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Alan David Gould

The Art of Strolling Violin

June 24, 2013 at 12:18 PM

The era of the strolling violinist, an old European (and particularly Hungarian) tradition, seems to be getting more and more rare. Here in the Boston area, people often speak about Café Budapest, which used to feature a strolling violinist, but which has gone the way of many similar establishments employing old world entertainment. Yet the violin, with its great versatility, still remains a great choice for a variety of fine restaurants, dinner services in assisted and independent living facilities, street fairs and festivals, weddings and rehab units in nursing homes and hospitals. There is a great sense of freedom in being able to casually stroll, either indoors or out, with a highly portable instrument such as the violin, without the need for amplification. It is wonderful to see the look of pleasant surprise on people’s faces when those gorgeous tones reach the delighted ears of your listeners. Over the years, I have found it to be a beautiful thing and one of life’s simple pleasures, as well as a great breadwinner.

Something you fiddle players hadn’t considered? Though it takes some time and practice to achieve, the rewards can be great. Here are some pointers in developing the fine and somewhat forgotten, art of strolling violin.

Work on your memorization skills:
You’ll need to know a large variety of tunes by heart. Though they tend to fall into the world’s most requested top 500, there always seems to be one you’ve never heard of. It’s always a good idea to learn the songs you don’t think you need to know.

Practice what you can’t play: You already know what you know.

Take a deep breath: You’ve got to relax in order to play well and to be open to the ever changing stimuli in the space around you. It’s not just the execution of the music; it’s the coordinated movement around your audience, which is constantly in flux. Staying open to whatever is around you means that you must free yourself to an extent in order to flow through it, while maintaining a quiet alertness so that you can execute your music with a sense of finesse. If you are relaxed, your audience will relax because of you.

Smile! You’re going to grow on them: It’s important to remember that the concept of a strolling violinist is unusual for many people Allow them the time to get used to the idea.. Create a favorable first impression by smiling at everyone with whom you make eye contact.

Practice getting small: You’ll need to avoid people coming at you who are oblivious to the fact that you have a violin and a bow protruding from you. Imagine that the scroll of your violin and the tip of your bow describe a circle, the boundaries of which you remain within. Stay aware of the space around you. You’ll need to be able to negotiate your instrument in tight quarters. If the passageway is too narrow, quietly stop playing, move through the compromised space and then gracefully resume. Try to finish the phrase so that the segue sounds believable to people who may have been listening at that moment.

Talk to your audience when they address you: You’ve got to be able to talk and play at the same time.

Be in front of who’s in front of you: Notice the people who notice you. Those are your constant customers. Complete your musical exchange with the people in your immediate vicinity before moving on, but, at the same time, be aware of others in the room who are obviously noticing you and who would most likely enjoy being entertained by you. Be omnipresent. You’ll need to be everywhere at once. Cover the area at least twice during the event. This will enable your audience to complement you the second time around, after having heard how great you sound the first time.

A whole space and the sum of its parts: Vary your material so that each section of the room hears some variety while you’re in their space. Keep in mind that they will also hear you while you are on the opposite side of the room. Make your selections interesting to the people at the adjacent tables. Stay aware of the entire room no matter where you are in it.

People communicate their essence constantly: You must be able to read the person that you’re in front of. A studied glance or a few words from an individual will generally give you enough to go on in order to decide on a tune or style of music they would enjoy. You’ll soon know if your assessment was accurate. If you call it wrong, chalk it up to experience and move on. Even mistakes work to further your people skills and they ultimately prove to be positive learning tools.

Pick the person in charge: If you are strolling at a restaurant or function, pick the person at each table who seems to be dominating the conversation. That person is your introduction to the group of people seated at that table. He or she is your feature act! Harmonize what you do with who they are. Capitalize on their energy to facilitate a positive experience with the rest of the group.

Take requests: People will request the darndest things; be ready for some surprises! Be sure to learn those tunes. People will always end up requesting them again, especially if you don’t know them!

Change your tune: No pun intended. Be ready to turn on a dime. You’re going to be interrupted, and asked to play something else. Oftentimes, you may need to combine several requests in a maiden voyage.

Allow the audience reaction to happen: Otherwise you might miss it. Take the time to acknowledge it.

Carry business cards: Somebody is going to ask you for one, especially if you don’t have any.
©2010 Alan David Gould


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