About five and half years ago the Washington Post conducted an experiment on context. Would people pay attention to the world’s finest violinist if he were playing in a subway and not in the concert hall? Joshua Bell, the world’s finest violinist, agreed to take part in this experiment. He played for 45 minutes– Bach’s Chaconne (the most difficult violin piece to master), Schubert’s Ave Maria, Ponce’s Estrellita, a piece by Massenet, and a Bach gavotte on his 3.5 million dollar Stradivarius at the L’Enfant Plaza Station in DC. 1,097 commuters entered the station during this 45 minutes. Only 27 put money in his violin case. 1, o7o people just walked on by. He made a total of $32.17. Only one person recognized him at the very end of his mini-concert.
Context is everything. Experience needs a frame to ground it properly in our perception. Without this grounding, only a very few of the most observant will be able to rise above the habitual and recognize, in this case, musical brilliance. For most of us, the framing of experience helps us to situate ourselves, to focus, to locate meaning and beauty. Without a frame we are too easily distracted, unable to organize or prioritize what we are experiencing. We need to learn to consciously reorient those frames to allow for more beauty more often.