Random vs. Ambush Performances

The recent NPR article about Random Acts of Classical Music got me thinking.

The performance of opera in Reading Terminal Market and the Hallelujah Chorus in Macy’s, may be random for the audience but certainly not random events for the performers. After all they all had to show up at a designated time, they were well-rehearsed, and in some cases they were in costume. These performances work because they are spectacles. And they are unexpected…for now. It’s fun for the performers to ambush the shoppers, and it’s a pleasant diversion for the audience. But it’s easy to see how the new trend of music making in market places could run amok. Imagine if you had to worry that you’d be trapped by a coloratura each time you ran into the store for a gallon of milk.

Joking aside, some random performances seemingly go unnoticed. Violinist, Joshua Bell’s random performance in  the L’enfant Plaza Metro Station was  virtually ignored, that is until Gene Weingarten wrote this piece for the Washington Post. Here again, Mr. Bell didn’t spontaneously decide to play in the subway one morning. He was pitched the idea while he was in Washington to perform and The Library of Congress. He thought of it as a “stunt.” But let’s give the audience the benefit of the doubt. We don’t know how many of the passers-by may have wished they could stop and listen, but unlike the marketplace audiences, these people had jobs to get to.  I for one don’t leave the house for work ten minutes early on the off chance I’ll run into something interesting on the way.

Of course the audience enjoys these performances whether they’re taken by surprise in Whole Foods or rushing through the subway.  But are these the type of performances that send kids home to practice, or convince them to apply to music school? I doubt it.

In my opinion, some truly random performances happen like this….

  • College students are allowed to play the piano in their dorm or student center whenever the mood strikes.
  • Friends take turns playing their pieces for each other when they visit each others homes.
  • The students in the school band or orchestra are encouraged to form chamber music groups.
  • The practice rooms in the high school that are left open during lunch and study hall for students who want to practice.
  • The music teacher in school sets aside the time to give his students a chance to try out the piano in the classroom.

I remember exactly what moved me to ask my parents for piano lessons. There was a piano in my second grade classroom and a friend of mine was chosen by the teacher to perform.

What did she play? Well, it really doesn’t matter but if you’re wondering, it was “America.”

3 thoughts on “Random vs. Ambush Performances

  1. Hi Cathy,

    I’m with you, and also have some comments.

    The DC commuters didn’t even look in Joshua Bell’s direction. Even if you were in a hurry, wouldn’t you? Or maybe it’s the norm in DC to look down.

    Coloraturas at the convenience store? I wouldn’t want to be ambushed, either. That would also include harmonica players.

    And when I see little kids watching a street performer in awe, I think that counts. Hopefully the parents will discuss the experience, follow up, and go to more musical events with their children.


    • True enough, Gretchen. It is strange, and a bit sad, that the DC commuters didn’t even look his way. It may have been different had he played in NYC – although it seems that most of the “successful” subway musicians are playing on the platform where the commuters are a captive audience.


      About street performers…yes. I’ve actually had more than one student come to their lesson after a trip to Boston and mention the street performers on Harvard Square in particular.

      The Street Piano Project is a good example where truly random performances get the audience involved in music making.


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