August 2014

Busking For Life

August 28, 2014 22:38


I hadn't even heard the term "busking"until my kids told me that they wanted to do it. When they did, I grabbed a dictionary: to play music or otherwise perform for voluntary donations in the street. That seemed a little—how could I put it?—unsavory. Or, on second thought, maybe not. We'd spent, after all, thousands in lessons and instruments, which they had worked hard to learn how to play. Maybe it would be a lesson in personal economics, like a lemonade stand.

The girls were eight and ten at the time, and their goal was to earn enough to buy a Playmobil Grand Mansion dollhouse from the toy store up the street. The dream dollhouse was a very large and, I thought, unattractive object comprised of hundreds of tiny parts, something I really did not want inside my life-size house. And it cost over a hundred dollars, which I doubted they would be able to earn. I gave them the go-ahead to busk, expecting they'd earn a few dollars and spend it on ice cream.

They made their goal in a single afternoon. Apparently, little kids playing Bach are hard to resist, so the empty half-size violin case they'd set out on the corner with its hand-lettered sign, "Busking for a Doll House", quickly filled with cash. Their dollhouse, purchased and painstakingly assembled, took over the living room.

Next week they went out to busk some more.

Ours is in a quirky but pleasant urban neighborhood where cops patrol their beat on horseback and neighbors plant free lending libraries in their front yards. We have a lot of garden festivals and craft fairs where you'll see street musicians, both those hired by the business association and those playing for tips. Even on ordinary week days, our main street, lined with restaurants and coffee shops is a perfect place for busking. You don't need a permit like you do downtown or in the subway. Passers-by are friendly—no one shrieks at you to be quiet or tries to rip you off— and, rather than shooing you away from their stores, shop keepers cheer you on. Busking draws a crowd, and crowds are good for business.

I was never a hundred percent pro-busking when my kids were growing up because it ate into practice time. And you could hardly call it high-quality performing. Busking is something you do as a treat after your chores are done. It's a specialized skill: you don't play your real repertoire. You play arrangements, pieces that are recognizable, or at least easily digestible. Audiences want Pachelbel, not Paganini. You need to be able to grin back at dancing toddlers while their mothers pepper you with questions about Suzuki method and the best age to start lessons. You have to field requests ("Do you know anything by Beyoncé?") But the pay is great.

When they were younger my kids often busked to raise funds for charity. Once, outside of Starbucks, they earned a record-breaking $300 in less than an hour for earthquake rescue efforts in Haiti. The Starbucks manager brought them free Frappuccinos because they were attracting so many thirsty customers. Then the manager from the cheese store up the street came out and told them they could play in front of his place any time. Over the years my kids and their friends have done a lot busking, in lots of different cities. One of my daughters now lives in New York, where she busks in Central Park with friends whenever she can fit in a spare hour or two. Even though she's a far better musician now than at age eight, the take isn't as good there as it was years ago back home—only about $50/hour. Or maybe the take is lower because she's grown up.

It's been years since she busked in the neighborhood. When she's home now busking is the last thing on her mind. She's focused on the family, or practicing in the quiet of our house, or getting ready for a real performance. But I'll admit I miss walking up the street and hearing the sound of her Bach traveling on the wind.

Photo credit:Brian Fass, Bethesda Fountain, Central Park

Before my kids started busking I barely noticed street musicians. But now I give money to all of them, no matter what they're playing or how well. It's a compulsion shared by many parents of musicians. I start digging in my wallet as soon as I hear the music: the erhu player outside the Art Institute; the subway saxophonist; the accordion player in lederhosen with a stuffed monkey clipped to his shoulder. I can't walk by without stopping, and listening, and giving.

The other day I was out walking my dogs when I heard a faint but unmistakable sound: a fakebook arrangement of "Some Enchanted Evening". The busker I found when I rounded the corner was 87-year-old Patricia Woods Sellers, tapping away on a portable keyboard plugged into the electric supply of the hardware store. I stood there, my dogs wagging their tails, held in place by her jaunty, indomitable style.

