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Archive for April 9th, 2007

Real Good for Free: Joshua Bell Solos in DC Subway

Monday, April 9th, 2007

I must confess that I’m not on top of the classical music world. In the late 1970’s I was a music major and they really tried to help me understand classical music and enjoy it.

I have a really strong bias toward vocal music, however, and so much of the classical music they wanted me to learn about was totally instrumental. I never really got into it the way the school hoped. My ears search for a voice or voices to focus upon… any language will do, I don’t need to understand the words. Just a lone voice and I’m a happy listener.

There are many reasons why I never finished my vocal music major, that is only one tiny part of the big picture. But it explains why I did not know who Joshua Bell was until today.

Joshua Bell is really important in the classical music world. The violin is the most important instrument in many classical pieces, and he is one of the most celebrated violin players in the world. He also is a bit unconventional according to the Washington Post, the only source of information I personally have on the subject. He apparently doesn’t wear a tux on stage when the orchestra behind him is tuxed-out. They say that sometimes Bell earns $1,000 a minute to play violin. That often ordinary seats in the theaters where he performs cost $100 a show.

The Washington Post played a little trick on commuters in Washington DC, with Bell’s help. He played a 45 minute concert, incognito, dressed in jeans, in the L’Enfant subway station. Predictably, many folks (like me) did not know who he was. As a matter of fact, it appears that only one person knew. The article about this experiment is very entertaining (though longer than I expected). I enjoyed every single word, though I’m aware that there might be many ways to approach the story. This is one angle on it, and it covers a lot of territory. Bell made $32.17 in tips, in the 43 minutes he played.

The concept of folks walking right by one of the finest musicians in the world, without a glance, reminds me of Joni Mitchell’s song “Real Good for Free.” In her case she goes by a clarinet player in NY City and notices how good he is. She realizes in her story that that night she would be on stage playing to a room of folks who would pay for the experience. She has an inkling of an idea, that maybe she could ask to sing with the clarinetist. Then the light changes and she walks away. I have all the lyrics to the Mitchell song on my LDTH Poetry Collection Page: Real Good for Free

Context is a big deal. Presentation can be bigger than the thing presented, at times. Have you ever bought something that was a nice color and not really expensive, just because of the color? I think the chain Target uses color to market/sell merchandise brilliantly. I’ve bought dishes and towels, and earrings, and nylon stockings from them before, just because of the color.

Sometimes the item we loved in the store is just not as wonderful at home, when it is no longer surrounded by the other colorful items it was near on the display. In that case, presentation is more substantial than content. I hope we don’t do that all the time… but I’m human and my humanity means that I can ignore much, in pursuit of my daily routine.

And then sometimes, the guy in the jeans playing instrumental music over by the trash bin, is a treasure. We are definitely human.