I have to preface this blog post with a few things. First, it’s going to be long. Second, the article I’m referencing is old (by nearly six years). And third, just by reading said article, I cried big sloppy tears I usually reserve for the 2011 Doctor Who Christmas special and that moment in Deathly Hallows when Fred dies. So, yeah. You know this is going to be something special.
I came across this article a week or so ago. It was posted in April of 2007, written by Gene Weingarten and contributed to by Emily Shroder, Rachel Manteuffel, John W. Poole and Magazine Editor Tom Shroder of the Washington Post. But this is the first that I’m hearing of it. I’m shame-faced to say that. I wish I’d had it in my life a lot sooner than now.
In a nutshell, it’s a story about Joshua Bell, the world-famous violinist, who dressed in jeans and a baseball cap to go play in a metro station in Washington D.C. It was an experiment hosted by the Washington Post. Would people recognize the talent? Would they recognize that they, quite literally, had a front row seat to one of the best classical musicians on the planet?
Please go read the article. It is very, VERY long, but it is so worth your time. Underlying it all, it’s about taking the time to appreciate beauty in a world that moves so fast that we aren’t even aware of what is around us anymore. If you can’t take the time to read this beautiful and emotional and spot-on-correct article, then I’m sorry to say that you fall right into the same category as all those people who passed by Bell without a second glance. Don’t be a statistic.
So go read it now and come back so we can cry and hug and ramble on about it together, ‘kay?
I just read it a second time and – ugh – tears. Again.
Where to start? There are so many brilliant pieces in this article. Moving and emotional and funny and infuriating. I think, however, the best place to start would be with the man himself, Joshua Bell.
Interview magazine once said his playing “does nothing less than tell human beings why they bother to live.”
Shouldn’t all art do that? I’m not opposed to the frivolous entertainment that we’re subjected to on a daily basis. I like to read fun, meaningless stories. I like to watch TV shows that make me laugh rather than think. I’m constantly pummeled by information that, frankly, is completely and utterly pointless.
And that’s fine.
But I wish it wasn’t all like that. I feel like art – true art – is a dying breed. Whatever happened to reading something or watching something that meant something to you? That taught you lessons and made you want to be a better person? That’s why a silly little show about a vampire slayer named Buffy is so insanely popular after all this time. That’s why 1984 hasn’t lost its brilliance even though the story is outdated and outlandish. Those things are entertaining and funny and witty. But they’re also thought-provoking and memorable and make us want to be better human beings.
Shouldn’t everything we consume strive to do the same?
“I’m not comfortable if you call this genius.” “Genius” is an overused word, he said: It can be applied to some of the composers whose work he plays, but not to him. His skills are largely interpretive, he said, and to imply otherwise would be unseemly and inaccurate.
It was an interesting request, and under the circumstances, one that will be honored. The word will not again appear in this article.
Continuing on with Joshua Bell, I just wanted to point out this section because, well, we need more people like him in the world. Talk about humble. Can you imagine literally being one of the greatest classical musicians on the EARTH, and saying, ‘Please don’t call me a genius. I don’t deserve it.’
We can pretend that we would have the same response, but 99.9% of us would be in denial. How could you not get a big head when you become that famous based on a talent that is obviously not common or simple?
There are people who become famous because they have money and a pretty face. The talentless oftentimes are more arrogant than those who are actually deserving of the spotlight, the people we wouldn’t blame if they admitted that they were the best of the best.
And, yet, those people are never the ones to do that. Strange, isn’t it?
At the top of the escalators are a shoeshine stand and a busy kiosk that sells newspapers, lottery tickets and a wallfull of magazines with titles such as Mammazons and Girls of Barely Legal. The skin mags move, but it’s that lottery ticket dispenser that stays the busiest, with customers queuing up for Daily 6 lotto and Powerball and the ultimate suckers’ bait, those pamphlets that sell random number combinations purporting to be “hot.” They sell briskly. There’s also a quick-check machine to slide in your lotto ticket, post-drawing, to see if you’ve won. Beneath it is a forlorn pile of crumpled slips.
