Art without a frame- Joshua Bell busks the subway

How much of an audiences reaction to a live performance is influenced by preconceived expectation? If everyone tells them the music they are about to hear is going to be incredible, how much more likely will a person be to think that it is good? Would people gather round if Trane was blowing a 30 minute unaccompanied rendition of Countdown in the subway?

I've had the experience recently of hearing a band that had been hyped up like crazy. The audience didn't seem to be the usual Jazz crowd. The seemed to be Yuppies who had been drawn in by the media hype. The music wasn't terrible, but it certainly wasn't anything amazing. Yet the crowd was hanging on every note. I felt like the audience had been fed the story that this band was the greatest thing ever and they bought it, lacking the discrimination to judge the level of the music or the musicians. It made me wonder if a musician could ever get ahead without a good PR agent working for them.

The Washington Post ran an article about a very interesting sociological experiment involving one of the world's greatest violinist pretending to be a busker in the subway at morning rush hour. Joshua Bell played his 3.5 million dollar Strad violin for exactly one hour and only one person stopped to really listen, and this person recognized who he was because she had just seen him at the Kennedy Center.

Of course Joshua Bell was not prepared for what happened.

"It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah . . ."

The word doesn't come easily.

". . . ignoring me."

Welcome to the life of a JAZZ musician Joshua.

Pearls Before Breakfast-Can one of the nation's great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let's find out.

Thank you Damien Masterson for this article.


Anonymous said...

There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog: www.SawLady.com/blog
She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters... I thought you might find it interesting.

David Carlos Valdez said...

Thanks, here's what the Saw Lady said:

Is Joshua Bell a good busker?

The Washington Post published an article about an experiment they did: they got Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world, to play incognito in a subway station. They wanted to see if without the PR he usually gets for his stage performances anybody would stop to listen.
The result was - hardly anybody stoped to listen.
The Washington Post analized it as if it were the fault of the audience, the passers by, for not recognizing such a great musician. I say - it wasn’t the fault of the passers by at all.

The thing is Joshua Bell is a great violinist but he doesn’t know how to busk. There are violinists who are not even close to being as good as he is (such as Jim Grasec or Lorenzo LaRock), yet they get crowds to stop and listen to them. It’s because when you play on the street you can’t approach it as if you are playing on a stage. Busking is an art form of its own. You need to be as good a musician as to audition for any stage gig (the competition over permits is fierce) but in addition to that you have to relate to the audience and be a real people’s person. You can’t hide behind your instrument and just play, with an invisible wall between you and the audience, the way a stage performance is conducted. In busking you use the passers by as if they were paint and your music is the paint brush - your goal is to create a collective work of art with the people, in the space, in the moment with you and the music.
A busker is someone who can turn any place into a stage. Obviously, Joshua Bell needs an actual stage. As a busker one needs to interact with those around, break walls of personal space, and lure people into a collective and spontaneous group experience on the street, in the moment, with you. A bad busking act is when the performer doesn’t make an effort to connect with the audience. Like musicians who play for themselves, not acknowledging the audience, just burying their heads in their instruments.
IMHO that is why Joshua Bell didn’t get lots of people to stop and listen.

Anonymous said...

Another observation: Nowadays, classical (or jazz, or whatever) music played at the highest level of virtuosity is pretty commonplace; it's background music at Starbucks.Aside from the fact that people on the subway presumably have places to go.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the most successful buskers I ever saw were a group of South Americans playing pretty typical panpipes 'n' guitars stuff by the docks in Hong Kong, who managed to sell at least a couple of CDs after every song

Anonymous said...

While I agree that the audience is not entirely to blame in this situation, I don't agree with the saw lady that Joshua Bell needs to be a better "busker". Any renowned musician (classical or jazz or whatever) knows the importance of connecting with their audience...even within the jazz community, there are musicians who receive more attention that are not nearly as virtuosic as a zillion "virtuosic" jazz musicians. Having studied both jazz and classical saxophone, I've ironically found I higher percentage of classical musicians who knew the value of connecting with their audience. My teachers, James Houlik and Stephen Pollock, both classical saxophonists that have played all over the world, have always stressed being a great musician first and a great saxophonist later. That could be interpreted in many ways but both of them were players whom before they even started to play, the audience would be blown away by their presence...even if they were playing in a crumby band rehearsal room for visiting parents.
The article in the Washington Post even goes deeply into how Joshua Bell isn't just a technical master but talks about his expressive body movements and "Donny Osmond" charm or some shit like that...maybe the saw lady didn't read up to that part of the article.
I don't think a single musician with a reputation is going to be the kind of musician that is "buried in the music"...that's a college phase that some people never get out of...they'd make good symphony orchestra players probably...but does the saw lady honestly think that Joshua Bell is of this category?
I've come across many more jazz musicians who are buried in chord changes (myself included, though I'm trying to get to the point where I can "forget all that shit and just play" )