a time, including commuting certain days via the Metro system, it’s no surprise that everyone just walked past. It’s a super-busy system of people on their way to whatever they want to do that day – people speed walk through there. I’ve heard some good musicians there too, and left as soon as my train came.

    We all get caught up in our own business that we tend to miss out a lot of the good that is going on around us. It’s always relaxing and refreshing to take a moment, step back, and really be thankful for everything you’ve been given.

  5. Les Phillips says

    Peter,

    First of all, I’d like to thank you for your blog. I’ve found it to be a great source of biblically based information regarding personal finance. I would like to encourage you to include more scripture into your posts. After all, the bible is our greatest source of knowledge. I’d really love to see most of the ideas and/or opinions that you express backed up with scripture. That would give your blog true credibility in my eyes. There is no better guide for how to manage money than the bible; however, some of us have a difficult time applying the Word to today’s complex financial environment. That’s where you come in.

    Looking for more frequent references to God’s Word. Thank you!

    • says

      Les, Thanks for your kind words, and constructive feedback. I’ll definitely take that into account. By the way, several of the links within this article go to posts that deal with some topics with more biblical insights.

  6. says

    I’m a violinist as well but I probably would have just walked right by. I would have thought to myself, “Wow, he’s really good!” but I wouldn’t have stopped walking. Chances are, if I’m in that area, I’m in a rush to go to work so I just don’t have the time to stop. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t appreciate it – maybe some of the people walking by DID appreciate the music and it made the rest of their day better. You never know how it might have changed someone’s mood.

    Anyway, I think it’s pretty cool Joshua Bell played in the Subway. I think it would be even cooler if he would play some free concerts, maybe for younger kids, to get more people interested in classical music.

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