This is less of a comment on the situation itself and more of a, ‘hey, let’s just pause here for a second and marvel at the beauty of this paragraph.’ It’s a good lesson in how to write description succinctly. Not too many details, yet the words jump off the page and form images of those things in your mind. We get a sense of the atmosphere – of the attitude of the people – from the description of the setting.
If Bell’s encomium to “Chaconne” seems overly effusive, consider this from the 19th-century composer Johannes Brahms, in a letter to Clara Schumann: “On one stave, for a small instrument, the man writes a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful feelings. If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”
So, that’s the piece Bell started with.
This just speaks volumes about Bell, doesn’t it? A song like that – something so powerful and passionate and obviously extremely intricate and difficult – is performed as the opening piece. The talent must just seep from his pours at night. I wonder if he’d be willing to bottle it up and sell it to the rest of us? I’ll take six gallons, thank you very much.
Bell was, by the way, merely 39 when this article was written. It is, I would think, a young age for a musician as talented as he is, one that has gone so far in such a short amount of time. I do believe that people are pre-disposed with talent. I’ve been rubbish at math my entire life, yet writing has always come easily to me. There’s a reason for that. There’s a reason why a child picks up a guitar rather than a soccer ball. We gravitate toward the things that interest us, the things that we are good at.
But that’s not what makes someone talented and famous and a master of their craft. Sure, it helps. But Bell says it best when he talked about the fact that he executes his pieces not focusing on the actual playing of the instrument, but on the emotion he is evoking and the story he is telling. The pieces are performed by memory – muscle memory. And how do you get that? Practice.
Talent makes us good. Hard work and practice make us great.
Only then do you see it: He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts.
This is one of the truest statements in this article. It seems like we’re all ghosts these days. Those commuters – heads bowed, no eye contact, rushing off to work, on their phones, listening to their iPods – they don’t exist. Or maybe they do exist, but they’re not present. They’re not corporeal.
We have a tendency to work as hard as we can now so we can relax later. But do we ever relax? The age of retirement keeps going up, and I know plenty of people who can’t retire until well after that point passes them by. From a young age – maybe about 16, when we determine we want our own job so we can spend our own money on whatever we want – it is ingrained into our minds to work hard. Hard work means more money. More money means more happiness.
Maybe. Maybe not. The saying ‘work hard, play harder,’ has a negative connotation associated with it, but I’ve got half a mind to think that’s one of the most brilliant philosophies I’ve ever heard. I don’t discount working hard – I said just a few paragraphs ago that it’s the only way we’re going to become masters of our crafts – but I also think too many people don’t understand that working hard for the majority of their lives isn’t going to bring them happiness.
I’m in a unique position to say that I enjoy my jobs – all of them. I love selling on eBay, and I actually look forward to going into work each day. Hypable is my dream job, and I have fun writing articles and recording podcasts and editing posts. My freelance copyediting stint is growing organically, and it makes me excited. I love it. I love all of it.
Does that mean I don’t work too hard? No. I absolutely think I push myself too hard at times. But there’s a huge difference between working hard at something you loathe with every cell in your body and working hard at something that you enjoy because of the thrill you get when you’re doing it.
Work hard to become great at what you love to do. But don’t be a ghost.
IF A GREAT MUSICIAN PLAYS GREAT MUSIC BUT NO ONE HEARS . . . WAS HE REALLY ANY GOOD?
It’s an old epistemological debate, older, actually, than the koan about the tree in the forest. Plato weighed in on it, and philosophers for two millennia afterward: What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, colored by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?
We’ll go with Kant, because he’s obviously right, and because he brings us pretty directly to Joshua Bell, sitting there in a hotel restaurant, picking at his breakfast, wryly trying to figure out what the hell had just happened back there at the Metro.
“At the beginning,” Bell says, “I was just concentrating on playing the music. I wasn’t really watching what was happening around me . . .”
