Art Without a Frame

Washington Post Staff Writer, Gene Weingarten shared a story in the Sunday edition on April 8, 2007.


It seems that on the morning of January 12th, 2007, Joshua Bell stepped into the L’Enfant Plaza of the Washington DC Metro station and offered a free concert to commuters there.  Wearing jeans and a baseball cap, he stood against a wall near a trash can and played his violin.   

Most of the commuters in the station that morning were mid-level bureaucrat federal workers with titles like, policy analyst, project manager, budget officer, specialist, facilitator, and/or consultant.   Evidently none of these well-educated, skilled people knew the impressive title of Joshua Bell

Knowing the man playing the violin that morning was an “American Grammy Award-winning violinist“, or “one of the finest classical musicians in the world” may have caused the commuters to pause and listen.  Maybe the fact that Joshua Bell plays a 300-year-old Stradivarius violin would have, at least, aroused curiosity in the people who walked by while he played that day in the station.  And surely, once a musician of such caliber begins to play a piece of music like “Chaconne” from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor (which has been called, “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history“), people would take notice, stop and listen, and drink in the magnificent sound.

But that IS NOT what happened.  According to the article, Mr. Weingarten reports that, in the three-quarters of an hour that Joshua Bell played, seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — for a total of $32 and change. That leaves the 1,070 people who hurried by, oblivious, many only three feet away, few even turning to look.  $32 for a man whose talents can command $1,000 a minute.

You may read the entire Washington Post story here: Pearls Before Breakfast

Following this experiment, Joshua Bell said, “at a music hall, I’ll get upset if someone coughs or if someone’s cellphone goes off.  But here, my expectations quickly diminished. I started to appreciate any acknowledgment, even a slight glance up. I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.” 

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 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 . . .

Joshua Bell was, in short, art without a frame.


I was reminded of this story because of an experience I recently heard about – a story that has very similar outcomes to Joshua Bell’s story. 

It seems that a business owner hired “Mack”, a talented consultant, whom the business owner had met before.  The business owner had personally witnessed Mack’s strong work ethic and varied skills.  Mack was hired by the business owner to accomplish a very specific task in the business.

Mack accepted a position as an employee in the business – with the idea that once the specific task was completed successfully, the business owner would see the worth of Mack’s skills.  Mack wanted to be viewed as a consultant to this business owner, and they agreed that after a 90-day period working together, that the business owner would pay Mack closer to his professional rate and their relationship would move more toward a partnership and away from an employer/employee relationship.

Well, just as in the case of Joshua Bell, the business owner in Mack’s story did not understand the worth of Mack’s talent and skill.  Even though the specific project was successfully completed, Mack’s position as an employee was hard to shake.  After 90 days, the business owner did not renegotiate the terms of their relationship with Mack, and instead kept treating Mack as an employee – including wages well below Mack’s worth.

Mack, on the other hand, felt that if he kept providing examples of his talent, and continued to serve the business owner with the tools of his consulting knowledge, that the business owner would see the worth of his position as a consultant, and that Mack would be paid what he was worth.  Mack believed that it would surely work out in the end, and that this business owner would become a client instead of an employer.

But that IS NOT what happened.  Mack reports that, in the 22-months that he’s worked with this business, and has provided the company with “solutions to their greatest challenges, tools, resources and innovative ways to improve essential aspects of the business, and opportunities to have greater security and safety in the business“, Mack has been given a $1 an hour raise.   

Mack, like Joshua Bell is “Art Without A Frame”. 

This business owner, like the commuters in the DC Metro Station, can’t see the pearls before him.  Many of us don’t know the priceless opportunities before us, or the valuable relationships we have been blessed with  We get too busy to stop, listen and drink in the music and the talent around us.

Are you guilty of this? 
Are there people you work with who are pearls in their talents and abilities? 
Are there individuals that add to your life, your business, or your happiness that you have failed to notice or value? 

Are you a pearl? 
Are you someone who, for whatever reason is not being valued? 
If so, what can you do to change the situation? 
What could Joshua Bell have done? 
What could Mack have done?

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