About ten years ago, renowned violinist Joshua Bell decided to do an experiment with the help of The Washington Post. Dressed casually, he walked into a busy subway station in Washington D.C. and started playing. Then, he waited. Would the music stop anyone in their tracks?
In the video, more than a thousand people passed by the famous musician – most without even so much as a glance. But when Toronto author Kathy Stinson read the article, something caught her eye:
“Every time a child passed through the station, the child wanted to stop – and every time the adult with them dragged them on to wherever they were going. And so I thought well there’s got to be a children’s book in this experience, right?”
With Joshua Bell’s permission, Stinson ended up writing a children’s book about the subway experiment called The Man With The Violin. The book went on to win several awards and even became a short animated film backed by a live orchestra.
Now Stinson has come out with another book on the violinist and Indiana native, called The Dance of the Violin.
It’s about Bell’s first time playing in a music competition, which just happened to be the Stulberg International String Competition in Kalamazoo. Bell says he was 12 at the time and one of the youngest musicians there:
“It’s one of the most memorable moments on stage for me because when I first started playing…it was the beginning of the Lalo Symphonie Espagnole. It’s a very virtuosic violin piece which starts off with like the equivalent of starting off with a triple axle if you were a skater, like right at the very beginning. And I just completely flubbed it, my fingers fell off of the finger board and I just completely missed it. And instead of going on I actually stopped and I said, ‘I’d like to start again, please.’ And I’d never done that before and I remember actually after I did that I was so relaxed because I thought that’s it, I’m not going to win it anyway. I’m just going to enjoy and play my best.”
Stinson says she liked the story, but she didn’t want to beat readers over the head with the story’s message. Instead she says she tried to have the readers experience the competition along with Bell.
“A 12-year-old Joshua Bell, for example, wouldn’t be experiencing something in a way that becomes like a lesson for kids,” says Stinson.
Stinson also used a few classical phrases that she thinks Bell would have known at that age – like prestissimo and adagio.
“Words that sound neat and give the story authenticity for the readers who know music, but aren’t so technical that a child or reader who doesn’t know music won’t get from the context what’s going on, what it’s about,” she says.
Bell says despite his mistake, he ended up winning third prize.
“The next year I came back and I won the first prize and came and played with the Kalamazoo Symphony as part of the prize after that,” he says.
Bell says classical musicians sometimes put too much pressure on themselves to be perfect during a performance:
“People sometimes think it’s a competition, you make one mistake you’re out. It’s not about that. Music is not about that. If I were a judge – and I was a judge once at the Kalamazoo competition many years ago, I came back and judged one – what I look for is personality and something personal. Someone with something to say through their music and not just playing the notes. So yeah, I would recommend they just be themselves and let it rip.”