Pay Attention

Gene Weingarten’s Pulitzer prize winning story from the April 8, 2007 issue of the Washington Post tells about an experiment they conducted that involved the young virtuoso violinist, Joshua Bell, performing in a busy Washington, D.C. subway station during the morning rush. If you haven’t heard about this or read the article, I suggest that after you’re done here, you take a look. The Post asked Bell to dress as a street musician in jeans and baseball cap and play with an open violin case at his feet to see what would happen. When they asked Leonard Slatkin, the conductor of the National Symphony, to imagine what would occur, he predicted that at minimum, a hundred people or so would gather to listen. A pretty humble prediction considering that Bell is arguably the greatest violinist on the planet and that he would be playing a Stradivarius valued at 3.5 million dollars in a place with great acoustics. The article goes on:

Bell decided to begin with ‘Chaconne from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Bell calls it ‘not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history. It’s a spiritually powerful piece, emotionally powerful, structurally perfect. Plus, it was written for a solo violin, so I won’t be cheating with some half-assed version.’

Bell didn’t say it, but Bach’s ‘Chaconne’ is also considered one of the most difficult violin pieces to master. Many try; few succeed. It’s exhaustingly long — 14 minutes — and consists entirely of a single, succinct musical progression repeated in dozens of variations to create a dauntingly complex architecture of sound. Composed around 1720, on the eve of the European Enlightenment, it is said to be a celebration of the breadth of human possibility.”

On the Post’s website (link above) you can watch a couple of minutes of video and listen to the entire audio recording of the 45 minutes that Bell played. In spite of the background train and human noise, I find the music passionate and soulful.

As you might guess by now, a lot fewer than 100 people stopped to listen.

“Seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.

No, Mr. Slatkin, there was never a crowd, not even for a second.”

Reading this catapulted me back to Paris, 1965, when I was seeking maybe not my fortune, but at least a few francs for a meal and a bed by playing traditional blues and fingerpicking folk songs like “Railroad Bill” and “Freight Train.” Before I learned the ropes, I was thoroughly ignored. Like the Bell experiment showed, context is all important. No one paid attention a solitary guy with a guitar on a Left Bank street corner at one in the afternoon no matter how well he played the blues (medium OK, I’d humbly submit). But, find an attractive young woman to pass the hat, work a crowded café at dusk when everyone’s having their apéritif, et voilà, the five franc notes would fall like lovely autumn leaves into the hat. Later, when I hooked up with a Yemenite-Israeli Gospel singer between her bookings with “Big Jones and his Little Sisters,” an American quartet she fronted, passing as African-American, real crowds would gather until a squad of gendarmes would break the party up.

I also thought of the Native American blessing that one may walk in beauty. Years after my street-singing days, when I was going off on a long and arduous tour of Europe with TJT, someone advised me to always look for experiences of beauty as I traveled. It was wonderful advice because it opened my attention to the possibilities that are part of every moment.

In relation to the “Muse,” attention is paramount. Inspiration lurks everywhere, whether it comes in the form of angelic music offered up freely in the unlikeliest of venues, or the faint call of a bird at the edge of morning or an overheard story.

In some forms of Buddhist meditation, the only instruction is to pay attention.You can start with the breath, but you’re told that your mind will, of course, wander, so pay attention to its very wandering. If thoughts start pouring or zooming through your mind, pay attention to the thoughts. Don’t believe them or take them seriously, just pay attention, notice that thoughts are moving through your field of awareness. Or bodily sensations, sounds, memories, emotions.

That same kind of attention, the kind that doesn’t judge or choose or try to change anything is also essential to any kind of improvisation, which is to say, essential to the creative act.

Check my latest newsletter for some related books and some experiments, exercises and games to help wake up your own muse.

photos c corey fischer

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