If a Violinist Performs in a Metro Station and No One Hears …

“It is the recipient who communicates. The so-called communicator, the person who emits the communication, does not communicate. He utters. Unless there is someone who hears, there is no communication. There is only noise.”

– Peter Drucker

Ah, but what exquisite noise!

Imagine this. You are a commuter in Washington, D.C. It is a chilly January morning – a Friday. You are simply following the steps of your intricately choreographed routine – from home to work with detours to pick up a cup of coffee, a paper and perhaps a Lotto ticket. Your lucky day! And it is. In the background, Joshua Bell, the world-famous violinist is giving you a concert. Right here in the Metro station. Playing on a $3.5 million Stradivarius!

Except… You do not know that he is Joshua Bell – even if you even know who Joshua Bell is – because he is dressed as a typical “street musician.” A busker. You may have noticed the sound was quite different – better? – than you usually hear in a “subway concert.” A $3.5 million instrument being played by an extremely talented artist should sound better!

But… How could you know? This “concert” was not announced. You did not have to alter any part of your daily routine to obtain a ticket. You were not required to stand in a special line to get a good seat. There was no “build-up” in excitement. You were not anticipating anything special. You were not engaged!

This communication failed!

“It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” Furukawa says. “Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”

You can read the complete story, “Pearls Before Breakfast,” by Gene Weingarten by clicking here. This was published in the Sunday, April 8, 2007 edition of The Washington Post. It is a beautifully written article. And thanks to the multimedia abilities of the Internet, you also get to hear an audio recording – 44 minutes – of Joshua Bell’s “Concert at L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station.” But wait, there’s more – there is also a short video clip. Evidence of the decline of culture in 21st Century Washington, D.C.

Art for art’s sake – “Ars gratia artis!” Quality rises to the top. Not necessarily.

When you read the Washington Post article, you will discover that this “concert” was an experiment. Joshua Bell was a willing participant. He agreed to go along with this. To see if his magnificent artistry would be a strong enough lure to get everyday commuters to stop – for just a few seconds – and appreciate the beauty of his music. To engage the commuter. To communicate with them.

But he didn’t. Communication, as Peter Drucker reminds us, comes from the recipient. “Unless there is someone who hears, there is no communication. There is only noise.” Ah, that beautiful “noise” coming from Joshua Bell!

A short excerpt from the article:

“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.

Before he began, Bell hadn’t known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous.

“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 . . .”

Indeed … a shoe-shine lady DID resent Joshua Bell’s presence. His “noise” was too loud. It interfered with her ability to chat with her customers (two-way communication.) The better her communication with her customers (a captive audience) the better her tips. She “resented” Joshua Bell’s performance! It was bad for her business!

As many of you know, I am an avid advocate for music and arts education. And my first reaction to the Washington Post article – sent to me by a friend a colleague in the music industry – was to wring my fists and knot my brow. I thought, “just another setback for the arts!”

But this “stunt” tells us nothing about the state of (decline of?) the arts in 21st Century Washington, D.C. Rather, it reveals why most attempts to communicate fail.

“It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.”

In order to have a successful communication, you must understand your audience. Why are they there? What are their concerns? Their fears? What do they want to hear from you? What do you want them to do as a result of your talk?

The commuters on that chilly Friday morning in January wanted just one thing – they wanted to get to work.

We can not enforce communication. When we try to do so, people resent it.

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