Advent Series: Beauty in Our Midst

A link on Facebook directed me to a Washington Post story from 2007 that absolutely captivated me.  From the article:

By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by.

Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?

Anyone who has lived in the city is familiar with the phenomenon of streeet performers busking for money in public.  The twist here was that this performance had been arranged by the Washington Post as a sort of social experiment.  Take one of the world’s finest violinists, and have him perform incognito before commuters during rush hour.  Would anyone stop?  Would anyone notice?  As the article asks: “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

The authors of experiment went to the director of the National Symphony Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin, presented the hypothetical scenario and asked for his prediction as to the results:

“[Assuming] that he is not recognized… Out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 to 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75-100 will stop and spend some time listening.”

Slatkin went on to predict that the musician would probably make around $150.

The musician they chose for the experiment was none other than Joshua Bell, a former child prodigy, now widely regarded as one of the finest violinists in the world.  Three days before the experiment, Bell had commanded the attention of a full house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, with concert-goers paying around $100 per ticket.

And now, here he was, playing a violin made in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari himself, a violin valued at near $4 million.

Only 6 people stopped to listen for any length of time.  Bell made $32.

Which brings up the question, would I have stopped?  Would I have noticed the beauty in the midst of the mundane?  Or would I have missed it?

Do I notice the beauty in the midst of the mundane?


But the whole story kind of reminded me of Someone else who showed up 2000 years ago unnoticed by anyone but a handful of shepherds…

And thus, this Advent series.

Open our eyes…

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