Choosing When to Feel Emotion

Watching Joshua Bell play the violin makes me forget to breathe.

Yes, I know that sounds like such a cliche, but in my case it was literally true. As I watched Bell play the violin at the Strathmore Friday night, several times I realized I was holding my breath through a phrase of music, and sometimes through more than one phrase, which left me a little lightheaded.

And I don’t even really like classical music. But I really wanted to like Joshua Bell.

So the unexpected visceral reaction made me wonder: how much of the emotion we feel when listening to music is a matter of us wanting to feel a particular emotion, rather than being truly inspired by the music itself?

Pretty much everybody in the world (I exaggerate, but only a bit) has read the article Gene Weingarten wrote for Washington Post Magazine in 2007, “Pearls Before Breakfast.”

The impetus for the article was an experiment of sorts: if one of the world’s greatest violinists (Bell) masquerades as a street musician in a Metro station during morning rush hour, will anyone recognize that they are hearing something far beyond the level of most other street musicians?

The answer, almost universally, was no.

In Weingarten’s article, he contemplates the reasons for this. Which I won’t go into: you should read the article (Weingarten won a Pulitzer for it, by the way).

But Weingarten’s article did come to mind as I left the Strathmore after listening to Bell play with, as well as conduct, the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, a London chamber orchestra for which he has served as Music Director since 2011.

I’d heard Bell’s music previously via CD and iTunes. I wasn’t actually that impressed, although I wanted to be.

But watching and listening to Bell in person is another story altogether.

He’s unexpected. At 44, he’s much younger than one thinks a classical musician should be, and especially young for a conductor. (I heard this mentioned several times in overheard conversations while at the Strathmore. Yes I like to eavesdrop; people are interesting).

Bell also moves a lot as he plays and conducts. And the visual intensity leads to a sense of anticipation you don’t get when you’re just listening to music, or when you’re watching a bunch of musicians who are just sort of… sitting there.

I admit that I went to the concert with high expectations. I wanted to see this virtuoso and I wanted to feel what everybody else seemed to feel when they watch him play.

Weingarten asked a somewhat obvious question in his article:

If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that — then what else are we missing?

Well, yes. And that’s why I bought a ticket to see Joshua Bell play at the Strathmore, despite not exactly being a fan of classical music.

Would I have paid any attention if Bell had been playing in my Metro station five years ago? Probably not.

I’m almost always running late in the morning and don’t have time to stop, but I do hear about 60 seconds of any given musician while I’m riding the escalator from the station to the street.

With all the background noise, cars honking, sirens, people yelling, and the escalator making that funny screeching noise that sounds as if it’s dying, I have no idea if any of the street musicians I have heard in my Metro station are good. Sometimes I’ll hear a song I recognize and like, and that will usually remind me to throw in a dollar or two.

If I heard Bell in my Metro station tomorrow, I probably still wouldn’t notice. I don’t want to be awestruck during my morning commute. It’s all I can manage to not run into any fellow pedestrians, not get run over on the escalator, and not get hit by a car while I’m crossing K Street. If I stopped to listen to music, any or all of those three things would probably happen, possibly all at the same time.

But I arrived at the Strathmore intending to hear music that would make me swoon. And so I did.

I do think it was because I chose to feel that way, not because I can tell the difference between good violin and great violin. But does it matter? I’ll take a swoon where I can get it.

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