Hearing the Music

The Washington Post magazine recently performed an interesting experiment: They had world-renowned concert violinist Joshua Bell pose as a street musician. He took his 1713 Stradivarius violin to a Washington, D.C. subway station during the morning commute and played six pieces for forty-three minutes. What would happen? Would people notice his virtuosity? Would they stop and listen? How much money would they give him? I found the results of the experiment fascinating, in part because they seem to echo what A Course in Miracles says about the nature of perception.

The assumption was that he would draw a crowd; the Post editors were concerned about crowd control. Surely people in a sophisticated city like Washington would know greatness when they heard it. Surely some people would recognize Bell. Leonard Slatkin, music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, guessed that about seventy-five to a hundred people would stop to listen, and Bell would make about $150. The actual results, however, dashed those assumptions. There was never a crowd. Out of over a thousand people who walked by, only seven watched for more than a minute, and only once was more than one person watching at a time (and then it was only two). Only one person recognized Bell. Only twenty-seven people gave any money. Not including the twenty dollars put in by the person who recognized Bell (since the large amount was influenced by that recognition), this virtuoso who normally makes about $1000 a minute playing for crowds who pay $100 a pop just for “pretty good seats” made a total of $32.17.

The Post story presents a number of theories about why this happened, including the idea that people are too busy to stop and appreciate beauty. Personally, I think the experiment would have been better if they had done it when people were on their way home after work rather than on their way to work. After all, when your boss wants you there at 9, you’d better be there at 9—even I, who love classical music, might have just walked by if my job depended on it. (Notice the comment below by the former violin student who was enraptured by the performance but “needed to go to work.”)

But it’s still an interesting little experiment, even if inconclusive, and the theory that intrigues me most says that what happened had a lot to do with perception. The essence of the theory is that people didn’t notice Bell because he was “art without a frame,” lacking the setting in which people normally see him. Because of the setting he was in, people who saw Bell didn’t put him in the mental category of “world renowned concert violinist.” Instead, they put him in the category of “street musician” and acted accordingly. As a result, their ears were effectively deaf to the beautiful music that was being played right in front of them.

A few people, however, did manage to see past the setting and appreciate what they were experiencing. Most of them had musical training themselves. A guitar-playing worker at a coffee shop at the station said, “You could tell in one second that this guy was good, that he was clearly a professional. Most people, they play music; they don’t feel it. Well, that man was feeling it.” A former violin student who needed to go to work was so enraptured that she said to another onlooker, “I really don’t want to leave.” Another former violin student watched transfixed for nine minutes, and said, “This was a superb violinist. I’ve never heard anyone of that caliber….It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day.” He watched people stream by and couldn’t understand why they were so oblivious: “Other people just were not getting it. It just wasn’t registering. That was baffling to me.”

A Course in Miracles says that we perceive our entire world the way so many people were apparently perceiving Joshua Bell at the subway station. We project our own artificial mental categories onto the world, then fit everything we see into them: “The mind classifies what the body’s eyes bring to it according to its preconceived values, judging where each sense datum fits best” (M-8.4:3). As a result of this process, we see what we expect to see, conclude that therefore our artificial categories must be true, and thus miss what is really there.

“Street musician” is one of those categories, of course, but the Course claims that the prize category we’re looking for is “external sinner.” When we identify with the ego, we want to see sin in the world, so we can justify our ego’s attacks and make those attacks appear “innocent.” So, we search the world for evidence of sin. Sure enough, we find lots of “sinners” out there, shoehorning everything we see into our preferred category whether it really fits or not. Therefore, we conclude that the category of “external sinner” must be true, and thus miss the glorious fact that everyone is really an innocent Son of God.

The Course’s program aims to give us something analogous to what those people who appreciated Bell’s music had. Just as their musical training enabled them to set aside the category of “street musician” and hear the sublime beauty that was really there in Bell’s performance, so the Course’s program gives us mind training that will enable us to set aside our artificial categories—especially “external sinner”— and see the sublime innocence that is really there in our brothers. Through training in forgiveness, we learn to look past the whole picture we have of other people and let the face of Christ in them be revealed to us. The Course’s promise is that when we do this, we will at last hear the music, the song of Heaven that has always been there:

A melody is heard that everyone remembers, though he has not heard it since before all time began. Forgiveness, once complete, brings timelessness so close the song of Heaven can be heard, not with the ears, but with the holiness that never left the altar that abides forever deep within the Son of God. And when he hears this song again, he knows he never heard it not. (T-29.IX.8:4-6)

Source of material commented on: Pearls Before Breakfast: Can one of the nation’s great musicians cut through the fog of a D.C. rush hour? Let’s find out.

[Please note: ACIM passages quoted in this article reference the Foundation for Inner Peace (FIP) Edition.]
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