I know it's not polite to talk to buskers, but I also know they're adept at talking while they play. So I asked if I could photograph her (she was all for it) and I asked her about herself. She told me that in 2011 she was fired from her job of 24 years at our neighborhood Cricket Club. (I don't belong, but yes, our neighborhood has a Cricket Club.)

"New management took over and they got rid of the old," she said, smiling dryly without missing a beat. Without a real piano now (she had to sell hers, she said) she makes do with a borrowed keyboard, busking for tips on the sidewalk in good weather.

I don't know the real story behind the employment dispute, but if you do the math, this 87-year-old was 84 in 2011 when she was let go. And here she is, dignified, beautiful, and playing well. "I'm here mostly on Saturdays," she said. If the weather's good this weekend, I'm going back to look for her. I want to hear her while I can, before the chill of winter.


7 replies

Collaborator or Contractor

August 21, 2014 23:11

"The problem is that you have the mindset of a collaborator, not a contractor."

That's what my oldest daughter said to me last night at dinner after I'd been complaining about my treatment as a freelancer. A light blinked on inside my head and I saw the problem clearly for the first time: clients are not collaborators; they are only clients.

It isn't merely an issue of my being "too nice", or lacking boundaries (as women are so often accused.) The root of the problem is that I pride myself on doing good work and making people happy, and as a result I become over-invested in client projects. I become a collaborator, not a contractor, and in doing that I am setting myself up for frustration and exploitation—often unintentional on the client's part. And that's not fair to either of us.

The collaborator-mindset is common among artists—musicians, visual artists, writers, designers. It's proclivity that comes from our training and from our "real work", i.e., serious projects with peer-artists. But if we want to improve the way we are treated by paying clients, as distinguished from our professional peers with whom we appropriately collaborate, we need to install some mental insulation. A collaborative mindset is fine for our own projects. But when we do work-for-hire, we are contractors.

I know I'm good at what I do and that I deserve to be appropriately compensated. But time and again a fixed-price freelance project ends up costing me many more hours than what I budgeted. One client turns out to be ultra high-maintenance. Another sends a disorganized barrage of emailed afterthought-requests. Because I have a generous impulse and want them to be happy, my inclination is to hand-hold needy clients for as many extra hours as they demand or to accede to the jumble of extra tasks without renegotiating the price of the job. Partly, it's because I want the project to turn out well and I want the client to be happy. But at what personal price to me? How do I react, for example, when a web design client refuses to pay for copywriting services and then hands over a mess of sloppy, incoherent text and low-quality photos? Well, I can't do good work with bad materials, so I suck it up and do those services for free. I end up losing money—because time is money—by the time the job is finished.

And that is insupportable. It's terrible way to do business. I can see it plainly, as can any of my friends—musicians, designers, writers, and other artists—who find themselves in similar predicaments. For years I've been admonishing myself: stick to a written contract. Require a nonrefundable deposit. Watch the clock. Don't be so eager to suggest extras you know you won't get paid for just because they will make the project so much better. That "better" project, uncompensated, will drain away valuable hours promised to my other projects, and will not be appreciated anyway. But then I do it, in spite of myself, because in the heat of the working moment I am more concerned about accomplishing the best result possible than I am about the money. Eventually, the situation begins to wear on me. Under-compensated and under-valued, I grow resentful, and that resentment eats at the soul. Plus, like everybody else, I have bills to pay.

I come by the collaborator-mindset honestly. From the time I was a little girl, my parents, both highly trained artists in their own right, worked round the clock in their boutique arts management agency. Their clients have enjoyed many successes as a result, yet for my parents there was never much monetary compensation. The arts, it's a hard business. Single-minded, self-sacrificing dedication made it possible for them to stay afloat for more than forty years in an industry where it's rare for a small agency to last a decade. Theirs is a lifelong project, and if it hasn't made them materially rich, my parents' vocation earned them the intangible satisfaction of having launched and buoyed the careers of many musical artists.

Well, what kind of role model was that? And what kind of role model am I for my four young daughters, each of whom is entering a creative field where freelancing, consulting, and lesson-giving is to be a substantial part of their bread-and-butter? Lucky for me, I have my oldest daughter, who has been freelancing in multiple capacities since about age 14, to reframe the freelancer's dilemma.

