Would Joshua Bell Stop To Listen To A Violinist In A Subway?

… And other pressing questions ahead of the Bloomington-born musician’s performances with the ISO this week.

Ahead of the Bloomington-born violinist’s performances with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra October 5–7, we talked memorable mishaps, performing for presidents, and the whole Pulitzer Prize–winning subway-experiment story.

When was the first moment you thought, Hey, I could make a career out of this?
It was around the time I started studying in Bloomington with Josef Gingold, when I was 12. Gingold was such a great inspiration—the way he loved music so much made me want to be a musician myself. Then I started making a little money from competitions and getting paid for playing and, little by little, I started to realize it could work.
How has your playing changed since the beginning of your career?
As you grow as a musician, you get a deeper understanding of music; you’re constantly refining the ways you look at standard pieces that you’ve been playing since you were young. When I listen back to old recordings I did when I was a teenager, I think, My gosh, how much more I understand the pieces that I was doing back then. I feel I can play them much better now.
How many hours a day do you practice?
It really varies. I’d like to practice three hours a day, but there are other times when I’m cramming playing five hours in a day. And then there are other days where I’m traveling or have so much going on that I hardly get to practice at all.
What’s on your tour playlist?
I tend not to listen to music when I have a free moment because I’ve got so much in my head all the time—I actually just got in the car, and I asked the driver, “Can you turn off the music?” because I love to have silence.
What’s going through your head while you’re performing?
Eighty or 90 percent is just inside the music. The only way I could describe it would be the way an actor’s inside a role they’re playing; you just become the music.
Do you have a memorable story from a particular performance?
I’ve played for a couple of presidents; I’ve played at the White House; I played at Red Square in Moscow. As far as stories, I’ve had mishaps—I’ve had food poisoning; I had to run offstage and throw up in the middle of a concert; I’ve knocked the strings off my violin by accident in the middle of a concert.
Where did you get food poisoning?
That was in Alaska, but I’ve had it a few times on concert days where I’ve had a 104 fever and I still perform, which is really, really difficult. I’ve been in situations where I almost cannot stand up, but I had to get out on stage and play—you know, the adrenaline, the audience waiting for me, I just find a way to muster the energy.
We have to ask about the subway experiment you did with the Washington Post in 2007—the one that asked, if you were in a D.C. commuter’s shoes, would you stop and listen to a violinist in the subway? (Note: Bell was the subject of a Pulitzer Prize–winning feature story by Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten in which he played his violin incognito outside a D.C. subway station for 45 minutes. He went largely unrecognized and earned only $32.17.)
As a violinist, if performers recognize me and I don’t stop, it certainly reflects badly on me considering my story. I think if there was someone playing an instrument or a performer that was special in some way, I definitely would pay attention, but I’m probably more open to that than most people who are rushing to work.
Is there a place where you haven’t performed, but would like to?
I’ve had the good fortune of playing with pretty much every major orchestra in most of the concert halls, but I don’t get to travel to places like Africa or Southeast Asia where they don’t have so much classical music. Those seem like amazing places to visit.
Joshua Bell will perform with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra on Thursday, October 5, at 11 a.m.; Friday, October 6, at 8 p.m.; and Saturday, October 7, at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are available here.