Resisting The Corruption Of The Violin

Recently I have been seeing stories about violin scammers. People performing in shopping centers and other public places with signs asking for money. What is interesting about these stories is that the claim of a scam is based on the fact these people are pretending to play violin to a recording.

There are some warnings about using payment apps to give these people money with the implication that the scammers will exploit that information in someway. But the real focus seems to be that these folks are representing themselves as having a skill they don’t possess.

There are a lot of complex factors to consider here. It is great for artists that there is some recognition of the value of discipline and training and the sense that you are being cheated of something if someone is taking shortcuts to represent themselves as having invested time into developing a skill.

On the other hand, things have seemed to come a long way since the Milli Vanilli lip syncing scandals of the late 80s.  It is pretty much an open secret that many performers lip sync and maybe even feign playing instruments to a backing track. It is less of a secret that a lot of performers use some degree of auto-tuning, vocal distortion, music sampling, etc.

So why is it viewed as problematic, bordering on illegal, that someone hanging out in a shopping mall parking lot is not a skilled musician?  If you enjoy what you hear and are moved to give money, why should it matter if it is live or Memorex?

Could it be that the negative perceptions of symphonic music being generally inaccessible and surrounded by inscrutable traditions and practices also lend the music and instruments an aura of incorruptibility?   In other words, if you employ an instrument of this genre to create music, it reflects an authentic investment of sweat equity, untouched by the compromises and shortcuts of other types of music.

It may be worth a closer examination of the social dynamics to more clearly determine what is at play.  It may be possible to leverage this sentiment to the greater benefit of artists and arts organizations.   I think the past has already illustrated that it would be a mistake to try to place the artists on a pedestal.  In general, it appears people already place them there on their own. If you read the stories, people are open to giving to the people they find in parking lots and are dismayed when they find out the music is recorded.

Over the years I have written about the whole experiment of having Joshua Bell perform in the D.C. metro, something that still annoys me to this day.  Environment and context are significant factors when it comes to a willingness to participate in an experience. Even though a parking lot or flash mob performance seems informal, there is a lot of work that needs to be done to make it successful for the audience.   I have written many posts about this, but perhaps the one that sums it up best covered a piece by Anne Midgette before she retired from the Washington Post.

Referencing Joshua Bell in the DC Metro, she wrote:

In the wake of that controversial performance, one busker said something that stuck with me: Musicians who regularly play on the street, from violinists to singers to trash-can drummers, learn how to connect with passersby in such a way that this doesn’t happen. Classical musicians aren’t usually trained to establish this kind of rapport..

and then later:

Outreach risks taking on a missionary, self-satisfied glow, getting caught up in the innate value of sharing such great music with those who have not been privileged to have been exposed to it. Lurking within this well-meaning construct is the toxic view of music as a kind of largesse: the idea that this music is better than the music you already like. The school concert, with all the best intentions, to some degree demonstrated that if classical music is offered in its own bubble, without context, it has little chance of really connecting with new audiences…

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


Leave a Comment