April 12, 2007: A 39-year-old man stationed himself next to a trash bin at the L'Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington, D.C. He had on a sweatshirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. He was a busker—a street entertainer familiar to those who frequent public transportation. He opened a violin case and seeded it with some change. He started to play. He did not play just anything; he started with a Bach that is one of the most challenging pieces for violin. And he was not playing just any violin: He was playing a 1713 violin handcrafted by Stradivari, so famous it had been stolen twice.
The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the greatest today. He was an accomplice with The Washington Post newspaper and willingly participated in an experiment: Would the greatest violinist in the world, playing the best music ever written on the most expensive violin, get anybody's attention at rush hour? He looked like a common street entertainer, standing by a trash barrel. What happened?
It was 3 minutes into his performance, and after 63 people had rushed by, that one man finally slowed down and looked—but did not stop. It was six minutes into it before one man stopped, leaned against a wall, and listened. In total, 1,070 people rushed by without giving any attention at all for 15 minutes. Twenty-seven people threw change in as they were running by, for a total of $32. Josh Bell usually makes $1,000 per minute at concerts.
The resulting newspaper article won a Pulitzer Prize. One line of print leaps out to me: "He is the one who is real. They are the ghosts."
Something about incognito stories grabs your attention: greatness unnoticed, talent ignored, fame overlooked. The first Easter Sunday evening has the greatest ...
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Dr. Joel C. Gregory is Director of the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching, holder of the George W. Truett Endowed Chair of Preaching and Evangelism at Baylor's Truett Seminary, and the founder of Joel Gregory Ministries.