Emily Shroder ’11 teamed up this spring with a three million dollar violin, the L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station and — most importantly — a Washington Post reporter to produce a 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning article.
In early 2007, Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten contacted Tom Shroder, editor of The Washington Post Magazine and father of College student Emily Shroder, who was a high school senior at the time. Weingarten wanted to conduct a unique social experiment for a future newspaper article. If one of the best violinists in the world performed in disguise as a street musician, the writer wondered, would Washington commuters stop and listen?
Shroder was excited about the prospect of the experiment.
“I used to play the violin, and so when Gene mentioned this idea to my father, my dad thought I might find the premise of the article interesting,” Shroder said. “I was very intrigued by it, and when he invited me to miss school one day last spring and go with him to the metro station to help out, I was happy to.”
Joshua Bell, a young world-class violinist, donned jeans and a Washington Nationals baseball cap and went to L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station in Washington D.C. He laid out a case to collect donations and began playing his three-and-a-half million dollar Gibson ex Huberman violin. Accustomed to sold-out performances around the world, Bell played nearly an hour to an estimated audience of 1,000 rushing D.C. commuters. “The purpose was to see how people would react to his exquisite performance, in the guise of a common street musician.
Unfortunately, almost everyone ignored him, providing a thought-provoking perspective of our society,” Schroder said.
Other than contributing her violin case to Bell, Shroder, along with her father and Rachel Manteuffel ’06, was given the job of observing the responses of commuters.
“Whenever I saw a reaction to Josh that I found interesting or important, whether it was completely ignoring him or standing and watching in awe, I had to wait for them to walk about 150 yards away and then start speed-walking,” Shroder said. “I had to approach each person I chose, tell them that I was with the Washington Post, and ask if they would be willing to participate in a story on commuting.
Weingarten later contacted these commuters to inquire about their memories of the morning, attempting not to link the fake premise with Bell’s performance. Shroder also had the responsibility of watching the footage from a hidden camera in the Metro Station. She was to note any reactions the reporters may have missed and to link them with the commuters’ personal reactions from the phone conversations. There were few who did not simply ignore Bell, but Shroder noted one response.
“The main thing that came out of this was the observation that every single child that passed turned to look at Josh play, while their parents rushed them along,” she said. “This was a very humbling observation — our young children recognize musical genius better than adults do.”
As a parting gift that morning, Bell gave Shroder an autograph and the $57 thrown into the violin case, but months later, she received another reward for her contribution. The Washington Post nominated Weingarten’s article about the experiment, titled “Pearls Before Breakfast,” for the $10,000 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. When the Pulitzer Prizes were announced on April 7, the article Schroder contributed to was among the winners.
“The announcement of the Pulitzers was very exciting. For one thing, the Washington Post had won six this year, which is the most they’ve ever won, so the mood in the newsroom was very electric and excited,” Schroder said. “The entire newsroom gathered around and watched as the official announcement came over the news posting on the computer screens, and everyone erupted in cheers, hugging each other and offering the writers congratulations.”
Later, each of the winning writers made speeches to the newsroom assembly. “The writer was kind enough to mention me in his speech, which of course made me feel very special and embarrassed, being the only 18-year-old in the room,” Shroder said.
Shroder plans to major in government at the College and to work in U.S. foreign relations after graduation. Though she said journalism is not in her future, the experience remains with Shroder.
“This story was more than a fun experiment; it truly gave insight into our society and inspired a great deal of discussion. Religious leaders were even mentioning it in their sermons. To be a part of this was a great honor, and I am glad that I was able to help Gene to construct such a masterful article.”
For a link to the winning article and its accompanying videos, go to www.wm.edu/scholarships.