The $3.5 million Stradivarius violin prank

The $3.5 million Stradivarius violin prankYehudi Menuhin

"The violinist must possess the poet’s gift of piercing the protective hide which grows on propagandists, stockbrokers and slave traders, to penetrate the deeper truth which lies within."

A quote from The compleat violinist: thoughts, exercises, reflections of an itinerant violinist, a book by the violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

Mr. Menuhin may have been overly optimistic about the effect that an exemplary musician has on passing pedestrians, however. In 2007, as an experiment, (or a high-end prank) the Grammy-award winner violinist Joshua Bell played as a street performer in a Washington D.C. Metro station. His instrument was his own Stradivarius violin, worth $3.5 million.

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. Almost all of them were on the way to work, which meant, for almost all of them, a government job…

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? 

It was a real-world lesson in context. Many of us think we’d never be taken in by obvious pranks or scammed by con artists, but in the right environment, when certain conditions are met, anyone can be scammed.

The street musician stunt was videotaped.

Watching the video weeks later, Bell finds himself mystified by one thing only. He understands why he’s not drawing a crowd, in the rush of a morning workday. But: "I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because, you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!"

Bell wonders whether their inattention may be deliberate: If you don’t take visible note of the musician, you don’t have to feel guilty about not forking over money; you’re not complicit in a rip-off.

It may be true, but no one gave that explanation. People just said they were busy, had other things on their mind. Some who were on cellphones spoke louder as they passed Bell, to compete with that infernal racket.

What happened with most people is that they were not paying attention because the circumstances weren’t right. It’s the same reason a magician can fool you, or a con man can scam you – sometimes, by doing things in a place where you don’t expect them to occur, you can be deceived – your money can be stolen, your senses fooled, or the greatest violinist in the world can play for you, and you just don’t notice.

Pearls Before Breakfast  – Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out, The Washington Post>>

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