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Violinist Joshua Bell turns train station into concert hall to encourage arts education

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Did you hear the one about the famous violinist who played in a subway station, and no one noticed? Well, it was a different story today, and Jeffrey Brown was there.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It was a sight that almost no one watched as it happened, but gained much attention afterwards: a superstar of the classical music world, Joshua Bell, playing in a metro station in Washington D.C. in 2007, largely ignored by a few thousand commuters on their way to work. An article by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post about the event, or nonevent, won a Pulitzer Prize.

    Now 46, Joshua Bell has been performing in the world's greatest halls since he was a teenager. And he's recorded more than 40 albums, including a brand-new one of compositions by Bach. But something about the subway performance captured the imagination of many, and apparently of Bell himself, because there he was earlier today at Washington's Union Station metro.

    This time, though, the performance had been publicized. Bell brought along a group of young musicians he's been working with for an HBO master class program. And with word out that this was no mere busker asking for a few dollars, a crowd was on hand.

    Bell joined us to talk soon after.

    So, it was better this time?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JOSHUA BELL, Violinist:

    Yes, a lot better this time.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A lot better?

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    Yes, this was fun.

    I actually enjoyed it. I didn't enjoy it the first time around that much, but it was — although I was amused the first time around.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, wait a minute. Why did you not enjoy it?

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    Music, really, you need the give and take from the audience and the feeling of attention. And it's not about me.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Which you were not getting.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    It's not about me. It's not about my — attention to me. It's about the music itself.

    Part of the reason why I accepted to come here, by the invitation of Union Station, is that they said, this time, we're going to ask — tell people about it…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    … spread the word, and, hopefully, you will get a captive audience.

    And I said, you know, this is precisely what the whole original experiment, which wasn't scientific in any way, that's really what it was about.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    It all kind of raises the question of how classical music could should or could be presented, right? Should it be done in different venues? Should you try out different things? Should you reach people in different ways?

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    Well, I think — I'm always interested in reaching people in different ways, not by — not by just standing on a — randomly on a subway platform.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    With your case open.

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    With my case open. That's not really a great way.

    But this is an example of — I think this shows that there is interest in classical music from a wide range of people. This felt — I felt like this — I have to say, I felt like one of the Beatles today. This was great. People…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Well, you almost got the hair.

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    I don't normally get that kind of response, for people grabbing at me in the station. It was so fun for me.

    But I think there's — we need to experiment with more creative ways of reaching audiences.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    What about the idea — and I was thinking of this as they started clapping after the first movement.

    Sometimes, there's a discussion in classical music circles, you know, should we encourage people to clap?

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    Oh, yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Should it be a less formal experience?

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    Well, first of all, people, if you go back 100 years or 200 years, when the music of Mendelssohn was being performed, people did clap…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes.

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    … after the first moment.

    When Beethoven's Seventh Symphony was premiered, after the second movement, they clapped so much that they had the repeat the second movement and do it again. So, there was a different kind of vibe. And so when people today say, you're not supposed to clap, I actually say it's — historically, it's actually incorrect.

    And I enjoy — I enjoy it. When I hear people clapping at the wrong times, I think that's great. We have got a listener that's not used to going to — we have got a new listener. And that just — that excites me.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Yes, but you don't want to discourage that, right? So, do you…

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    So, I don't.

    I have had conductors, playing with conductors that turn around to the audience and say, don't clap. And then I will usually turn to the audience and say, come on, do it, do it.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    So…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    We often hear about the crisis of classical music, right, about the aging audience, about the…

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    Yes.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Do you sense that? Or do you — what do you see?JOSHUA BELL: Well, I think people have been talking about the aging audience for 100 years now.

    And they — somehow people keep replacing those older people, because I think the problem is that classical music, so often we come to it late in life, as you're looking for something, something in music that's not just about trend — being trendy and what's popular, but something that's profoundly affects you.

    And I think great classical music and jazz and other things — but I — there is no reason why we can't reach younger people. And I'm not pessimistic about it. I think there's — look at the young people there today. And I see…

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There were a lot of them, weren't there?

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    After every concert, I greet young people in the lobbies. And I see a huge surge of young people playing music.

    So — but I think where we need to work on is getting it, making sure that it's just part of everyone's educational diet in the school. Music and art is part of what it means to be a human being, and to make it just an extracurricular thing is sad, because most kids will not get any musical experience if they don't have it in their school at some point.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And yet that is happening in a lot of places.

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    It's happening.

    And that's what I'm — I'm spending a lot of energy trying to encourage change in that way. I'm working with Education Through Music, which is — ETM, which is an organization that puts classical music programs in or just music programs in inner-city schools that have no music programs.

    And I — we have seen incredible — the test scores go up all across the board. Their self-esteem of these kids that have an instrument in their hand and play together, it's — if you saw that, if anyone saw that, they would think it's ludicrous ever to cut out music from your school, and I hope people will get that message.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Speaking of young people, you yourself started as such a young person.

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    I did.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    You have been at this a long time. Do you feel a pressure to keep, I don't know, finding in new ways to do new repertoire, new approaches, new venues like this?

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    You know, it's not a pressure.

    It's just — for me it's a — the music world and the things that I want to do are so huge that it's just — the only thing that makes me sad is that there's not enough time in my lifetime to do all the things I want to do.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Are you done with subway stations for now?

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    I think this is a perfect end to the whole story.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    There have been a lot of chapters that I — were unanticipated. There's a children's book about it. There have been sermons from preachers and ministers. And politicians have talked — referenced the — and it's been kind of fun following the journey, but this I think was a perfect kind of cap, ending to the story.

    And I couldn't have been more pleased with it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    All right, Joshua Bell, thanks so much.

  • JOSHUA BELL:

    Oh, thank you. Thanks for having me today.

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