Playing the violin looks all-consuming, mentally and physically, but Bell says that for him the mechanics of it are partly second nature, cemented by practice and muscle memory: It’s like a juggler, he says, who can keep those balls in play while interacting with a crowd. What he’s mostly thinking about as he plays, Bell says, is capturing emotion as a narrative: “When you play a violin piece, you are a storyteller, and you’re telling a story.”
With “Chaconne,” the opening is filled with a building sense of awe. That kept him busy for a while. Eventually, though, he began to steal a sidelong glance.
“It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . .”
The word doesn’t come easily.
“. . . ignoring me.”
Bell is laughing. It’s at himself.
“At a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off. But here, my 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.” This is from a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.
This passage, coupled with this one…
“It wasn’t exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies,” he says. “I was stressing a little.”
Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?
“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence . . .”
He was, in short, art without a frame. Which, it turns out, may have a lot to do with what happened — or, more precisely, what didn’t happen — on January 12.
…is astounding isn’t it? Exceptional. A man who had played all across the world in front of some of the most important and influential people of our time was stressed out playing a little gig in a metro station in downtown D.C.
Instead of taking this for what it is – the obvious portrayal of an artist who reflects all artists’ insecurities about whether or not they’re good enough even AFTER they’ve been validated a hundred times over – I’d just like to say that we have hope. Hope that if – no, when – we do make it, we will be set. Sure, there’s a lot more pressure. And yes, there are expectations that you will want to live up to. And of course there will be people who will always be disappointed. But – and this is the clincher – it gets easier with time.
Sounds crazy, doesn’t it? But look at Bell. He’s talented, and he put in his hard work. He’s on top of the world right now. He’s played in front of the crowned heads of Europe. He’s certified. People go in expecting greatness and, in turn, they see greatness. It’s only when you take that sort of thing out of context that people see average because they expect average.
So, yes. There’s hope for us. When you write your stories and put them out to the world and honestly and truthfully feel that they are great, people will pick up on that. And when more and more people find your works to be great, the trend will continue. When you become great, you will continue to be great. It’s hard to see that sort of thing happening when you’re so far away from it now. It’s difficult to realize that once you dig your claws in, they’re going to be there forever. As long as you keep producing and keep being you, you will keep being great.
Unless you take yourself out of context. But only a masochist would do that. And, apparently, Joshua Bell. Or Stephen King a la the Richard Bachman pen name. Obviously there are some people in this world that just like to hold a flame to their hand to see what will happen.
MARK LEITHAUSER HAS HELD IN HIS HANDS MORE GREAT WORKS OF ART THAN ANY KING OR POPE OR MEDICI EVER DID. A senior curator at the National Gallery, he oversees the framing of the paintings. Leithauser thinks he has some idea of what happened at that Metro station.
“Let’s say I took one of our more abstract masterpieces, say an Ellsworth Kelly, and removed it from its frame, marched it down the 52 steps that people walk up to get to the National Gallery, past the giant columns, and brought it into a restaurant. It’s a $5 million painting. And it’s one of those restaurants where there are pieces of original art for sale, by some industrious kids from the Corcoran School, and I hang that Kelly on the wall with a price tag of $150. No one is going to notice it. An art curator might look up and say: ‘Hey, that looks a little like an Ellsworth Kelly. Please pass the salt.’”
Leithauser’s point is that we shouldn’t be too ready to label the Metro passersby unsophisticated boobs. Context matters.
Kant said the same thing. He took beauty seriously: In his Critique of Aesthetic Judgment, Kant argued that one’s ability to appreciate beauty is related to one’s ability to make moral judgments. But there was a caveat. Paul Guyer of the University of Pennsylvania, one of America’s most prominent Kantian scholars, says the 18th-century German philosopher felt that to properly appreciate beauty, the viewing conditions must be optimal.
“Optimal,” Guyer said, “doesn’t mean heading to work, focusing on your report to the boss, maybe your shoes don’t fit right.”
So, if Kant had been at the Metro watching as Joshua Bell play to a thousand unimpressed passersby?
