Printer-friendly version
The Weekend Vote weekend vote: How many times have you tried busking?

May 16, 2008 at 6:14 PM

Seems that everyone is taking up a street corner with a fiddle these days, and it's not just the beat-up, duct-taped old fiddle cases set out to collect donations, but also a few plush velvet-lined ones.

Journalists certainly have seemed to take an interest in the subject. Most recently, Los Angeles Times journalist Steve Lopez wrote a book about a homeless and schizophrenic busker, a Juilliard-trained musician whom he found playing on the streets in skid row with a 2inged violin. The book is called The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music, and it's already being made into a movie starring Jamie Foxx.

And who can forget, a year ago, when Joshua Bell went busking during morning rush-hour in Washington D.C. on a kind of dare from Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten, who recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his story about Josh's experiment. Our favorite 40-year-old violin hero (besides me, right? ;) made $59, plus he made everyone turn blue in the face talking about it.

Yesterday Debra Wade wrote a lovely blog about the subject, which made me think even more about busking. Put simply, busking is performing at its most elemental level: get out the instrument and go. What do you play? Whatever comes to mind. Whatever comes to mind depends on everything you've ever studied and heard, not to mention what your environment asks of you. If a three-year-old toddles up to you, perhaps it's "Pop Goes the Weasel." Or perhaps someone comes up and requests "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" or "Happy Birthday," and so you just play it by ear. Maybe you've been studying some solo Bach, or a virtuoso piece, so you just air it out. Maybe you just played your virtuoso piece and need some filler, so you play all of Suzuki Book 3 because it's just still there in your brain.

I love hearing live music in such a spontaneous way. My favorite rendition of the slow movement of the Bach Double was when I heard a couple of students playing it in Aspen during a summer sunset, outside an ice cream shop, their cases open for donations. No doubt they were students at the summer festival, and they were clearly enjoying playing in this informal and unofficial setting. Funny how a one-time experience can prove more indelible than a recording heard hundreds of times.

Have you ever tried busking? To be honest, I haven't. I'm thinking I should!

Vote in our poll, and tell us about your experiences: (BTW in this poll, if you busk on a regular basis, you can mark two choices, that you busk regularly and also the number of times.)

From Royce Faina
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 6:42 PM
Buskers make me think of the traveling mentrals, and bards of long gone days.
From Carolyn Berger
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 6:58 PM
I had the opportunity to busk with some friends in Galway the May after my junior year. The 5 of us made enough for two rounds of Guinnesses each. We were a little worried about getting caught and fined, as we didn't have a permit, so as soon as we saw authority looking people, we up and left. It turns out they were only changing the trash liner. :)

Perhaps the best part were the American tourists taking pictures of us (if only they knew we're true Chicagoans...)!

After a very difficult semester of undergrad, this is what is took to help me love playing the violin again. It was redeeming to play what I wanted to play, rather than what I was required to play. I experienced a new freedom of learning music by ear.

From Eitan Silkoff
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 7:09 PM
i once busked with my sister on south bank in london. We earnt about 150 dollars in an hour. Pretty good eh? I recently just saw one of my old viola friends and she was busking in the train station. I quickly joined her, and then played some Bach. Interestingly enough, for the 2 minutes that i was there, i already got like 2 dollars. (which i gave to her after) :)
From Ruth Kuefler
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 7:27 PM
I've only been busking a couple times, but now that summer is here, I plan on trying it more often.
From Bernadette Hawes
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 7:48 PM
I'd think about it, once I can play some decent music ha ha!
From Cecily Ward
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 7:53 PM
I used to play violin duets on the street in Aspen almost every night. We made very good money - and I spent most of mine on sushi or white water rafting. In school in San Francisco we played quartets in the Civic Center BART station a few times, but you had to go during the morning commute to make any money and I was too lazy :)
From Laurie Trlak
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 8:09 PM
I've never done it, but I've thought about it. I don't know that I have the nerve to try it! But I wish I did!
From Annette Brower
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 8:32 PM
I haven't, but my students have at the farmer's markets and the beach here in So. Cal. They rake in $75-$100 per HOUR!
From Laurie Niles
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 9:44 PM
So Cecily, did I see YOU? ;)
From Jonathan Law
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 9:44 PM
I always busk during the Edinburgh Festival, fantastic money and great banter. Lots of beer money!
From Patricia Baser
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 10:12 PM
I think it would be fun in a safe environment. Macon has a rather high crime rate, so I certainly wouldn't try it here.
From Lucy Henley
Posted on May 16, 2008 at 11:23 PM
I've never tried but I know a frind who made $80 an hour in New york city!
From Joe Fischer
Posted on May 17, 2008 at 12:09 AM
Hey,people appreciate a violin tune.
People like us !
Yes,its important-very important !

