The busker with the $3.5 million Stradivarius

  Next time you see a busker, do pay special attention, it could be someone world famous playing incognito.

The Washington Post carried out an experiment with world famous violinist Joshua Bell serenading commuters in a metro station near government offices. His performance normally sends shivers down the spines of his appreciate audiences. But, out of context, would his virtuoso performance attract the same kind of recognition?

Joshua , who plays to packed concert hall, discovered what it felt like to be ignored. Out of 1,097 people who passed by, only seven stopped and 27 gave money totalling $32. 

This intriguing and fascinating report describes what happened when he played six classical pieces, how children were drawn to his music rather than adults, but were hurried along by their parents. You can hear him playing his pieces; how anyone could have ignored Ave Maria I do not know, I have it listed to be played at my funeral

Would you have been too busy to notice that this was no ordinary busker?  How many people stop for buskers and give throw them some some spare cash? Actually, buskers do tend to be quiet talented in Cambridge and draw in the crowds – and lots of money. I shall look out for Joshua, just in case he repeats the experiment my nearby city, there’s a good pitch outside Boots.

It makes me wonder ….

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

— from “Leisure,” by W.H. Davies

Hat tip: Geoff.


  1. jmb, Maybe the Washington Post wanted to test if Joshua’s music was so spellbinding that it would stop commuters in their track.

  2. Hi Ellee,
    I thought this was the cutest story, but frankly they were setting themselves up for failure because people going to work can’t stop since they are probably late already.
    I was surprised at how nervous Joshua Bell said he was.
    Grand Central Station in New York auditions its buskers and the quality there is superb.

  3. Richard, That’s an excellent story, it certainly makes the point, thank you.

  4. Not quite the same but it makes a similar point.

    It used to be that when you visited any A&R man’s office, in any record label, and you would find him surrounded by tapes. Later it became CDs and now his computer is jammed with MP3 downloads. Whatever the medium eager hopefuls bombard Mr A&R and it’s his job is to try and sort the wheat from the chaff. Every artist who has made it, and who hasn’t, has a demo tape story. One band were so frustrated by the whole process that they submitted a tape of Steely Dan tracks to an A&R man, needless to say they got the rejection letter.

  5. Vicky, I would love to hear you play some time. I started learning the clarinet four years and aspire to play the Adagio from Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto. I’m not up to busking standard yet, though I’m working on it. I can’t imagine you as a rebel teenager, btw.

  6. I always give money to buskers if they are playing well and cheer me up. I get furoius with people who stop, listen and enjoy but then don’t contribute to the hat. As a rebel teenager in London I took my clarinet to the tube stations and used to have profitable times… but I was quite an accomplished player back then.

  7. Michelle

    There is a great response to the Joshua Bell article by a NYC subway musician in her blog.
    She interprets the situation differently from the Washington Post reporters… I thought you might find it interesting.

  8. Hi Ellee, what an interesting post. Christchurch (New Zealand) is known as a bit of a haven for buskers, and there are plenty of areas where there are lots of people and not many cars for them to ply their trade.
    I know of one person who won’t speak to me about how much she earns, but she can almost make a living off busking on her saxophone. Mind you, she lives with her parents and uses the busking to get gigs in bars, so I suppose that’s really where she earns.

    I always like to pay attention to buskers, and if I have time i’ll stop. If I like what they’re playing I’ll find a dollar or two to throw in. If the buskers are children, then I am so impressed that they get away from the TV and make the effort that if I don’t have the cash – I’ll withdraw some. Those sorts of people need all the support we can give them. 🙂

  9. electro-kevin

    Anyway, it looks as though I may be getting my own ‘contract’ soon, except that I don’t think it will be a MUSIC contract unfortunately 🙁

  10. electro-kevin

    I like Oasis too, but I don’t think they were anything special. Their music is derivative and their technique is about grade 1 or 2 – probably less if you take account of the fact that they can’t sight read at all and that they have very limited right hand ability.

    Not being a snob, I just couldn’t stand by while they were being lauded for their ‘virtuosity’ when I’ve seen so many live bands of that era that could have filled the same gap that they did.

