On Recognizing Quality

Last week I read online in The Washington Post about world-famous violinist Joshua Bell, who decided to play in the Washington, D.C. metro for change. Bell hit the subway on January 12 of this year, and the experiment was certainly thought-provoking. To provide some background, Bell played for about an hour and made around $40. He was recognized by exactly one person, and a few others stopped to listen out of the hundreds that rushed by during the morning hour.

Immediately, what I thought about was the way I listen to music and how it affects my opinions. If a friend sits me down with their “pick of the week,” I’m in critical mode. If I’m reading the I Love Music forum online and someone raves about the latest Michael Mayer 12”, I get excited and think I’ll probably like it. I’m not sure where these predispositions come from, but — more importantly — I can’t even tell how much they influence my opinions of what I hear.

Should we experience certain music in the seclusion of headphones, or in a club with sweaty people? I think it definitely makes a difference, but shouldn’t be a concern. I recommend having a sense of trust in your own judgment and response. The article in the Post emphasizes the fact that many people failed to recognize the talent in Bell’s performance, but I feel that many of the passers-by may simply not be interested in the music, regardless of when and where it is performed. If the best Tuvan throat singer came and performed for me, I’m not sure I’d find it interesting. Similarly, in this situation I think that the organizers of this experiment took for granted the universality of classical music’s appeal and drew the wrong conclusion.

The people at L’Enfant Plaza, where Bell performed for a little under an hour, should not be put down for having the wrong priorities and for being unable to appreciate “beauty.” They should be studied and questioned to see what they find beautiful instead.

My sister is a violin performance major. I’ve heard her play for countless hours back at home, and have watched her ability grow over the years. I can tell a good violin performance from a bad one, but that’s about as far as my abilities go. I doubt I would have noticed anything world-famous in Bell’s performance, and it doesn’t really bother me because I don’t care to recognize the thousandth performance of the same old music by yet another violinist of the latest generation. I prefer a new music untainted by the staleness of repeated listening and criticism of centuries.