A few days ago, as I was reading the New York Times, I came across an article entitled Global Anthems for Saxophone, by Corey Kilgannon, about a musician that makes his living by playing the saxophone on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. At first, I was mostly wondering why the New York Times had chosen to write about this guy, as opposed to the thousands of other music performers. But it turns out that Isaiah Richardson Jr. has found the key to entertaining the masses of people that walk in and out of the Met every day: he plays different countries’ national anthems. As he put it in the article, “Nothing works like playing something that people know.” I find that so interesting and very true as well. Even in classical music, there is something so wonderful about listening to a piece you have heard hundreds of time already. And even people who know little to nothing about classical music will recognize the opening of Beethoven’s fifth symphony, and would probably like to hear the rest of it if given the opportunity.
I found Isaiah’s story particularly interesting, as I recalled Joshua Bell’s incident in a D.C. subway station several years back. The Washington Post had made a big deal about how the average person does not recognize greatness even when it is right in front of them. Of course, my own thoughts go to the fact that Joshua Bell was playing during rush hour early in the morning. In my opinion the experiment shed little light on whether people care about beautiful things or not. I’ll admit that even if I heard a great violinist at 7am and was rushing to get to work, I probably wouldn’t take the time to stop and listen either, although I might appreciate the gift of beautiful music as I’m walking by.
And then, there’s also the fact that I’ve played in the Boston T several times myself, (in the evenings) and while I’ve experienced a variety of responses, most of my time spent underground has been a lot of fun, eye-opening, and inspiring. As a violinist, I’ve made it my purpose to learn and to know all six Bach sonatas and partitas for solo violin with the idea that no matter where I go, I can just pull out my instrument and play some really great music - and I’ve done just that in the T. The first time I played, I found a spot at Copley station, and after an hour’s worth of music, I packed up and counted $46. I can honestly say that I was not expecting to make much money at all, and I was thrilled to see that I could use this performance space not only to practice performing but also to help with my general expenses. I continued to perform and ventured to the red line at Park Street, where I more than doubled my earnings. But what I found fascinating was the way people reacted. Sure, many people went about their days and didn’t give me a second look. But often, people sat near me and listened, or stood near or far down the platform, but you could tell they were there and they were listening. The experience also made me realize that appearances are deceiving. Those who “look” like they listen to classical music were rarely the people who gave me money. On the other hand, there were so many young people who took the time to pull out a dollar and put it in my case. I ventured away from Bach once, and decided to play Isaye’s sonata no 2 for solo violin, which uses the dies irae theme intermittently throughout the work. This young guy in dreads and baggy pants sat there as I played, and when I finished he said, “dude, that was sick!” What a huge compliment, and how fun it was to play gigues and allemandes for him for the next half hour!The experience has done a lot for me in many ways, one of which has been the realization that people actually like classical music. Its future certainly lies in the hands of the younger generations, but I think it might be easier to grab their attention than we think.