This morning I asked her younger sister, our family violinist, if she uses contracts for freelance gigs.

"When the gig is through my school, Career Services requires us to do a contract," she replied. (Good on them, for promoting professionalism among young performers.) But outside gigs and freelance teaching are informally negotiated, either verbally or by email or even text message—and you can get burned. Everyone does. The danger is not in the random one-off gig where you're less likely to develop a collaborator-mindset so much as in a standing relationship, such as teaching, where you can find yourself trapped in an exploitative, low-paying, time-eating situation.

Here are a few do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do tips for freelancers:

  • Educate your client. Because they don't share your experience or assumptions, much of your professional process is opaque to them. They may not be trying to exploit you; they just might not know any better. Spell out for them what is possible and what is appropriate.

  • Don't allow your enthusiasm for the project to override your control of the situation. Don't set up client expectations that you won't be able to meet without feeling resentful and exploited a few months down the road. If a prospective client balks at your reasonable proposal, politely invite them to research the going rate. They may come back, and if not—if their only criterion is to choose the lowest bid—then good riddance.

  • If their initial expectations are out-of-the-ballpark absurd (like the time my daughter got a request for a string quartet to play for four hours for $100 because "a pianist in New Jersey quoted the same price and will bring his own keyboard"), calmly counter with a reasonable price. If they argue—let them walk.

  • Don't underbid your work. It's tempting, especially when working for friends or colleagues, or when you know the client is on a tight budget. But when you undercharge for your work, your work is not respected. People value services and objects that they come to through a fair exchange, (or when they over-pay, which explains the popularity of Burberry.)

  • Never accept a pro bono job (with the possible exception of a White House invitation) only because you're promised exposure, contacts, and the flimsy specter of future paying work. That almost never happens. Remember that proverbial cow who gave away her milk for free.

  • But do pro bono work anyway. Do it for righteous charitable organizations whose missions you believe in. Altruism is good for the soul and is a fine outlet for those generous impulses you'll be redirecting away from the freelance clients who will now be paying you a fair fee for contract work.

  • Keep it in perspective. When revising one's collaborator-mindset, it's important not to swing too far in the other direction. My obsession with the quality of my own work and my genuine concern for my clients' satisfaction are what make me a desirable person to hire in the first place. If I insulate myself too much I'll grow obtunded and lose my passion for the work—and then what good will I be?

Image credit: The Graphics Fairy

2 replies

Bad Behavior

August 7, 2014 14:54


It was Parents Weekend at junior chamber music camp. My daughter, just out of eighth grade, had been attending this program since she was ten. As for me, I was looking forward to a reunion with all the kids, parents, and staff I'd known for the past five summers.

But when I arrived on campus and greeted the director outside the recital barn, she didn't smile back. "Your daughter is making my life difficult," she complained. "We caught her and a friend sneaking out of their cabins at night to hang out with their little boyfriends."

I looked at her in amazement. Boyfriend? That didn't sound like the mild-mannered, retainer-wearing, Harry Potter-reading, freckle-face girl I dropped off a week ago. I stammered out an apology.

"It's a terrible example for the younger kids," said director. She walked away, still angry.

My daughter, a middle child, had always been easy: diligent, good-humored, good with grown-ups. Although I understood that it's developmentally appropriate for teens push against boundaries, I was not quite ready to hear that she was behaving like, well, a teenager.

When I was able to talk with her privately, my daughter admitted that she'd been sneaking out of her cabin after lights-out. But she protested that "all the older kids snuck out at night" to stargaze together on the tennis courts; she insisted it was an innocent camp-wide tradition to which the administration usually turns a blind eye. They'd only gotten in trouble, she said, because her friend had sassed a counselor, who'd reported them.

While I was glad she was confiding in me, I didn't want to give her an impression that I supported her behavior or agreed that the counselor was in the wrong, a snitch. "It's not okay to break the curfew. It isn't fair to the counselors. It forces them into the position of having to discipline you."

"But they don't care. They know we're not doing anything bad. Sneaking out is traditional. We're practically expected to."

I changed my tactic. "The rules are in place to protect you. But rules also protect the camp. If a student got hurt while unsupervised, there could be a lawsuit, and that might put the entire program out of business. You wouldn't want that to happen, would you?"

