I'm going busking

July 14, 2019, 3:23 PM · Hi Everybody,

After two years of procrastination and a lot of excuses, I decided to really go busking next week. Not to earn money (I don't use a tip box/open my violin case) but to practice performing in an 'easy'way. I checked the rules about busking (no permits required for acoustic playing) and looked for a spot to play: a non busy pedestrian zone between two shopping streets, so not a lot of noise.
I made a setlist with songs I can play without sheet music, that are not very classical, and that I feel comfortable playing: 4 or 5 songs of filmmusic and 3 fiddle tunes. Not very much but enough for me to make my debute on the streets :)

I think about playing the set two times. The first time my goal is not to choke in my nerves and just play the tunes right and in tune. Then another time, perhaps on the corner of the shopping street and try to really perform/look around me to the passing people.

To be really honest, I also post this here to make it a bit public so I feel I can't chicken out again ;)
But of course also the question to all of you with experience: do I overlook something that I really need to know before I gonna play next week?

Replies (28)

Edited: July 14, 2019, 4:06 PM · Lunchtime today I saw an extraordinary young violinist busking in Glastonbury's (England) High Street. Everything was there in his playing - tone, projection, intonation, musicianship. I reckon he was probably a 3rd year student from one of the London colleges.

A couple of hours later, in nearby Glastonbury Abbey, I saw him, complete with violin case, being politely and unobtrusively escorted by security men out from the Abbey grounds during a pilgrimage Mass being held there. I'd guess he'd been caught busking in the Abbey grounds, something which is strictly forbidden in one of Britain's most important religious sites.

So, buskers out there, do be careful about your choice of venue!

July 14, 2019, 4:05 PM · M Snellen,

Enjoy yourself. Reading your post reminded me of the first time I played solo in public. It was the Christmas season and I had memorized about a half dozen traditional carols. A friend owned a vitamin shop and agreed to let me "entertain" the customers one evening.

Somehow I figured out how to block the fact that nobody was expecting me to be playing and just launched into the short list (Hymns do like a lot of repeats so all six songs did take a while). At one point I even had people singing along. It was quite an evening and I had a rush like I never had before.

It was many years later that I discovered that I was a natural public speaker - I can put-forth on a subject in front of large crowds with ease. Maybe it was that playing that made me realize it and public speaking became a mainstay of my ultimate career.

Have fun!

July 14, 2019, 6:22 PM · 1. Open your case and collect tips! There were probably many passers-by who wanted to tip and were frustrated that there was no easy means to do so. You can always donate the tips to a local charity if you feel bad about taking people's money.

2. Play where it's busy! Not so busy that you're going to get bumped and your violin is going to get wrecked, but busy enough that there's some noise. Why? Because noise will hide your mistakes -- from you! As a result you'll play more freely and everyone -- including your listeners -- will enjoy it more.

July 14, 2019, 7:15 PM · I agree with Paul. Leave your case open.

Playing in casual settings for passers-by can be a really fun experience. A generous donation from a stranger is a nice bit of icing on the cake. It feels really good to know somebody appreciated your music.

July 14, 2019, 7:50 PM · Yes. Leave the case open and donate the money if you don't want to keep it.

Be thoughtful about what's nearby in terms of stores and restaurants, and whether they are likely to appreciate a violininst outside. Be careful about playing outdoors in the hot sun; you can damage the varnish of your violin.

July 15, 2019, 6:34 AM · Buy a fake book (a big book filled with popular tunes) so you can take requests. You can get paid to practice sight-reading and improvising (and you'll get better tips if you take requests).
July 15, 2019, 7:25 AM · You might check local ordnances for any prohibitions - and possibly as protection against bully cops.
Edited: July 15, 2019, 12:34 PM · Yes, I would leave the case open as well. People will want to give you some cash and it will be weird if there's no where to put the money in. I think that if you really want to "rock" the streets, you really must play whatever is famous on the radio. Unless it's a really famous piece like Pachelbel canon, random people normally don't pay much attention to classical.

If you play Billie Eilish, Camila Cabello, Ed Sheeran or Post Malone, people will lose their mind and you will have tons of attention. It will also make you connect so quickly with locals since most of them will already know the tune. Search what's the top 40 in your country and you are good to go.

Edited: July 15, 2019, 12:55 PM · Over many years of playing jazz gigs in various venues, I have found that taking requests has had surprisingly little effect on the bottom line. Mostly that's because very few requests are actually placed. But once in a while there's a very appreciative listener. For example I was playing the violin in a jazz trio with guitar and percussion -- our usual format is all Brazilian tunes. I came back early from one of the breaks and started noodling a few bars "Ashokan Farewell" by myself. The couple sitting directly in front of the band looked at me, and the woman said, "Oh, keep playing that." So I finished the tune. She actually wept, I am not kidding. Later as they were leaving I saw her drop two sawbucks in the jar. Moral: Learning a few genuine crowd-pleasers is more important than being able to read whatever out of a giant fake book.

