Image courtesy of Frinck51 via Wikimedia Commons.

In the middle of the morning rush hour, a fellow with a violin sets up shop in the metro station. He wears jeans, a black long-sleeved T-shirt, a baseball cap. His violin case lays open on the floor, seeded with a couple of his own dollars and change.

While he plays 6 classical pieces hundreds of people pass by. Only a few pause to listen. At the finish of each piece, no one applauds. The violinist feels awkward but he continues for 3/4 of an hour.

He collects $32 for his efforts.

Here are several possibilities of what happened:

  1. The story is real and the violinist is an accomplished musician playing an expensive violin.
  2. The story is fiction, possibly about a seriously-ill child or spouse who needs money for an operation.
  3. The story is real, and is about a violinist who had shown great potential but due to circumstances his career never quite got off the ground.

Any of these choices could be correct. Or parts of each choice could be put together to form another story. For instance, the violin is expensive, the violinist’s career never got off the ground, and he is trying to raise money for an operation.

In truth, the violinist is the world-renowned, Joshua Bell. His violin is a $3.5 million Stradivarius. He played in the metro station was a scheme cooked up with Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten to assess people’s perceptions.

Imagine the reality that all those passersby would have experienced, the stories they could have told, had they known who was playing the violin! Or, had they simply stopped to listen and recognized the beauty of the music. Or. if only one of them had started to applaud. If any of these possibilities, or any of an infinity of other possibilities, would have occurred a completely different reality would have been created.

Reality has more to do with perception than with what we call “reality.”

A verification of the story and a longer synopsis is at Snopes.

This event took place in 2007 and the whole story is “Pearls Before Breakfast.” Weingarten won a Pulitzer Prize for the article.

You can see that video of this event on youtube.