"No! But everyone's over-reacting about this. Nothing terrible's going happen!"

I pulled out the big guns. "Besides, you've always said you want to work here when you're older. Do you think they'll hire you if you were a troublemaker when you were a camper?"

In retrospect I realized that my daughter was probably too old to return to her childhood music camp for one last summer. She would have been happier (and less of an outlaw) at the camp's senior session, where the curfew was a little later and the rules were relaxed. After that summer, she attended festivals where she fell into the middle age range, and stayed out of trouble—as far as I know. But throughout her high school years, and even during college, I heard tell of many of her peers expelled from their summer programs. You name a summer festival that accepts students under 21, and I'll bet a kid or two or more will be sent home for disciplinary reasons before the end of the season. The most common offenses are curfew violations and underage drinking. But some of the stories are hair-raising. Sneaking back through a window after a late night drinking, a girl steps right into her sleeping roommate's double bass, shattering the instrument. Another student is publicly excoriated, then dismissed for taking a friend's prescription beta blocker because he was feeling nervous before a high-stakes performance. The entire cello section (almost) is caught smoking pot in the woods.

Why is my kid doing this? During the school year young musicians are constantly on the radar of their parents, teachers, and coaches. With all the practicing, rehearsing, and homework, they don't have much leisure or privacy to stage small rebellions or work on differentiating themselves from their parents. Away from home for the summer, they can try out a new social persona in a relatively safe, self-contained environment. In general these experiments lead to healthy, intrapersonal growth. But they can also lead to trouble. It's important for parents to realize that the music camps and music festivals do not provide the same level of supervision that their teens receive at home.

If my kid gets caught acting out at music camp, is his professional life over? The classical music world is small and personal reputation is important. But youthful hijinks like curfew violations are forgivable (unlike showing up late for rehearsal or playing out-of-tune.) Maybe it's because teachers, conductors, and coaches were all once teenagers, too. Or maybe it's that they simply aren't concerned with what goes on after hours in the dorms, as long as performance standards are maintained. With a teacher's backing, many students are subsequently readmitted to the same program that disciplined or dismissed them. So while you may be right to worry about your kid's emotional and physical well-being, don't stay up nights bemoaning the loss of his career.

Why isn't the program doing a better job watching over my kid? Summer music programs provide a pedagogically beneficial environment for young musicians: lessons, coachings, and rehearsals. But the primary mission of a festival is the institution itself—performance aesthetics, audience development, and fundraising. They aren't (for the most part) schools. Festivals and summer programs do provide students with opportunities for educational, professional, and personal growth, but it may be too much to expect them to get involved with students' psychological health and development. That, parents, is your job.

What do I need to look out before I select a summer program? While it's flattering to think that your 13-year-old will be playing alongside college kids, do you really want her socializing with them? Or dating them? Find out what the dorm situation is and what the breakdown is among the ages. Are younger students sequestered? Are their curfew rules different? Will they have a space to socialize among themselves? If not, consider waiting for a few years before sending your child. The camp will still be there when she's older. Once you've settled on a camp, read the handbook, and have your student read it, too. Make sure he understands the consequences of breaking rules.

What do I say to my kid if I find out he's broken the rules? The most important thing you can do is keep the lines of communication open. Let him tell his side of the story without interrupting (as hard as that can be). Remember that this experience is one of many that will help him define for himself who he is and what kind of adult he is becoming. Adolescents are in a constant state of transition. The quiet nerd morphs into the cool druggy guy. The shy wallflower reinvents herself as the party girl. She is probably not very comfortable in her temporary new skin and doesn't want to get stuck there. Give her your love and support and the space she needs to keep evolving.

When my daughter's friend, a college student, was disciplined for underage drinking at a summer program, her punishment was to telephone her mother from the office of the program director and confess her indiscretion. The young woman was terribly anxious because her parents are conservative and their religion forbids consumption of alcohol. The mom's reaction was perfect, something we all can learn from. You little stinker! she said, in voice that was simultaneously affectionate, droll, and concerned. And that was that: her daughter had permission to let it go, move on and keep growing.

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