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The Violinist

January 5, 2009

The author, Terry Hershey, is a man that I have met, and have come to appreciate his almost monk-like outlook on life. He is a proponent of simplifying, and, well, just chillin’ instead of getting so worked up about the stresses of life. Frankly, that’s why I appreciate him so much. I need to take the time to stop, so I don’t miss out on what’s most important…

This is a longer article, but one that pounded me nonetheless. We would do well to sit and stare like children every once in a while. You can see the video he is speaking about at

The Violinist

January 5, 2009

If I were to begin life again, I should
want it as it was. I would only
open my eyes a little more.
Jules Renard

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
WH Davies

By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in blue jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play.

On an ordinary Friday morning in January 2007, at the L’Enfant Metro station (Washington DC), a violinist performed six classical pieces. By count, 1,097 people passed by in the gray rush of modernity. In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped. About 20 gave him money, but the others continued to walk their normal pace. The violinist collected $32.

The violinist began with Bach’s partita No 2 in D minor (haunting and heart-rending), on a Stradivarius violin (crafted in 1713) worth 3.5 million dollars.

Who was this unrecognized mendicant?

Joshua Bell, one of the preeminent (and most famous, not to mention good-looking) musicians in the entire world. (Joshua’s performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment to see if people would actually stop and notice beauty in unexpected places.) (Some of the above from the Washington Post, 4/8/07.)

Would a crowd gather?
Would people willingly miss their trains, turn off their cell phones or take off their Ipods?
Would people slow down, be late for work inexplicably drawn in to the music?
The answer is no.

We see what we expect to see.
We hear what we want to hear.

And we experience what we anticipate we will experience.

And we do it with all the instinctiveness of breathing.
We do not expect to see a world-class musician on the side of the road, so we don’t see him, even if he is there.

There is a cynical part of me that wants to chide the Post for such an experiment. Of course, busy commuters will fail to stop and notice.

But this kind of experiment is not new. Lawrence Kushner writes that a similar test was tried a few thousand years ago. Kushner suggests that the “burning bush” was not a miracle. It was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention to something for more than a few minutes. When Moses did pay attention, God spoke.

The trick is to pay attention to what is going on around you long enough, to behold the miracle.

But then, Moses wasn’t hindered by an Ipod.

All of Earth is crammed with heaven,
and every common bush aflame with God;
but only those who see take off their shoes.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning

I’m sure I would have stopped, I tell myself. But, that could be wishful thinking.
Here’s what I do know: I have the choice every day. It may not be a Stradivarius, but it is the music of God nonetheless.

Yesterday was a very full and busy day. I was a man with deadlines, my mind whirling with appointments and commitments. I’m sitting on a ferry, heading west from Seattle toward Vashon Island.

It is a windy day and the white caps on Puget Sound roil and bluster. Outside my ferry window I see a foreboding sky. The sky is dark to the south, carrying a serious winter storm. It is just past dusk and the sun stays concealed behind the clouds that hang just above the Cascade Mountains. In this light, the mountains stand in relief, ranging in color from bruised blue to midnight black.

Vashon Island sits prominently in the foreground. As if on cue, a shaft of sunlight rents a seam in the cloud fabric, and glides across the waves toward the ferry. It is as if the sunlight is drawing the boat in the direction of the horizon.

The ferry rocks with a rhythmic sway from the waves. My breathing synchronizes with the rise and fall of the boat. There is solace and comfort. And I let go of my need for compulsion or urgency.
I pause.
And I hear music.

I watched the YouTube video of Joshua’s “performance.”
Here’s the curious part: the most attention comes from a 3-year-old boy. His mother is hurried, dragging the boy along. Even so, the kid stops, to look at the violinist. Finally, you see the mother push, and the child continues to walk, all the while turning his head to listen to the music. Throughout the video, it is the children who stop.

And all the parents, without exception, force them to move on.

The poet Billy Collins once noted that all babies are born with knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us.
It may be true with music too.

I would like to think that there is enough of a three-year-old in me that I would have stopped.
And listened.
And savored.
Even if only for a moment.
Just enough to be fed by music and beauty.
To take that gift with me into the day.

There is a Hopi (Native American) word “koyaanisqatsi.” It translates “life out of balance.” Of course it doesn’t take a long, unpronounceable word to know the problem. But it helps to know that it’s been around awhile. Life’s obligations impact us all. They pinch, constrain and put blinders on us. It’s not that I don’t pay attention, it’s just that with my blinders, I don’t even notice.

There’s a great story about a teenager who gave a few photos to her teacher. Each photo, a different angle of some cracks in the sidewalk, and the teacher assumed it was a mistake. But then the student explained she planned to send them to the school superintendent with a note, “Since you are sighted, you may not notice these cracks. They are a big problem since my white cane gets stuck.” The photo and story are in the book, Seeing Beyond Sight, photographs by blind teenagers, a wonderful “look” at miracles by those “cannot see.”

Perhaps that is our New Year resolution. To acknowledge our own blindness. To remove the cataracts from our souls, by letting go of what we expect to find before we begin the search.

So, if you are up for it, I am going to give you an assignment. For one day (or one hour), this week, turn off your cell phone. Put away the lists or work or pile of papers that beckon. Put away you Ipod.
Sit still.
Pay attention.
And listen for the violinist

But then, life is tough enough without having someone else make you feel worse about it. I just offer the prayer that, like the three-year-old, you keep your eyes and ears open, and your head turned toward the music.

As I write these words I lift up my head, and look outside my window, where a hummingbird sits at the feeder, his wings perfectly still. As if he’s saying, “I’m chillin’, this constant flapping is overrated.” You just made my day, I tell him.

Copyright © 2008 Terry Hershey. Terry Hershey: Sabbath Moment, Issue 57 — The violinist; emailed 1/5/09

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