Washington DC, at a Metro Station, on a cold January morning in 2007, this man with a violin played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. People rushed past on their way to work. After about 3 minutes, a middle-aged man noticed that there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds, and then he hurried on to meet his schedule. 

photo: Indiana University

photo: Indiana University

About 4 minutes later: 

The violinist received his first dollar. A woman threw money in the hat and, without stopping, continued to walk.

At 6 minutes: 

A young man leaned against the wall to listen to him, then looked at his watch and started to walk again. 

At 10 minutes:

A 3-year old boy stopped, but his mother tugged him along hurriedly. This action was repeated by several other children, but every parent – without exception – forced their children to move on quickly.

At 45 minutes:

He finished playing. He had collected $32.17 contributed by 27 of 1097 travellers. He collected $32.17 contributed by 27 of 1097 travellers. Just seven stopped to listen and only one recognized him.

The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest musicians in the world. 

 He had just played one of the most intricate pieces ever written, with a handcrafted 1713 Stradivarius violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before, he had sold-out a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100 each to sit and listen to him play exactly the same music.

This scenario was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and people’s priorities. 

The UK Sunday Times ran a similar experiment. 

 In 1971 VS Naipaul won the Booker Prize for ‘In a Free State’, his novel about displaced colonials on different continents. Dennis Potter, the TV dramatist of it at the time,  wrote: “Do not miss the exhilaration of catching one of our most accomplished writers reaching towards the full stretch of his talent.”


The Sunday Times sent out the opening chapter of ‘In a Free State’ to 20 London literary agents.

Only the names of the author and main characters were changed. 

Typical was the polite rejection from PFD, a major London literary agency, wrote: “Having considered your material, we do not feel, we are sorry to say, sufficiently enthusiastic or confident about it.”

How do we perceive quality? Would any of us recognize talent in an unexpected context? Do we find something worthwhile because it is good – or because others say it is?

Incidentally The Washington Post won a Pulitzer prize in the feature writing category for Gene Weingarten’s April 2007 story about this experiment. 

I wonder if he’d win it if it was published in the Bayou Bugle?

Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Egypt‘Spectacular historical fiction blazing with intrigue, romance and dramatic action’

– Booklist




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I’m away for the next 3 weeks so there’s no newsletter this month – and I’m re-running the best of my very earliest posts that you may have missed. I hope you like them.

Holy Week, Easter, Spain


About colinfalconer

author of bestselling historical novels like Anastasia, When We Were Gods, Aztec and Harem. My books have been published in the UK, US and ANZ and translated into seventeen languages.
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6 Responses to WHAT PRICE TALENT?

  1. ritaroberts says:

    What a fascinating story. I sure would know good music when I heard it but maybe not the person playing it.

  2. ritaroberts says:

    What a fascinating story. I sure would know good music when I heard it but maybe not the person playing it. However I would stop and listen.

    • There are some amazing musicians playing in the Old City here – I’m damned sure I could walk straight past this guy and not know, philistine that I am. It’s an interesting point about context, isn’t it?

  3. Debra Kristi says:

    Isn’t that amazing? It just goes to show how much we miss when we’re in too much of a hurry to slow down and pay attention. Thanks for another great post, Colin. Enjoy your time away.

    • There’s some amazing musicians play in the old city here and I have the horrible feeling that if Joshuah Bell started playing outside the cathedral I might just put a euro in his hat and walk on by. But I’ll pay 20 Euros to go inside and listen to the concerto de aranjuez and not know who’s playing it. Made me think, too!

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