It is a popular childhood game called hidden pictures. I myself belong to a coloring page on Facebook and once or twice a month the page administrator will post a picture with things hidden within it. Could you spot a fork hidden in the handle of a broom or a comb hidden in a picture of a cob of corn? Better yet, could you spot the virtuoso playing in a subway station?
According to Snopes.com, the go-to site for all unearthing the truth hiding amongst Internet pages, no one did – either ten years ago or in 1930. “Many a marketing survey has been conducted to gauge how presentation affects consumer perceptions of quality, and quite a few such surveys have found that people will frequently designate one of two identical items as being distinctly better than the other simply because it is packaged or presented more attractively. Might this same concept apply to fields outside of consumer products, such as the arts? Would, for example, people distinguish between a world-class instrumental virtuoso and an ordinary street musician if the only difference between them were the setting? These were questions tackled by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten in 2007 when he enlisted renowned violinist Joshua Bell, a winner of the Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music who regularly undertakes over 200 international engagements a year, to spend part of a morning playing incognito at the entrance to a Washington Metro station during a morning rush hour. Weingarten set up the event “as an experiment in context, perception and priorities — as well as an unblinking assessment of public taste: In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”
Snopes continued: “On 12 January 2007, about a thousand morning commuters passing through the L’Enfant Plaza Station of the subway line in Washington, D.C. were, without publicity, treated to a free mini-concert performed by violin virtuoso Joshua Bell, who played for approximately 45 minutes, performing six classical pieces (two of which were by Bach) during that span on his handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin (for which Bell reportedly paid $3.5 million). Weingarten described the crux of the experiment: “Each passerby had a quick choice to make, one familiar to commuters in any urban area where the occasional street performer is part of the cityscape: Do you stop and listen? Do you hurry past with a blend of guilt and irritation, aware of your cupidity but annoyed by the unbidden demand on your time and your wallet? Do you throw in a buck, just to be polite? Does your decision change if he’s really bad? What if he’s really good? Do you have time for beauty? Shouldn’t you? What’s the moral mathematics of the moment?”
Weingarten ended up winning for the Washington Post a Pulitzer Prize for his category, the award being given in part for the originality of the ruse. However, it was not that original. Seventy-seven years earlier another periodical named the Post, The Chicago Evening Post had done something quite similar. In fact, several aspects of this story, the hiding in plain sight of a concert violinist were eerily similar. In May 1930 Milton Fairman wrote a story titled “Famous Fiddler in Disguise Gets $5.61 in Curb Concerts.” Violin virtuoso Jacques Gordon, a onetime child prodigy, performed for spare change on his priceless Stradivarius, incognito, for three-quarters of an hour outside a subway station. Most people hurried past, unheeding. The violinist made a few measly bucks and change. It was a story about artistic context, priorities and the soul-numbing gallop of modernity. Fairman’s story began: “A tattered beggar in an ancient frock coat, its color rusted by the years, gave a curbstone concert yesterday noon on windswept Michigan Avenue. Hundreds passed him by without a glance, and the golden notes that rose from his fiddle were swept by the breeze into unlistening ears …”
Both Jacques Gordon and Joshua Bell played Massenet’s “Meditation” from “Thais” and Schubert’s “Ave Maria.” Of the hundreds of people who walked by Gordon, only one recognized him for whom he was. Of the hundreds of people who walked by Bell, only one recognized him for whom he was. Gordon died twenty years before Bell was born but the younger man had heard of him. In fact, for ten years Bell played the same Strad that Gordon had once owned, the same one Gordon had played on the Chicago streets that day in 1930. By the way, Gordon earned $5.61 that day – the equivalent of $59.73 in today’s economy. Bell earned $32.17 which would be worth $32.35 today. AS the nation was recovering from the Great Depression, Gordon had earned more playing than Bell did playing in one of the more heavily traveled subway systems in the country.
How many hidden gems do we pass each and every day without noticing them? It may not be a concert violinist you hear but that young child singing while waiting for the school bus might someday become an opera star or pop sensation. I assure you that in your daily commute you pass by someone in need as well as someone helping others. The beauty of life is all around us. We just need to really open our living, take a moment and find it.