I play the violin. I play less often than in high school, when I played in a local youth orchestra, or sat in for a few weekend gigs with a bluegrass/folk group. I even briefly considered majoring in music. (I chose finance and business economics instead). I also make furniture. Over the years, I have often wondered about how violinmakers make violins - and what makes the really great instruments sound so beautiful. It turns out that small differences make a huge difference!
So I read Guy Kawasaki's post today with great interest. He reviewed The Violin Maker by John Marchese. I will buy the book and read it. What really blew me away, though, was a story that was recommended to Kawasaki about an incredible experiment in Washington DC. That story appeared in the Washington Post and is called “Pearls Before Breakfast” by Gene Weingarten.
In the experiment, Joshua Bell, one of the most incredible violinists of our time, poses as a street musician in a DC Metro station during the morning commute. The question was what would happen when a virtuoso picks a spot in the station, flips open his violin case, tunes up his Stradivarius and starts playing some of the most amazing music ever written for the instrument.
What was it like for Joshua Bell?
"Before he began, Bell hadn't known what to expect. What he does know is that, for some reason, he was nervous.
"It wasn't exactly stage fright, but there were butterflies," he says. "I was stressing a little."
Bell has played, literally, before crowned heads of Europe. Why the anxiety at the Washington Metro?
"When you play for ticket-holders," Bell explains, "you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I'm already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don't like me? What if they resent my presence . . ." "
As you might guess, the story would be interesting no matter how it turned out. But let me offer 2 options.
Story ending 1 has a mob of fans instantly recognize maestro Bell, triggering a riot. The Strad gets destroyed in the chaos and the DC riot police are dispatched to restore order. Fans of classical music worldwide mourn the destruction of the rare instrument and criticize both Bell and the Washington Post for such a capricious and risky stunt.
Story ending 2 has few people notice; almost no one stops to listen. Bell plays for 43 minutes and collects around $32 in small bills and loose change in his open case. When he finishes each piece of music, there is no applause. He simply re-tunes his instrument and moves on to the next masterpiece.
Of course, version 2 is what actually happened (but don't be angry for knowing the ending in advance. You will want to read the article to learn the back stories of several people who rushed through the station that morning!).
Same artist, same music, same violin - just a slight, but critical difference - the venue and audience - creates the difference between standing ovation and uncomfortable silence. What can we learn from this experiment?
Here is Guy Kawasaki's comment:
Maybe that people make assessments about quality based on context and the rest of the herd. (The Violin Maker mentions a story, perhaps apocryphal, about how another world-class musician played a concert with a cheap violin, and the audience had no idea that he did so.) Or, maybe it illustrates what happens to people who are around politicians, lobbyists, and lawyers all the time…
If anyone from the Washington Post reads this, I have two suggestions: First, take a so-so violinist, hand him a Stradivari, introduce him as a wunderkind from the Black Forest, let him play as the opening act at a ritzy concert, and see if the audience fawns over him.
Second, get Steve Jobs to sell iPods for forty-five minutes in a BestBuy in South Dakota and observe what happens.
The lessons that I gleaned from this story are:
Don’t let the absence of trappings and popularity make you believe something is bad.
Don’t let the presence of trappings and popularity make you believe something is good.
Don’t pass by life much less let life pass you by.
I would add a few observations of my own:
- Choose your venue, your clients, your colleagues well. Find a place where your talents and value will be appreciated.
- Stretch, explore new avenues of expression. Joshua Bell had an opportunity to experience something he probably had not felt for some time: the need to prove himself with a new audience. Embrace the discomfort.
- Find a way to get people into conversation. Only one person recognized and spoke with Bell and expressed gratitude. People may be curious about what you have to offer - they may even marvel at it. To get people to turn off their MP3 player and engage with you, you may have to do something special.
- Keep your eyes and ears open to possibility. While few adults took notice of the music, the instrument or the virtuoso, every child who passed Joshua Bell, stretched, twisted and wrestled with their hurried parent to see and hear more. Be open to unexpected gifts and take the time to enjoy them!
You may find yourself from time to time feeling a bit like Joshua Bell - you are playing your heart out, but no one seems to be listening. Keep experimenting until you find the right combination of audience, music, venue and opportunity.
What do you think:
- Can you think of examples of where a change in audience or venue made a difference in the success of you or your company?
- When breaking into a new segment, playing a new venue, how do YOU get started? What kinds of conversations matter most?