  11. I like Oasis Kev and I disagree unless you mean in the sense of being virtuosi..if thats the word

  12. electro-kevin

    Young children are great judges of good music.

    Some of the best musicians I’ve heard have been buskers, one of them was at night on the steps leading towards Sacre-Coeur Paris. I also had a portrait of my wife drawn that evening by a street artist – all very talented people making for a memorable evening.

    I could sit and listen to some of these musicians for hours and it really goes to prove that fame is so often born of luck and not necessarily ability.

    I once took part in an exchange in one of the guitar magazines regarding the abilities of the band Oasis whom I regard as being novice musicians.

  13. It was brave of the musician to do it. How interesting that the children were instinctively better judges of the music than the adults. There used to be some talented buskers in Cardiff, too, and there are one or two non-Italian ones who walk around playing the accordion here. But the latter approach you and more or less demand money and I don’t like that.

  14. PAGANINI-He once sawed off one of his strings just to show he could play a Concerto with the remaining three and played notes never before produced.

    Odd to think we will never know what it sounded like there being no record .
    It has always fascinated me that despite numerous references to it at the time of the American civil war noone knows what the Rebel Yell actually sounded like. Whole cultures in fact , like the Celts , have left little for us to know who and what they were. The Greeks called the sky Bronze and we cannot know what they actually saw

    They say that the whole Literary output of the Classical world would fit on two stout bookcases and reconstructing that world is like positing ours from the contents of a waste paper basket.

    Future Historians of Ellee Seymour on the other hand have more to work on already so there is no danger of you being lost.

    Right back to work

  15. Newmania, You are a fountain of knowledge, and I loved the poem. I read up on Paganini after your comment about him, composers had such interesting lives, I am glad there were those who broke the mould left a wonderful legacy:

  16. BTW…we can do a little better than the advert can`t we ?

    Calm is all nature as a resting wheel.
    The kine are couched upon the dewy grass;
    The horse alone, seen dimly as I pass,
    Is cropping audibly his later meal:
    Dark is the ground; a slumber seems to steal
    O’er vale, and mountain, and the starless sky.
    Now, in this blank of things, a harmony,
    Home-felt, and home-created, comes to heal
    That grief for which the senses still supply
    Fresh food; for only then, when memory
    Is hushed, am I at rest. My Friends! restrain
    Those busy cares that would allay my pain;
    Oh! leave me to myself, nor let me feel
    The officious touch that makes me droop again.

    ( Wordsworth)

    People don`t seem to like the Romantics much any more but I do .

    Ooops sorry Elle I`ve dribbled on a bit on your blog today

  17. Oddly enough I would have said somewhat the opposite. On two occasions I have bought the CD from the opera singers ” Busking ” in Covent Garden, they sounded marvellous our of context but in context and compared to the greats not half as good.
    I am a great fan of live music and wish the licensing laws were such as to allow more of it. There is no noise problem as one man can blast your head off with a speaker nowadays.

    On “Classical ” Music can I pass on a good tip to your readers Ellee. You may find some 20th century composers forbidding or indeed anything after the Romantic Period .( or before) . I find if I am listening to atonal or dissonant music that if you imagine it as the sound track to a film you find that you have a rich language sitting there to understand what you are listening to and if you try to picture the scene or the atmosphere that the sounds make then you have an easy way into the most difficult of pieces. Of course I expect that many that look in are so exquisitely cultivated as not to need any such help.

    I had a further thought about Classical Composers that this violin related bit reminds me of. Pagannini was the first ever superstar complete with women grabbing at his clothes and so on ..( Oh I know the problem). He wrote some well regarded Violin Music notable , as you expect , for its extreme technical difficulty. Paggannini is commonly regarded as a performer who composed a bit. It had never occurred to me before that many of the great composers were not just good players but had reputations as players that exceeded their reputations as composers at periods of their lives.
    Mozart , Liszt , Chopin are three who one forgets, would have been word famous if they had never written a note .

    If only I had one talent

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *