A Violin, a Subway Station and a Lesson from Aristotle

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. 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, the young man 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. He was Joshua Bell, an internationally acclaimed, Grammy Award-winning virtuoso violinist.

Only days earlier, Bell had played the same violin—a handcrafted Stradivarius that was made in 1713—to a sold-out audience at Boston’s spectacular Symphony Hall, considered 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; although, to be fair to the commuters, it was rush hour and many people cannot afford to show up late for work. If this experiment had been repeated on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, or in a venue such as a shopping mall, I suspect that the results would have been different.

However, there is a lesson in this story that is relevant for public speakers, and it is a lesson that takes us all the way back to the foundations of rhetoric that were established centuries ago by Aristotle.

My friend, Conor Neill, an entrepreneur and teacher at IESE Business School in Barcelona, 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. Rather than say more at this point, I’ll hand over to Conor.

The lesson for speakers is that if you want your message to be heeded by your audience, you must make sure that all three rhetorical pillars—logos, ethos and pathos—are in place and set upon a firm foundation.

We will return to the subject of rhetoric (and Rhetoric) in future posts. In the meantime, if you are interested, 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 play at the Library of Congress!


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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4 Responses to A Violin, a Subway Station and a Lesson from Aristotle

  1. Caldrin says:

    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.

    • John Zimmer says:

      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.



  2. Demon Testsdas says:

    Thanks for the great article.

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