You know--music is truth and others appreciate.
How could they not ?
Tradition counts and attempts thereof will NOT go unnoticed by the public.
Your heart and soul are bared to the bone.

Busking is the oldest of musical professions and will,hopefully,continue in future and this is very good !!!

Give others a chance to release themselves from daily drudgery of their
attempts at living.

Be humble in your gifts,play your very best..Make your violin sing as a voice sings--that is WHY we are here !!!

From Bonny Buckley
Posted on May 17, 2008 at 12:49 AM depends. A few nights ago I heard a guy on an outdoor stage in an open-air mall, so I guess this wasn't busking exactly, but playing to a pre-recorded soundtrack as his back up. What he was playing was not technically difficult nor musically that challenging, but he was totally out of synch with the backup and he finished like 8 seconds ahead of the back up. Actually I don't think I've ever heard any busker perform that badly. It just proves a really poor musician can get a gig, but busking is a lot harder because you are your own boss.
From William Wolcott
Posted on May 17, 2008 at 3:32 AM
I busked in Santa Monica (3rd street Promenade) while I was studying with Eugene Fodor.

True story- One night Eugene came to visit me, took my violin (actually one of his being loaned to me) and played through the Tchaikovsky and several other pieces. It was a lot of fun.

Another night, Steven Tyler came up to me (from Aerosmith) and talked to me for a while.

And another day Israel Baker came up to me, listened for awhile, and invited me to his house. I took a few lessons from him as a result. What a great player, Israel Baker.

I don't busk much anymore, but I still miss it. I felt very alive, very free, very at home on the street playing. More comfortable than the stage for me. Unfortunate perhaps, but true.

From Hannah Wright
Posted on May 17, 2008 at 3:54 AM
That'd be an easy gig...just lay an open case on the ground.
From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 17, 2008 at 10:48 AM
I played last summer at a local farmers' market for the first time, and From Karen Allendoerfer
Posted on May 17, 2008 at 10:52 AM
I played last summer at a local farmer's market for the first time and blogged about it. It wasn't for money, though, just for a coupon to use at the market. The food was delicious!
From Amy Nemecek
Posted on May 17, 2008 at 12:43 PM
I once busked at our small-town ice cream shop (when we still had one). Like Karen, I didn't play for money. But my husband, son, and I got all the hot dogs, ice cream, and pop we could consume. Not a bad deal, I think!
From Laurie Trlak
Posted on May 17, 2008 at 2:32 PM
Last night we were in Indianapolis for a (minor league) ball game, and as we were leaving, there was a busker on the sidewalk outside the parking garage where we were parked. He seemed to be making a little money (I didn't have my purse with me, or I would have put something in his case), but I was wondering, could this be considered "panhandling" by local police?
From Liana Goldsmith
Posted on May 17, 2008 at 5:18 PM
As a child, I used to go to the city to visit my aunt who then must have been in her mid-twenties. She used to take me out to the corners where the Broadway theatres were around dinner time. I must have been about 8 years old the first time. I remember playing random tunes from Suzuki books and other folk music that I found to be easy and fun to play. In the first half an hour, I made about $130.00 and had earned some fans that would follow me to the other locations when I'd change corners...I remember laughing and thinking how I was playing something so simple like "O Come Little Children" and making more money than I would make competing for scholarship money in local music festivals!

Now, I live in a different city, and there are plenty of really good buskers all over the city! I think it's great!

From Kristin Mortenson
Posted on May 18, 2008 at 2:01 AM
I busked quite a lot during the summer of 1982 when I was at the AIMS program in Graz, Austria. The locals were very supportive of the musicians and we always made out like bandits.

