The sound of silence

I’m a big fan of quiet. But a deafening silence from my audience after I finish a requested song is usually not a good sign.

Ada noticed that people were asking me for specific songs, so one Friday as she passed by the piano she asked, “Do you know any Finnish music?”

My quick mental search came up empty. I was hoping she had a tune in mind. “Like what?”

“Something by Sibelius.”

The only song I knew by Finnish composer Jean Sibelius was his patriotic “Finlandia,” a classical piece I like, and one I played years ago as a cellist in a community orchestra. Toward the end of the work, there’s a serene melody used as the basis for a handful of Christian hymns, including one by Lloyd Stone in 1934, known as “This Is My Song.” (Mary Travers recorded it as “Song of Peace.”) Here’s a choral version of that well-known section of “Finlandia,” in a flashmob* performance:

For Ada, I found a solo piano arrangement of the “Finlandia” theme, practiced it, and played it the next time I visited the senior apartment complex where she lives.

The response of my audience? Silence. I’d like to think they were stunned by the beauty of the music. Or maybe it was just too different from what they are used to hearing me play. I’ll never know. But the incident had been on my mind for a long time when I read The Fiddler in the Subway, a collection of essays by Gene Weingarten, a Washington Post journalist. In the title essay, Weingarten tells the story of a musical experiment involving superstar classical violinist Joshua Bell.

Bell agreed to busk in the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station in Washington DC, just to see how people would react. Would they recognize him as other than a common street musician?

For his subway stunt, Bell set up during rush hour, dressed in jeans and baseball cap, his open instrument case at his feet. He performed six classical masterworks on his 1713 Stradivarius, a total of 43 minutes of sublime music. Of the 1,097 people who passed by, seven stopped to listen for a minute or so. He made $32.17.

In his essay, Weingarten describes Bell’s six worst moments, captured on the hidden-camera video of the event:

“It’s what happens right after each piece ends: nothing. The music stops. The same people who hadn’t noticed him playing don’t notice that he has finished. No applause, no acknowledgment. So Bell just saws out a small, nervous chord—the embarrassed musician’s equivalent of ‘Er, okay, moving right along …’—and begins the next piece.”

Bell, too, watched the video.

“It was a strange feeling, that people were actually, ah… ignoring me… I’m surprised at the number of people who don’t pay any attention at all, as if I’m invisible. Because, you know what? I’m makin’ a lot of noise!”

It helps to know that also happens—on occasion—to the very best.

Copyright © 2014 by Paulette Bochnig Sharkey
All rights reserved.

* “Flashmob” means a surprise group performance—seemingly impromptu but actually precisely planned—in a public place.

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This entry was posted in Audiences, Piano performance, Volunteering and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The sound of silence

  1. Sharon Regan says:

    We all scream for ice cream. (: Always enjoy your blog. Sharon

  2. June ritchie says:

    To bad people are so engrossed in phone calls and e mails and in themselves, that they can pass pure beauty and never stop to listen,

  3. Mary Bochnig says:

    That video was beautiful. I thought for sure the little old lady who asked you about Finnish music was being a smart aleck and actually asking you to finish playing music.

  4. Aunt Evie says:

    A touching story and sad that many people don’t really “hear” their surroundings. I for one do not like silence. The TV or music is going whether I’m in the same room or not. Curious.

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