A performance on the subway

This Friday evening, as I was riding the subway, five dark-haired Italian boys entered the compartment. One of them gestured with his arms and made a loud announcement. 

“We’re here to give you one hell of a performance. A concerto!”

His companions whipped out a trumpet and a couple of Flugelhorns (small brass trumpets). One of them switched on a portable karaoke machine.They were off! The machine bellowed out the background for When the Saints go marching in. Their instruments hummed to life. Their faces exuded confidence, and so did their every move. The audience was captivated, with one lady recording the performance on her phone. Barely 30 seconds in, a boy went around with a cup, collecting money. In a minute or so, they had sung the chorus and brandished a few extrapolations on their instruments. The next station came around and they disappeared as quickly as they entered.

Now if the lady who recorded this performance (and paid about €3 for it), were to look at it again on her phone, she would realize several things. The length of the video would be about 40 seconds or so, of which the first portion is merely a build up. Most of the music actually came from the karaoke machine, with the boys just topping it off with uncoordinated notes. Their solo in the end was but a cacophonous flurry of random notes. The performers were amateur musicians. They performed their little trick and were out quicker than the audience could see it.

On the surface, this seems like deception. Their build-up was excessive. Their music was sub-standard, and mostly machine made. Their performance was short. They promised more than what they actually offered.

But there is more to this than meets the eye. They came in the guise of musicians, but performed like magicians. They were quick, but they delighted the audience enough to part with their money. They were salesmen whose skill could only be sensed, but not described.

That skill is called charm.

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