“He would have inferred about them,” Guyer said, “absolutely nothing.”
So, does this mean that there’s hope for us, the human race? When I first read this article, I was outraged, and possibly feeling a little guilty. I was outraged because here was this divine person playing this incredible music amongst the ‘little people.’ This was a once in a lifetime chance to literally stand inches from an exceptional violinist. And people were ignoring him. Some people were even annoyed. Annoyed! It’s unbelievable.
And, yes, I felt guilty because I know that I don’t always take the time to look around me and observe the beauty of the world. Beauty doesn’t have to come in the form of Joshua Bell playing “Ave Maria” in a metro station in D.C. Beauty can be how the snow is lying on the tree branches in my back yard right now. I hate to say it, but I don’t always see that. Sometimes I’m too busy.
But, according to Guyer and Kant, it might not be our fault. In order to appreciate beauty, we must have optimal conditions. So, cool. We don’t have to feel too guilty for putting our nose to the grindstone and ignoring the brilliance around us.
But – and this is a big, giant but – I do think it’s up to us to make conditions optimal once in a while. What is life without beauty? Empty. You might as well be a ghost. At least you’d have an excuse. It’s important to work hard to become great at what we love to do, but it’s also important to notice that there is beauty in this world. Without noticing that, how can we hope to replicate it in our stories? Writers are in the unique position of being able to take literally anything – books, movies, TV shows, the flower out back, the dead squirrel on the side of the road, the cows in the pasture, the car accident on the highway – and replicate it. We view it, we internalize it, and we spew it forth colored with our own interpretations and call it something new.
It’s so important to make those conditions optimal once in a while. Allow yourself to see the beauty. If you can’t see the point in doing so simply to make yourself a better human being – and I feel sorry for you if you can’t – then at least do it in order to make your writing stronger. Because it will. And you owe it to yourself to experience those things.
THERE ARE SIX MOMENTS IN THE VIDEO THAT BELL FINDS PARTICULARLY PAINFUL TO RELIVE: “The awkward times,” he calls them. It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord — the embarrassed musician’s equivalent of, “Er, okay, moving right along . . .” — and begins the next piece.
The parallels between these moments for Bell and similar moments for authors should be glaringly obvious. It’s that moment when we finally press the publish button on our story. It goes out into cyberspace and we wait for the crowds to flock and herald us as a genius of our time.
Only, they don’t.
Ouch. It is painful, and it can be intimidating and disheartening and frustrating. But look at Bell. He went through the same thing and he IS validated as an artist. He can charge pretty much whatever he wants for a concert and people will pay it because he’s that good.
Yet when that same person plays in front of unsuspecting strangers, they don’t flock to him and herald him as a genius of his time. As stated before, Bell was a painting without a frame. Newly published authors are quite similar – their frame is still being built. It still needs to be pieced together and varnished and placed around them like a laurel wreath on top of their head.
You’ll get there. Just be patient and never, ever give up.
The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.
It’s so accurate, isn’t it? I know so many people who don’t read. Why? Because they hated reading in school. Poetry and classics were shoved down their throats. They were forced to dissect each sentence. It was torture. No wonder they were turned off by it.
Faults in our school systems aside, life finds other ways to cheat us. Why read the book when you can watch the movie? Why go to a museum and appreciate three hundred year old art when you can just pull up icanhas.cheeseburger.com? Why watch opera when you can turn on American Idol and laugh at the people who clearly don’t have a talented bone in their body?
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.
Nothing more needs to be said than, ‘I told you so.’ We’re doing it to ourselves. We’re doing it to our children.
For many of us, the explosion in technology has perversely limited, not expanded, our exposure to new experiences. Increasingly, we get our news from sources that think as we already do. And with iPods, we hear what we already know; we program our own playlists.
