Joshua Bell: Masterclass in becoming the most popular violinist in the world

It’s a famous experiment that won a Pulitzer. Gene Weingarten asked the famed violinist Joshua Bell to play his violin at a subway station in Washington DC to see how well he is received by the passers by. So Bell takes his $4 million Stradivarius violin and busks out 6 classical pieces flawlessly for 43 minutes!

1097 people pass him by. 7 people stop to listen. And 27 folks give their coins to him – earning him a total of $32.17!

The same Joshua Bell had played at the Boston symphony just 3 days prior. Where the cheapest seats were $100!

It shows us how context, presentation, and scarcity are necessary ingredients in making sure you earn what you deserve. Weingarten earned a Pulitzer for covering this experiment!

But it begs a question: how did Joshua Bell become one of the most famous violinists in the first place?

The genesis of Joshua Bell

Some people are born to play music. When Joshua was 4 years old, his mother found him playing with rubber bands. What was unique is that he had tied the rubber bands to handles of 9 dresser drawers. And he was strumming them to the sound of the piano he had heard his mother play earlier.

Some people are born to play music. And Joshua Bell is one of them. At age 5, he got his first violin. At age 12, he won a student competition that allowed him to perform as a sololist under the famed conductor Riccardo Muti. 

Bell had the talent. And he worked hard to improve his God given talent. But thats not all. He did everything he could to perfect his craft.

When he could ill afford it, he bought a $2 million violin. Took a loan and used the violin itself as collateral. When he heard that the Gibson ex Huberman Stradivarius violin was being sold to a German industrialist to be a part of a collection, he could not sit idle. He sold his $2 million violin and bought the Stradivarius for $3.5 million – taking a bigger loan on it to do so. He wanted the best instrument to improve his craft.

But there are many talented musicians with the best of equipment who don’t become famous. What set Joshua Bell apart?

The fame of Joshua Bell

Joshua Bell wandered. He went far and wide to play. A year before the demise of USSR, he went on his first tour to Russia. He was 22. Since then, he has travelled to various parts of the world and played with many different orchestras and conductors.

That’s not all. He is one of the few people who are always up to play a new work. Most of the time, violinists only play the classics, or their own new tunes. But Bell is often open to perform new works by other artists. He is willing to go beyond the traditional classical music space. He has ventured into folk, bluegrass, jazz and other styles.

It’s this habit of his of chasing the new that worked well for him. But not when he was chasing new countries or new music. But when he started chasing new audiences.

Playing in orchestras didn’t make Bell famous. Recording his performances and making it available did. When he saw that CDs were getting popular, he recorded 40 CDs of his performances! He was one of the very few violinists to do so.

And beyond that, he parlayed this initial fame and started looking for opportunities to play at places where he would find fans who hadn’t heard his music before. He went to Hollywood. He performed on TV shows like “Sesame Street” and “The Tonight Show.” He played his music for a few movies. 

Which made him the most famous violinist out there.

Action Summary:

  • If you are good, the more people who hear about you, the more famous you’ll get. It’s obvious but yet, very few people consciously chase new audiences. 
  • Expand your audience base. Work with others who have a fan base. Go to new places. Use the up and coming new technology. Do new things to expand your audience.