The Subterranean Bell

If you’ve ever taken a subway in a major city — or if you’ve been anywhere else that large numbers of passersby use as a thoroughfare — you’ve probably seen a street performer or two. Street performers come in all sorts of types — there are living statueshomeless pranksters, and even potato peelers. But the most common type of performer is probably the street musician, who sets up shop in a high traffic area, plays some music, and hopes that people enjoy it enough to toss some coins or a few dollars into his or her open instrument case.

That’s exactly what happened on the morning of January 12, 2007, when, a few minutes before 8:00 A.M., a violinist named Joshua Bell set up shop next to a garbage can at Washington, D.C.’s L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. He performed for roughly 45 minutes and approximately 1,100 Metro-riders passed by his pay-what-you-want concert during that time period. Of those riders, 28 tossed some money in Bell’s violin case, totalling $52.17. Which is a small step toward buying Bell another violin like the one he was playing at the Metro station that morning — if that’s what he wanted to spend his money on.

But it’s unlikely, to say the least, that Bell was giving his subway mini-concert to raise funds for a new violin — it would take too long. To earn enough to buy the violin Bell was using during his free subway concert, he’d have to play another 65,000 or so such concerts. That’s because the violin Bell used underground was a Stradivarius made in 1713. He bought it for $3.5 million, give or take.

How does a street performer afford such a violin? He has a night job. In Bell’s case, a few nights before his concert at L’Enfant Plaza, he was giving another concert in Boston, but not in the subway — that show was at Symphony Hall. Tickets started at $100 and he filled the venue. That’s because Joshua Bell is a world-renowned violinist — even if his renown does not seem to spread to the halls of mass transit stations.

And no, Bell isn’t really a regular in the D.C. Metro system, at least not as a performer. Bell’s subway concert was part of an experiment run by longtime Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten, written up here. Weingarten aimed to see whether passersby would recognize greatness and stop to appreciate it.  Of course, there are some flaws with the “experiment” in the scientific sense, most notably how out of place classical violin concert is at a subway station during rush hour; the music is designed for an audience that can stop and absorb its majesty, while the would-be audience has neither the time nor inclination to do so in that context. So it’s unfair to draw many conclusions from the ruse. (But feel free to do so anyway.)

To watch a time lapse (mostly) video of Bell’s underground performance, click here.

Bonus Fact: The Stradivarius violins are widely-regarded to be the best of the best, but there’s good reason to believe that their value is mostly hype. In 2011, a double-blind survey of 21 “experienced violinists” concluded that the violins created by the Stradivari family were the “least preferred” of those evaluated.

From the ArchivesMeal Ticket: They’re not street performers, but they earn their keep via the subways of Moscow. Oh, and they’re dogs.

RelatedA lot of Joshua Bell’s music. But alas, nothing from the D.C. Metro.