It’s ironic, isn’t it? We have something like the internet at our fingertips. It grows exponentially every day. Nothing is deleted from it, not truly, and millions of people add to its files with each passing second. Yet, we’re so limited. We stick those headphones in our ears and we walk by the likes of Joshua Bell. Oh, maybe not in the literal sense – unless, of course, you were one of those people in the metro station that day – but in a metaphorical sense. We limit ourselves because it’s comfortable. We don’t expand because staying the same is safer. We don’t seek beauty because we don’t have time.
“YES, I SAW THE VIOLINIST,” Jackie Hessian says, “but nothing about him struck me as much of anything.”
You couldn’t tell that by watching her. Hessian was one of those people who gave Bell a long, hard look before walking on. It turns out that she wasn’t noticing the music at all.
“I really didn’t hear that much,” she said. “I was just trying to figure out what he was doing there, how does this work for him, can he make much money, would it be better to start with some money in the case, or for it to be empty, so people feel sorry for you? I was analyzing it financially.”
And even when we make time, we can’t stop working. We can’t stop analyzing. We can’t stop dissecting the beauty until it’s unrecognizable as the thing it was before. No longer is it Joshua Bell’s masterful rendition of timeless classical music. Now it’s money. It’s a means of living. It’s a list of pros and cons.
So, even when we slow down to appreciate the beauty, we can’t see it for what it really is. And that’s the biggest shame of all.
We’re busy. Americans have been busy, as a people, since at least 1831, when a young French sociologist named Alexis de Tocqueville visited the States and found himself impressed, bemused and slightly dismayed at the degree to which people were driven, to the exclusion of everything else, by hard work and the accumulation of wealth.
Not much has changed. Pop in a DVD of “Koyaanisqatsi,” the wordless, darkly brilliant, avant-garde 1982 film about the frenetic speed of modern life. Backed by the minimalist music of Philip Glass, director Godfrey Reggio takes film clips of Americans going about their daily business, but speeds them up until they resemble assembly-line machines, robots marching lockstep to nowhere. Now look at the video from L’Enfant Plaza, in fast-forward. The Philip Glass soundtrack fits it perfectly.
“Koyaanisqatsi” is a Hopi word. It means “life out of balance.”
And this is the point. I’m sorry it took 4,000+ words to get here, but I hope you’ve stuck with me so far. I hope you haven’t become a statistic.
Work is good. We need to work. Unfortunately, we can’t run around open fields with daisies in our hair praising the sunshine and looking for four leaf clovers all day long. For better or for worse, life just doesn’t happen that way.
And, hey. That’s fine. Jobs are vital. We’re a consumerist society, and jobs are how we survive the world. Jobs can be fun and beneficial and make us grow as people. We should work, or else we tend to start looking like our couch, all stationary and poofy and lumpy in odd places, and that is a very bad thing.
But please, I’m begging you. Stop. Look around. Appreciate the beauty. Don’t dissect it. Don’t analyze it. Hell, don’t even try to understand it. Just soak it all in. Let it speak to you in words that your mind doesn’t understand but your heart does. It’ll teach you things you didn’t even know you still needed to learn.
In his 2003 book, Timeless Beauty: In the Arts and Everyday Life, British author John Lane writes about the loss of the appreciation for beauty in the modern world. The experiment at L’Enfant Plaza may be symptomatic of that, he said — not because people didn’t have the capacity to understand beauty, but because it was irrelevant to them.
Beauty is irrelevant to people. Or so this experiment seems to be telling us. What do YOU think? I didn’t write this blog post – this essay – to spew forth my ideas into the void, not even hearing an echo in return. I want to have a discussion. I want to know what you think. I want to know if you agree or disagree with this article and with what I’ve said here in this post.
Do you stop to appreciate music? Art? Beauty? Do you try to tear it apart and see what makes it tick, or do you just immerse yourself in it and enjoy it for exactly what it is? Do you think the results of this experiment are skewed because of the conditions? Do you think most people are like this?
Bell headed off on a concert tour of European capitals. But he is back in the States this week. He has to be. On Tuesday, he will be accepting the Avery Fisher prize, recognizing the Flop of L’Enfant Plaza as the best classical musician in America.