Over a career that spanned four decades, concertgoers have routinely paid a lot of money to hear Phil Smith play the trumpet. The long-time principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic retired last year to a professorship at the University of Georgia after 36 years in the orchestra. In his first professional audition, while still a student, he won a place in the Chicago Symphony. While still in his 20s, Phil came to New York following just his second professional audition.
“For the past thirty-six years, Smith has presided over orchestral trumpet playing, with a resonant, clarion sound and a reputation for never missing a note,” according to The New Yorker magazine. He has been, inarguably, one of the world’s great performers.
The classical music world is tuned in to Phil’s greatness. Less well-known is that Smith grew up in a Salvation Army family, playing cornet on street corners and in church bands. Phil was gifted enough to make it into Julliard despite having no formal training. His father, a Salvation Army cornet soloist, was his only teacher.
Perhaps surprisingly, Phil never gave up playing with the Army. He still plays with them, often anonymously. As the Associated Press reported, “Philip Smith trumpets for God by the little red kettle, when he can still find the chance. He loves the whole thing: The ‘Sharing is Caring’ sign. The elderly veterans who tell him how Salvation Army volunteers handed out doughnuts during World War II. The young people who stand appreciatively as he hits the high notes in ‘O Holy Night.’”
“You’re terrific,’ one young man told him. “You should play music for a living.”
Sometimes near Christmas Phil would slip out of Avery Fisher Hall after a performance with the Philharmonic, change jackets, and join some Army brass in front of a kettle. He didn’t hear “Bravo!” there. In that context, people who had just paid a lot of money to applaud his virtuosity would routinely ignore him and his music. It was as if he was hiding in plain sight.
In nearly every context and situation, we routinely hear, see and perceive exactly what we expect. No more and no less. Since concertgoers (or more precisely, concert-leavers) didn’t expect a world-class performer to be playing with the Salvation Army on a street corner for free, they didn’t notice when one was doing just that.
Similarly, the virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell, dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt and a Washington Nationals baseball cap, busked for change outside a Washington, D.C. Metro station in 2007, playing some of the masterworks of the classical repertoire on a 1713 Stradivarius for which he is reported to have paid $3.5 million.
Three days before he showed up at the Metro station, Bell had filled the house at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where merely decent seats had gone for $100 a pop. In a concert hall, Bell earns over $1,000 per minute to play before packed houses of adoring fans. But during the three-quarters of an hour that Bell played during rush hour on that January day, one solitary listener recognized Bell. Only seven people stopped what they were doing to hang around and take in the performance, at least for a minute. Twenty-seven gave money, most of them on the run — totaling a meager $32.17.
After each of the six pieces Bell played was concluded, there was no applause or recognition of any kind. Hundreds upon hundreds of people hurried by, oblivious to the proximate greatness.