April 8, 2007

Stop and Hear the Music

Question: How often, as a pedestrian going to work, the store, or out for a stroll, do you really pay attention to what's going on around you? I mean no cell phone, no iPod, no mental checklists of all you have to get done that day - just a pure, simple appreciation of the moment? Of the beauty of things great and small? That was the question posed by the Washington Post in an article published today, entitled Pearls Before Breakfast. The premise of the article was simple - they asked a world-famous concert violinist (Joshua Bell, for connoisseurs of classical music) to play at a D.C. Metro station for 45 minutes one busy workday morning, to see how many people stopped and took notice of the presence of unadulterated beauty. Post editors feared crowd control issues - surely in a town as erudite as Washington, D.C. commuters would recognize the gifted musician. Would you be surprised to learn that, in the 43 minutes he played, only 7 people stopped to watch and 27 gave money, amounting to $32.17?

Of course, you could argue that these are busy (as a former resident of the D.C. area, I'd also describe them as self-important) people, how could we expect them to have the time to stop for a street musician? But that, of course, is the problem. Why don't we have time to pause, if just for a minute, to acknowledge the presence of something which is not only out of the ordinary, but truly extraordinary? The advent of the iPod and the cellphone allow us to retreat from the world into spheres of our own creation - to distract ourselves with entertainment or conversations of our own choosing. We create the soundtrack for our lives. We avoid potentially awkward interactions with strangers because we've decided that the voice on the other end of the line is immensely more relevant than the physical world around us. Randomness, spontaneity, unlooked for moments of emotion or spirituality are lost to us. When I visited Paris two years ago, I noticed how few people held the electronics so dear to Americans next to their ears - almost no one chatted on a cell phone or shuffled through their iPod playlists. I can't say this made them more aware of the world around them - but they seemed less like the isolated zombies so many Americans are and more like engaged citizens.

The article points out that context, of course, matters - that art isn't art unless we know it, unless we have a frame to place it in, whether that be the literal gilt frames of an art museum or the larger one of a concert hall. Is beauty, then, something of which people are only aware when they are told it is beautiful, when it has received the approval of experts? Should we not be able, as rational, emotional creatures, to know beauty when we see it, hear it, taste it? It seems that children do - every single child who saw Bell watched him eagerly, while their parents hurried them away. Yes, children are easily distracted by all kinds of stimuli and just as easily bored, so we can hardly conclude that these children truly appreciated Bell's mastery. But they are not yet tainted by the adult desire to be on one's way as quickly as possible, by the adult ability to tune out their surroundings in pursuit of seemingly more important tasks, by the adult disinclination to recognize artistry in daily life.

I'm not insisting we have to turn off our cell phones and iPods - often, listening to music can help relieve the boredom of a routine commute while the phone can help us stay in touch with loved ones. But maybe once a week, just try it - try to live in the moment, try to be aware of the little bits of beauty in the world.


Joyful Girl said...

What a wonderfully written article about an interesting and relevant topic! This weekend, I lost my iPod on a train, and I think it's for the best. Life without an iPod forces you to really pay attention to the world on your commute, maybe use a walkman so that you actually select specific music, or have more incentive to create mixes. Coming back home and listening to music is more special when it's not a constant. This isn't to say that mp3 players aren't wonderful things, but there's something to be said for not relying on them as much.

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.

Laura said...

This is something I've been trying to get myself to do for quite some time. I don't constantly have the electronics against my ears, but often I do have trouble getting myself out of my own thoughts. When I silence the mental ramblings, though, it often stops me in my tracks how beautiful the things I'd been blocking out really are.

One of the things the head of the music department at Drew tries to get students to do is to listen to everything in one's environment, even if one does not consider it to be beautiful - just to appreciate its sound (and one's ability to hear it). If we apply that to the other senses as well, imagine how vibrant and joyful our everyday experience could be! It's not about stopping to smell the roses, it's about slowing down enough to really allow oneself to live.