A Violin, a Subway Station and a Lesson from Aristotle

Joshua Bell and the violin

At approximately 7:45 on a chilly Friday morning in January 2007, a young man with a violin case entered one of the subway stations in Washington, D.C. His name was Joshua Bell.

He took up a position near a wall and a garbage can, took out his violin and positioned the open case so that passers-by could throw in some spare change. And then he began to play.

For 45 minutes, Joshua Bell played a variety of pieces by Bach while more than 1,000 walked by. Only a few stopped to listen; only a few made a donation; and only one person recognized the man. Joshua Bell is an internationally acclaimed, Grammy Award-winning virtuoso violinist.

Only days earlier, Bell had played the same violin—a handcrafted Stradivarius made in 1713—to a sold-out audience at Boston’s spectacular Symphony Hall, one of the finest concert halls in the world. Tickets for that concert sold for $100 or more a seat. Bell’s take for his performance in the subway station? Around $30.

Now, there are a number of lessons that one might draw from this incident. “Stop and smell the roses” springs to mind. (To be fair to the commuters, it was rush hour and many people cannot show up late for work.) If Bell had played on the weekend, or in a venue such as a shopping mall, the results would likely have been different.

There is a lesson in this story for public speakers. It is a lesson that takes us all the way back to Aristotle’s foundations of rhetoric established centuries ago.

My friend, Conor Neill, is an entrepreneur and teacher at IESE Business School in Barcelona. He has collaborated with others to create this short TEDEd lesson that examines Joshua Bell’s subway concert in the context of the three pillars of persuasion handed down by Aristotle in his seminal work, Rhetoric: logos; ethos; and pathos.

The lesson for speakers is clear. If you want your audience to get your message, you must make sure that all three rhetorical pillars are in place.

We will return to the subject of rhetoric (and Rhetoric) in future posts. In the meantime, you can read the Washington Post article about Bell’s subway experience. And, set out below, is a short video of the incident. Note the woman at the end who recognized Bell as she had recently seen him at the Library of Congress!

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  1. I recently read an article on how books on people’s wish lists differ from the ones they actually read. Maybe the same applies to the violin concert. Maybe people who spent 100$ on a concert ticket don’t do it because the like classical music. Instead they – maybe – want to be seen as someone who likes classical music by others and themselves.

    1. An interesting viewpoint, Caldrin. Thanks for sharing it. I can see how some people – especially those who have money – could easily do this. Regardless, it reminds me of something I once read: Too many people spend money they don’t have on things they don’t want to impress people they don’t like.

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