Just a few weeks ago my niece and her friend busked on a holiday in Hilversum, the Netherlands. (I think it was the queen's birthday or something.) They got a big kick out of making about 80 Euros...which was significantly more than Josh Bell got at the train station! :-D

From Mara Gerety
Posted on May 18, 2008 at 3:22 AM
I've never actually busked, but one time during post-concert celebrations at the pub I and a buddy of mine randomly whipped out our violins and started playing gypsy tunes....that is, until a waitress came over and said "I don't know WHAT you're doing, but it has to STOP." :)
From Don Sullivan
Posted on May 19, 2008 at 6:06 AM
Thank you Ms. Niles for writing about busking and the story about Steve Lopez and Nathaniel Ayers. I listened to Mr. Lopez's interview on the NPR website and was encouraged that kindness is not a lost art form in our information age. I really appreciated it.
From Ariel Lindgren
Posted on May 19, 2008 at 2:00 PM
Since a few years I've been a member, but not a writing participant in any postings. I have no computer at home and therefore I've just been a reader, but with great interest.

English is not my mother tongue, so, of course, from time to time, there are words or expressions that I don't understand. "Busking" was such a word. I took a look at what Laurie Niles had written, and soon I understood that this is exactly what I'm doing.

I live in Strasbourg, France and a Friday afternoon, July 27, 2007, after much hesitation and investigation, where to play, I finally took my violin with the hope that I will perform well and earn some money. I had found a relatively long street without cars in the very center, where I guessed the acoustic would be reasonable. But, most importantly, where people could listen while slowly walking and shopping without stopping. The idea that a group of people might stop for listening didn't attract me at all. It just made me terrified.
When I came to my chosen spot, I was deeply concentrated and said to myself that I will be very disappointed, if I don't go through with this now. I did, and it didn't pass many bars of playing, before I felt well, and after some pieces very well.

Today, ten months later, I'm happy that I began the beginning. It gives sense to my violinplaying after restarting in September 2006. I communicate better with people while playing music than in my French, but that doesn't say very much. Nevertheless, I meet friendliness, generosity and enjoy compliments for my performing. I get questions about my mainly classical repertoire, popular melodies and some Jewish songs.
And all the children. My youngest listeners, at least in age. They are my greatest joy! They never stop to look like being hypnotized. Hardly able to walk yet, in the presence of their parents, I keep telling the small children that playing the violin is very good. Don't wait! But, other instruments will do, as well.

There is much more to tell about busking. Perhaps, I'll write a blog about it.
It's cold and rain hanging in the air, so I devote some time for writing this. No subway in Strasbourg, and none to expect, even if the demand from an outdoor violinist like me is high.

From Carlos Marquina
Posted on May 19, 2008 at 10:47 PM
i think busking is awesome! When i think about busking i remember a video featuring paul dateh (a hip hop violinist). (See Below)

This entry has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Facebook Twitter YouTube Instagram Email is made possible by...

Shar Music
Shar Music: Check out our selection of Celtic music

Pirastro Strings
Pirastro Strings

JR Judd Violins
JR Judd Violins

Starling-DeLay Symposium
Starling-DeLay Symposium

Los Angeles Philharmonic
Los Angeles Philharmonic

Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases
Dimitri Musafia, Master Maker of Violin and Viola Cases

Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings
Thomastik-Infeld's Dynamo Strings

National Symphony Orchestra
National Symphony Orchestra Summer Music Programs Directory
Find a Summer Music Program Shopping Guide Shopping Guide

ARIA International Summer Academy

Borromeo Music Festival

Metzler Violin Shop

Southwest Strings

Bobelock Cases

Johnson String Instrument/Carriage House Violins

Jargar Strings

Bay Fine Strings Violin Shop


Los Angeles Violin Shop


String Masters

Nazareth Gevorkian Violins

Laurie's Books

Discover the best of in these collections of editor Laurie Niles' exclusive interviews. Interviews Volume 1 Interviews Volume 1, with introduction by Hilary Hahn Interviews Volume 2 Interviews Volume 2, with introduction by Rachel Barton Pine