I love teaching stories, but there is a story like this that I’ve always found a bit annoying.
It’s the story of an experiment initiated by The Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten.
In 2007, incognito, and during the morning rush hour at a metro station in Washington, D.C., the internationally acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell played six classical pieces on a $3.5 million violin. He played for about 45 minutes, and only a handful of people stopped to listen—about a thousand people hurried by without a glance.
This situation is explained in several ways—for instance, as “inattentional blindness,” the phenomenon when we don’t perceive something because we’re paying attention to something else: we don’t hear the music because we’re rushing to the subway.
Or maybe, it’s sometimes pointed out, people may have ignored Joshua Bell because he had an open violin case and they didn’t want to help or give to him.
And this story is often noted ruefully, to say, look how distracted we are, we miss so much, we’re not paying attention, a great musician is playing and no one can take a moment to listen.
But I think that this test is a bit unfair. How many of us can really recognize an outstanding performance of classical music—how many people can truly judge for themselves, out of context, that a performer is truly a master? And also how many people have a deep appreciation for classical music?
Not that many people. Not me, for instance.
But what about popular music? There, people can judge much better and it has a bigger audience. What if you did something like this with a musician whose work is better known?
And it turns out, something like this was done, for a 2010 video I love called “Undercover Karaoke with Jewel.”
It was made by Funny or Die, which is a comedy video website and film/tv production company founded by several well-known comedians and writers, in collaboration with Jewel. Jewel is a very well-known American singer-songwriter who has been nominated four times for a Grammy and as of 2015, had sold more than 30 million albums.
They decided to try this stunt together.
The Funny or Die team dressed Jewel in an elaborate disguise, with a fake nose, a wig, fanny padding, frumpy pant suit, and a conference badge.
Then, in disguise, Jewel with members of Funny or Die went to a karaoke bar where they pretended to be a group from a frozen-food convention. At one point, this little group starts starts chanting “Karen! You’re coming up next! Karen!” (they’re pretending that Jewel is Karen), and after a few minutes, “Karen” reluctantly takes the stage.
When Karen/Jewel starts singing her hit song “Who Will Save Your Soul?” you can see. The audience recognizes how good she is. They don’t ignore it, they fall silent, their mouths drop open, they’re listening and looking around at each other in amazement, they’re awe-struck by her mastery. They call her back to sing again, and a guy notes, “This is the first time that there’s ever been an encore here.”
Then she does change out of her disguise, and comes out to sing as Jewel.
In his poem “Idylls of the King,” Tennyson wrote “We needs must love the highest when we see it.” When excellence is within our frame of reference, we do love it.