Prepared to Listen

Just over 10 years ago, a young musician stepped out of a taxi cab. Making his way to the area designated for him, he opened his violin case, took out the instrument and began to play. The violin was a masterpiece, handmade by the master Antonio Stradivari in 1713. The music was some of the most beautiful ever composed; selections from Bach, Schubert, and other masters. The musician was Joshua Bell, one of the most gifted to ever play the violin. The stage was set for an incredible musical experience.

Bell played for almost 45 minutes. He threw himself into the music, his body twisting and arcing as he became one with each piece. The music swelled and, under his expert guidance, the bow danced across the strings. For those in attendance, this was one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to hear something extraordinary.

Except almost no one paid any attention to the performance.

You see, Bell wasn’t playing in a concert hall. As part of an experiment conducted by the Washington Post, Bell was playing outside the entrance of L’Enfant Plaza, one of Washington DC’s Metro stations. The house was packed, but not with a crowd of classical music enthusiasts. It was early morning on a Friday, the middle of rush hour. Those who encountered Mr. Bell and his violin were on their way to work.
The experiment was an attempt to see if the average person would recognize beauty when confronted with it. A squad of reporters stood by to interview spectators after the event. Video cameras were set up to capture the scene. The question wasn’t whether or not anyone would stop to listen, but how many. The organizers anticipated traffic jams and possible violence as people crowded around to witness a true maestro in action.

But no crowd formed. For the most part, Bell’s performance was ignored. A total of 1,097 commuters passed by during the experiment. Of those, only seven stopped for any length of time to observe. His violin case, seeded with a couple of dollars from own pocket, collected just over $32 – most of it tossed in by people on the run. As the last strains of each piece faded, Bell was rewarded not with rounds of applause, but with thundering silence.

Nobody was listening.

As I read Gene Weingarten’s article about the experiment, it struck me that this wasn’t a case of beauty ignored. It’s not that the people of Washington DC have no taste in music or appreciation of a master engaged in his craft. It’s simply that they weren’t prepared to listen.

We often confuse hearing with listening. There’s no doubt the Metro riders who encountered Bell’s music heard it. The sound waves entered their ear and were transferred into signals that registered in the brain. Without expending any effort whatsoever, they became aware of the sound.

But listening is different. Listening is not a passive endeavor. It requires intent. Listening is an activity that involves not just the ears, but the focused attention of the brain and event he heart. Listening affects the emotions. It is an interactive experience that leaves an impact on those involved.

How many times do our ears hear, yet we fail to comprehend what’s happening? Is it because we can’t appreciate what’s going on? No, we’re just not prepared – mentally, physically, and emotionally – to listen. Our focus is elsewhere. It doesn’t matter if Joshua Bell is playing violin, or my wife is talking about her day; unless I am prepared to listen, the ability to experience the moment will escape me.

That’s why I have to turn off the TV. I have to put down my phone. I have to remove any distractions and orient myself physically toward the person I want to listen to. If the timing’s just not right, I need to reschedule the appointment. If my mind is preoccupied with deadlines or competing priorities, I need to clear away room to allow listening to take place.

Joshua Bell’s audience that January morning in 2007 weren’t ignorant. They were just preoccupied. They weren’t prepared to accept the gift he was offering them. They were so focused on other things, some couldn’t recall a musician playing at all when interviewed just a few hours later. Most of the money collected was offered as a matter of routine, with little regard given to the recipient.

A few passersby were prepared though. One was a man who had studied violin as a youth. At one time, he had intended to play professionally. He didn’t know Bell, but his mind had been prepared to listen for the sounds he heard that morning. He found a seat, listened, and marveled at the crowd walking by unaware.

Another observer had seen Bell perform just days earlier. That performance was fresh on her mind, unconsciously preparing her for the unexpected treat. She arrived on the scene late, but stood transfixed until the end with a huge grin on her face.

There was one group of people who seemed to understand what was going on. A review of the video shows that every single child who walked past Bell as he played tried to stop and watch. Unencumbered by someplace to be or tasks to accomplish, their minds were open to receive the experience. In each case, the parent holding their hand pulled them away toward the object of their attention.

How often do we fail to prepare ourselves for listening? How many times do we settle for just hearing? What wonders lie right in front of us, yet just beyond our grasp; waiting for us to stop and listen?