Street Musician Experiment – Joshua Bell

Have you heard about the experiment The Washington Post did with Joshua Bell back in 2007? Joshua Bell is a young violinist who sells out shows and performs for audiences worldwide. When he was approached to do an experiment that would test how many average people in Washington, DC appreciate classical music, he quickly agreed to participate.

Do you enjoy using authentic materials in class with your English learners?

metro This  Washington Post video and article describes what happened when the famous violinist set up beside a trash can in a busy metro station in Washington, DC. Before showing the video, ask your students what they think would occur if a famous violinist began playing in a busy metro station. Then ask them what they think the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra would have guessed if asked the same question. Here is the answer: “…out of 1,000 people, my guess is there might be 35 or 40 who will recognize the quality for what it is. Maybe 75 to 100 will stop and spend some time listening.”You don’t have to share the whole article with your English learners. Choose a few of the main points and have a discussion. If your students are more advanced, have them read the article. Turn these points into questions, or have them write out a summary:

  • Joshua played for 45 minutes during rush hour in the metro station.
  • Joshua was dressed in street clothes.
  • The first donation came after three minutes. A woman gave Joshua one dollar.
  • After six minutes one person stood to watch.
  • 27 people in total gave money. He earned $32.
  • 1070 people passed by without a glance.
  • About three people were extremely impressed.
  • One person recognized him and watched the rest of the show.
  • A crowd never formed.

“No one knew it, but the fiddler standing against a bare wall outside the Metro in an indoor arcade at the top of the escalators was one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most elegant music ever written on one of the most valuable violins ever made.” Washington Post, Pearls Before Breakfast

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Here are some ideas to get the conversation started after showing the video:

  • Why do you think most people walked by?
  • Do you think you would have passed by without thinking about it?
  • Would you have put some money in the case? Why or why not?
  • Do you and your friends appreciate classical music? Why or why not?
  • What can be learned from this experiment?
  • How do you think the woman who spoke to the musician felt after she left that day?
  • How do you think Joshua Bell felt after doing this experiment?
  • How do you think an average street performer would feel after seeing this video?
  • After seeing this video, do you think you will pay more attention to street performers? Why or why not?

While our Something to Talk About suggestions are useful for getting your students involved in a group or pair discussion or debate, the topics, articles, and videos can also be used if you are looking for something for your students to blog/Skype/or write an opinion essay about.  After this activity, you could also have your students go to a busy downtown area to enjoy the street entertainment. Ask them to describe what they saw. Do they view street performers differently now?

Related Lessons in the ESL-Library

Famous Things: Rock and Roll
Famous Things: Jazz
Famous People: Billie Holiday
Famous People: Louis Armstrong
Mini Biographies: Gospel and Jazz

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  1. Skype English Lesson says:

    Sep 29, 2011 at 10:51 am

    have you heard Andrew Bird? I love Andrew Bird!!


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