Spend enough time around 57th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York City, and you’re bound to be asked for directions to Carnegie Hall. “Which way to Carnegie Hall?” “Where is Carnegie Hall?” “What’s the address for Carnegie Hall?”
Almost never does one ask the “how” question. Because everyone knows how you get to Carnegie Hall. You practice.
Other than Denial—that famous river in Egypt—no other global destination has a more well-known joke associated with itself than Carnegie Hall. A pedestrian on 57th Street sees a musician getting out of a cab and asks, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” Without pause, the artist replies wearily, “Practice.”
The punch line is often attributed to Jascha Heifetz or Artur Rubinstein, sometimes to an anonymous musician or taxi driver, and once even to a beatnik, who, in a 1960 telling, replied “Practice, man, practice.” At some point, the line was given a triple flourish: “Practice, practice, practice.”
Today, the joke doesn’t even need the framing device. Most just ask “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” and sit back waiting for the inevitable response to come.
For such a famous joke, its origins remain a mystery. Some have hypothesized that it came from vaudeville, but the earliest known written accounts are from the mid-1950s, which might suggest Borscht Belt humor from the Catskills resorts popular at the time. One of the early published versions, though not the first, came in a 1955 collection of jokes by Random House founder Bennett Cerf.
Carnegie Hall archivist Gino Francesconi says that the best version he’s heard involved violinist Mischa Elman. As the story goes, Elman was walking from Carnegie Hall toward his hotel following a rehearsal. He wasn’t happy with his playing and had his head down. Two tourists who saw his violin case asked him the question. Without looking up, he replied, “Practice.”
“He was impish enough and known for his sense of humor to come up with it,” says Francesconi.
This article first appeared in Carnegie Hall: 125 Years of an Iconic Music Venue’s Most Remarkable People and Memorable Events, available at carnegiehall.org/125th_Anniversary_Magazine.
Illustration by Daniel Mrgan