When I lived in Washington, D.C., last summer, one of the things I loved was hearing all the street musicians who would perform in or near the Metro stations. I love music and wish I had the nerve or talent to perform in public like that. I have nothing but respect for other musicians and some incredibly talented people played right there on the street. It helps that my favorite musical group, The Coats , got their start singing on the street corner in Seattle.
I didn't always give money to the performers in DC, although I wanted to — I simply don't carry cash and rarely have so much as a quarter on me — but I tried to stop and listen. The first night I was there, while waiting to meet a friend outside the China Town stop, a young man played the saxophone. Another time, just a few blocks away, a man played a brilliant percussion routine on buckets and pots and pans. The effort left him soaked in sweat and drew a large crowd — I was told he played there regularly.
Several times a week until the day the Metro cops chased them away, a group of four men sang old Motown standards A Cappella late at night.
Of course, I was always traveling on the Metro on weekends or at times of the day when people are in less of a rush, but at least a few people stopped for the musicians I saw.
Today, I found a link to a story about what happens when a world-class musician plays in the station during the morning rush hour . The Pulitzer-winning article by Gene Weingarten appeared in the Washington Post Magazine in April 2007. For the article, Weingarten convinced Joshua Bell, a world-class violinist who people pay hundreds of dollars to see, to play inside the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station at rush hour. They discovered that very few people would stop, even for one of the most talented musicians in the world, playing some of the most beautiful music ever written on one of the best instruments ever made (a Stradivarius violin). It's a wonderful article and made me quite sad. Perhaps growing up in the leisurely pace of the Northwest has made me more willing to take time to stop and enjoy the good things in life, or perhaps my own musical training makes me feel compelled to stop and acknowledge when someone is really talented or even when they're not, but are putting themselves out there for the world to judge. Read this article and play the clips — at the end there's one that lets you listen to the entire performance, which you should do. How anyone can hear something that beautiful and not stop, even for a minute, astounds me. I highly recommend taking time out of your day to listen to the clip of Bell playing. The music is just exquisite. Music that beautiful always makes me tear up, and the idea that people could just pass by amazes me. Anything even close to this makes me freeze in my tracks, almost physically unable to keep walking.
It should be said that I found this via a Poynter link to another column in which Weingarten writes that after receiving the Pulitzer for his "original" work, he discovered that a Chicago newspaper had tried the same "stunt" in the '30s, also with a world-class musician. The second Weingarten column is also interesting, but more from a journalistic standpoint.