Busking: (Noun) The activity of playing music in the street or another public place for voluntary donations.
I’ve always been one of those people who goes through a variety of responses if I see a musician standing on a corner playing music. Usually, I’ll hear them before seeing them. I’ll look around and see a musician playing their heart out with an open music case on the pavement.
It only takes moments to know if they are good or bad. If they are awful, I’ll smile politely, but try not to engage with them. I may do the tunnel vision posture of looking straight ahead and pretending they aren’t there, I may pick up my pace, or find some other way of ignoring what they are doing.
Of course, if it’s a little kid playing, I’ll stop and listen no matter what. I won’t care if they’re any good. I’ll toss in a dollar or two. I love it when kids play music. It gives me hope. Then again, I’m a sucker for anything kids do on a street corner. I love kid’s lemonade stands. I just think it’s cute.
If the music is good, and I’m not in a hurry, I’ll stand and listen. As bad as some buskers are, many of them are amazing.
I often wondered what it was like to put yourself into a situation like that. Some cities have rules about busking dealing with noise levels, keeping sidewalks clear and so forth, but most cities don’t really mind if someone wants to play music in a shopping area.
Since the pandemic started, I’ve developed the habit of playing in an empty park once or twice a week, but it’s not really busking. I don’t have a case out, I stand by a picnic table, alone, and play for roughly 20 minutes to the tall Oregon trees. I do it just to do it – if that makes any sense.
But busking is another level. People are around, it’s you, your instrument(s), and that’s it. It’s a whole different level of confidence, showmanship, and sound. It takes guts and humility.
So why not, right?
Last week, I stepped into the world of busking. I stood in front of a closed movie theater, my case at my feet, my instrument in my hands, and knocked out two 25-minute sets of folk tunes, Irish tunes, a little classical music, sappy pop tunes, and Scandinavian tunes.
As you know, the pandemic shut down the world for a while, and a lot of small businesses took fatal hits, resulting in shutting their doors for extended periods of time, and in some situations, they went out of business. It was tough.
This summer, to entice people back to the stores, the local business association held “4th Friday Night” sidewalk sales. Clothing racks, a farmer’s market, restaurants with outdoor seating, and so forth were everywhere. To enhance the experience, they asked local musicians to busk on the streets. I signed up for late August and September.
I set up my music room to replicate the location where I’d be performing. As I rehearsed, I envisioned the case at my feet filling with money. This was going to be great. I had plans to give the money to a neighborhood middle school arts program. They’d get the cash, I’d get a receipt for taxes, and it would be a win-win for everyone. I was already coming out ahead, since the business association gave me five $5 bills to put in my case as seed money to entice the public to give generously.
I was ready. Unfortunately, weather, location, and time of day can have a strong influence on a street performance. On this particular Friday, it was a tsunami of issues.
The temperature was 94 degrees, the air was poor due to smoke from California forest fires, and the humidity made the air unusually muggy. Since it was four o’clock on a Friday afternoon, hundreds of people were driving home for the weekend. Vehicles roared down the street about ten feet from where I stood. The noise level from busses, motorcycles, cars, trucks, and so forth, was high to say the least.
Hardly anyone was on the sidewalk. Who can blame them? It was hot, muggy, smoky, and noisy.
I was tempted to pack it in and go home, but I’d made a commitment to play for an hour, and I didn’t want to renege on my responsibility. I had water. I had a hat. I was there, so let’s do it.
I tuned up, stood up, and dove into the music. Of course, with busses and motorcycles roaring down the street, I could barely hear myself play. Sweat was dripping from my skin, and for about ten minutes I felt like a complete fool playing music nobody could hear, and the only person I could see was my own reflection in a window on the other side of the sidewalk.
But then, something happened. To my own surprise, I just got into it. I ignored the traffic. I ignored the heat. My focus went into playing as well as I could. I stood there and focused on music. That focus took me away from everything else on the street. Every now and then I’d find a moment of pure joy in how the music sounded. I also had moments of – shall we say – inventive improvisation, but I just kept on going, and going, and going. This was fun.
A couple of people stopped by and listened. We talked and laughed. A little while later, a couple more came over and we talked. Despite everything, I had a great time. I just got into my own bubble of music, and let it rip for an hour, full speed ahead.
In the end, I took the money out of my case and counted it to see how much I had to donate to the school. Subtracting the $25 I had in the case before I started, I’d made a grand total of . . . two dollars.
Two dollars. Let’s rationalize this windfall . . .
I understand that when Joshua Bell did some busking in a Washington, D.C. subway, one person stopped to listen, 3,000 people passed him, and he made a grand total of $55. I had seven people pass me and I made $2. On a dollar per person ratio, I win by a landslide. That may be the only time I can say I came out ahead of a guy like Joshua Bell. (Yes, that’s a stretch, but you gotta get your kicks somewhere, right?)
This past Monday, I took the $27 (the $25 in seed money and the $2 I’d earned) put it in an envelope and gave it to a middle school arts program. The school secretary looked surprised, said, “Thank you” and gave me a receipt for my taxes.
I’m scheduled to do this again at the end of September, and I will. The weather should be cooler, with any luck the smoke from the fires will be gone. I am requesting a quiet street corner.
I can see why people busk. It’s not glamorous, it’s not the best conditions or acoustics for music, but it is flat-out fun. I mean, why not? If you know me, you know I’m not a classical musician, and the likelihood of being in an orchestra is remote.
I’m 74, I’ve been playing a violin for a little over six years. I’d say I’m about as good as a halfway decent 11-year-old kid. So, where I am, what I do, and how well I do it are all factors in my choices and possibilities of playing for the public. Give me a couple of adults, a little kid, a dog, or a tree, and I’ll play for them. Ego and pride are qualities I put away in the closet. As The Temptations sang, "I ain’t too proud to beg." I just want to play.
In these days of wacko politics, social media nonsense, global warming, and other loopy things, it’s just good to get out there, dive in, and see what happens. Busking is challenging, not necessarily financially rewarding, a bit humiliating, and a little loopy all by itself, but it’s also fun.
Go ahead. Try it. Find a business district. Stand on a corner, open your case, play the music, and see what happens. If Joshua Bell and I can do it, so can you.
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