Joshua Bell’s parents thought they should buy him a violin when at the age of four, he strung elastic bands across his drawers and was replicating classical pieces by ear, moving the drawers in and out to vary the pitch.
He’s now celebrated as being one of the most talented musicians of his generation, playing to sell out crowds around the world.
His violin was handcrafted by Antonio Stradavari in 1713 during the Italian master’s “golden period”, toward the end of his career, when he had access to the finest spruce, maple and willow, and when his technique was honed to perfection.
According to Bell, “If you shaved off a millimetre of wood in any direction it would totally imbalance the sound.”
There have never been any violins made that sound better than those from the 1710s.
Bell is reported to have paid 3.5 million dollars for it.
He was asked to take part in an experiment organised by the Washington Post: to play as a busker on the subway, to see how people would react.
The organisers’ main concern was how to manage the large crowd that would surely grow around him.
Bell played a 45 minute set of some of the most beautiful pieces of violin music ever written, to commuters filing past on a January morning.
The opening of his first piece, Bach’s “Chaconne”, widely considered one of the finest pieces of violin music ever writer, is filled with a building sense of a we. Bell barely looked up, consumed as he was by capturing the emotion of the narrative.
Eventually he stole a sidelong glance.
“It was a strange feeling that people were actually ah… Ignoring me.”
Over one thousand people walked past him in that time, donating a total of £32.17.
A small handful of people paused for a few minutes. Every child tried to stop and listen but was pulled on by an adult.
One lady, who had been at his concert a few weeks recognised him. “It was the most astonishing thing I’ve ever seen in Washington,” she said.
“Joshua Bell was standing there playing at rush hour, and people were not stopping, and not even looking, and some were flipping quarters at him! Quarters! I wouldn’t do that to anybody. I was thinking, Omigosh, what kind of a city do I live in that this could happen?”
On one level it’s not that surprising. We’ve all walked past buskers were making beautiful music, and either not broken stride or just paused long enough to drop off some change. When you’re on your way somewhere, you don’t necessarily want to make time for an impromptu concert.
But then again, if we’re too busy to enjoy one of the best violinists in the world playing some of the most beautiful pieces ever written on one of the finest violins ever made, what are we living for? Are we too busy to enjoy being alive?!
In the immortal words of W. H. Davies:
“What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.”
There was also a famous study called “The good samaritan”, which found that the more of a hurry people were in, the less likely they were to stop and help a stranger in distress. Some people even stepped over the casualty lying on the floor.
I’ve just spent a weekend in Amsterdam where the pace of life if so much slower than London, and everyone is clearly far more relaxed and friendly. I found myself appreciating the people, the peaceful canals, the birdsong and the seven story trees outside our window.
Back in London, I’m often guilty of hurrying through the day, although I have slowed down a lot. I’ve noticed that what’s often driving my desire to cram more is trying to “make the most of every minute”. Not wanting to “waste time” waiting, looking out the window or just sitting doing nothing.
I used to try to maximise the time I was at the traffic lights on my bike by checking my emails.
I’m starting to realise what a tremendous waste of time living in such a way is, because instead of enjoying the present moment, I am rushing through it feeling tense or anxious. Other people become an object that’s in my way.
My experience of Amsterdam, and of every time I leave london, makes me realise that to a large extent we are the product of our environment. When we’re in a peaceful place, we tend to slow down, when we’re in a busy place, we tend to speed up.
But when you realise you’re rushing, you can consciously slow down, make time for people, smell the roses and give yourself a break. And every time I do, I enjoy life a little bit more.