violinThe musicians are coming back to New Orleans even if the business investors are not. They are everywhere. They are on the streets of the Quarter and in the clubs and bars on Frenchmans Street. Listen to them play. Feel them. Put whatever you have in their guitar cases and plastic tip buckets because, as near as I can tell, they are all we have left of New Orleans.

And as street musicians, they are all we have of whatever the soul of America ever was.

There is that haunting Washington Post social experiment called “Pearls Before Breakfast”. Perhaps you read it. Or not. Perhaps you were on your way to work in your busy life as a school leader and you were just too stressed to stop and listen.

1,097 commuters raced past the street musician in L’Enfant Plaza in Washington DC one January morning, on their way to their beltway jobs as policy analysts and consultants and government workers. They heard him. But they didn’t listen. They kept their heads down and avoided eye contact. They stayed clear of his violin case for fear they would be shamed into fishing for a few loose quarters. Some had their IPods on so they could drown him out. Others had cell phones– the perfect ploy for the frenetic train patron already enwrapped in the day’s e-mail and text messages.

And that was their loss.

j bellHe was no vagabond fiddler begging for a cup of coffee. He was Joshua Bell, one of the world’s most renowned classical musicians, playing some of the most elegant music ever created on a $3.5 million Stradivarius that was hand-crafted in 1713. On this particular morning, Joshua Bell managed $32 in tips from a handful of passer-bys who took the time to listen. It was “Chaconne”, written by Johann Sebastian Bach and just a few days before, Joshua Bell had played it in the Boston Symphony Hall to a capacity audience who each paid a minimum $100 a ticket to hear the performance.

Last week Paul McCartney played a free concert on a rooftop in New York City and he had a very different reception.

Perhaps the commuters were just a little more familiar with Paul McCartney than they were with Johann Sebastian Bach. Perhaps they had allowed a little more time in their morning routine so they could afford a few extra minutes to stop and listen. Perhaps something in the loud bass and amplified foot pedals spoke to the soul of New Yorkers in a way that a violin– however sweet or eerie — could not speak to Washington DC bureaucrats in a hurry to make their first morning meeting.

Or is it the context? Or the fear of strangers in a train station? Or a general distrust of street performers? Or the fear of being scammed? Or worse?

Or are we in too big a hurry? Or does the music matter? Or do the arts matter? Or does Washington or New Orleans or New York City matter?

The Washington Post formulated a question for their action research: “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, does beauty transcend?” They hypothesized that it would and that Joshua Bell would draw too big a crowd and pretty soon there would be anarchy. There wasn’t. He played and  no one noticed. Well, almost no one.

In his beautifully written summary of the experiment in L’Enfant Plaza, staff writer Gene Weingarten writes: “There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money,from the vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”

Our students report back for school next week. They will pass by in search of sweet music that genuinely stirs them. I for one, will not abide the adults that rush them past when they only want one glimpse of that brilliant virtuoso that seems to give life a fleeting instant of meaning; or they pop their IPod headphones out to listen to a song whose name they cannot pronounce.

vio and bow

(Simultaneously Posted on Leadertalk)


Filed under Uncategorized


  1. This was a beautiful post with a great message. You had me at “New Orleans” & kept me with “Washington, DC.” Both for very different reasons.

    For anyone unfamiliar with DC, there is a frenetic personality that IS the city. There truly is so much raw can-change-the-world power there that even for those who may be the political analysts or the street sweepers, or any profession in between . . . or who may be those policy makers whose decisions literally change life as we know it–that fast pace, can’t-pay-attention-to-beauty encompasses & all becomes who they are, even more than who they really are, or who they were.

    I worked there for the federal government for a VP of a federal agency. Despite that these offices are interspersed with great buildings full of beauty & awe-inspiring fodder to feed our souls, many times, or most times, it’s our souls that go lacking because of that all-encompassing sense that one person is more important than the other, & that to stop even for a few brief minutes & listen to the violinist, that will create a time hole, a loss, that can never be filled, & something crucial . . . will . . . not . . . get . . . done. Why? Because . . . only . . . I . . . can . . . do it.

    In many ways, it is something of the same in New Orleans but in New Orleans, that beauty is a required part of the city, an absolute must that, almost by city law, requires people to pay attention. There is a lack of freneticism in the likes of New Orleans that, unfortunately, is simply a part of the very fabric of Washington. Even after Katrina, New Orleans demands attention, & she also demands that people smile & enjoy.

    I got out of DC while I still could. Some people may never be able. That sense of being a part of a power grid that affects all–no matter what one’s part in it–is seductive but in that seduction, it can take away from all that is truly important in life.

    Long live New Orleans.

    • Thank you for your kind comments Linda. I enjoyed YOUR story… the context from someone who has lived and worked inside the beltway is very powerful. I also visited your website and learned that you are a very accomplished writer… which makes your comments all the more encouraging! Good luck to you with the sales of your newest book!!!

      • Kevin: Thanks for checking out my website. And though I “got out” of DC, unfortunately my husband still does that crazy shuffle every day, getting up @ 4 AM & not home ’til far too much later. This is why it didn’t suprise me in the least that the beauty of the well-known classical musician was missed by so many adults. Sad but true. ; >

        I look forward to reading more inspiring posts here.

  2. Pingback: Mueller Charter School Blog » Blog Archive » The Wisdom of Pearls

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s