Counterexample -- I was playing a gig on the piano and the owner of the place asked me to play "Linus and Lucy." I hadn't played it in years and didn't have my sheet, so I promised to play it for him next time I was in his bar. But that never happened because his whole establishment (two restaurants with bars!) went belly-up, leaving me with a rubber check. Moral: Cash your gig checks the very next business day, not two months later.

July 16, 2019, 1:36 AM · Thank you so much for your kind and encouraging words! And also the anecdotes, really love that :)

You made me reconsider a couple of things. I will leave my case open (and found out that there are some foundation programms for funding music lessons for kids whose parents cant afford it. How beautiful is that!)
I also think about choosing the more crowdy/noisy place, not in front of a shop. I live in Europe, so plenty of nice squares and open shopping streets. I add 2 more catchy songs to my setlist, but keep it to what I can really play already by memory and with enough quality. (When I go sidereading top 40 popsongs, I feel like being a child playing on a fleamarket, instead of an almost middle aged player LOL)

I double checked the rules and I will be fine.

I will let you know my experiences. thanks to all of you again!

July 16, 2019, 3:18 AM · Yeah, please, keep us informed, hahaha. I wanna know how it goes, how nervous you get, how awkward it is at the beginning, and when do you start feeling comfortable playing.

I said top 40 because it's how it works. You play Billie Eilish, Bruno Mars, Katy Perry... and you win most of the people. It's what they listen to, so it's an instant connection. You are gonna get way, way more attention than playing Bach double or any classical. Besides, it will be easier, although it really depends on how you arrange the cover. You can definitely cover any pop song in a very difficult way.

If I was busking, besides of my classical repertoire, I for sure would learn a lot of the most popular tunes, there's no way wrong, even if you play it wrong or slightly out of tune, people will not notice or care, first think people are not trained musicians, so what's so obvious for all of us, for a random person walking in the street will be imperceptible.

The only time I see string players get attention while playing classical is when there are like 4 or 5, like a quartet, which by the way don't have to be too good, and play Pachelbel canon, Mozart's most famous works, Beethoven's, may be Shostakovich waltz...

I think that the main objective when busking is to attract people, to connect with them, you can't play Beethoven's 4th symphony and expect a warning reaction, unless you are so good, but look at what happened to Joshua Bell, he busked with a Stard I believe, in the subway, playing classical, and no one cared.

July 16, 2019, 7:04 AM · you may want to have a small sign that informs people what you plan to do with their donations. And if you can get some pamphlets or other handouts from these organizations have them available too.
July 16, 2019, 7:58 AM · You can also bring along a giant battery-powered boombox with backing tracks.
July 16, 2019, 11:05 AM · Don't forget to remove your spare bows from the case before you let people throw coins into it.
July 16, 2019, 11:12 AM · An individual player can't play a symphony, Paul. The instrument you're using to busk with is largely irrelevant; an electric violin is probably best in many cases. Joshua Bell's story is a very interesting one, but I can tell you, as a metro rider, that even if I'd heard an amazing violinist busking in that station, I'd still have been scrambling to get to my next train in the allotted 30 seconds or so.

Which is another lesson: Busk where people have some time to listen and aren't in a hurry.

July 16, 2019, 6:30 PM · Yes you can, as an individual player, play a symphony, people do it all the time with the 9th, and with Mozart's 40th, and with pretty much any orchestra work. They arrange it. There are orchestra works that are played way more in individual instruments, for example the flight of the bumblebee.

I agree with you that some people might simply not stop because they are in a hurry, but I guarantee you Bell would have had way more attention and much more appreciation if he played pop radio songs. Instant connection, that's what it is. You definitely can't go wrong doing that. Also, bringing and amplifier to play backing tracks will be a magnet, specially of you play pop songs, but then you are amplified and you can annoy some people with all that sound going on.

July 16, 2019, 8:00 PM · Joshua Bell played in a busy railway station, wouldn't matter what he played, people don't stop and listen because they are in a hurry catching trains and going to work, and in too much of a hurry to even drop a coin. So busk where people are going too-n-fro from their lunch break perhaps. The point of the OP busking is to gain experience playing to an audience not to make money, so why would he play boring contemporary radio pop songs, he wants to practice his repertoire. It doesn't matter which genre is played, there will always be a connection because the sidewalk consists of many generations. I played my repertoire of gypsy tunes and made a considerable amount.
July 16, 2019, 8:10 PM · People do NOT play the 9th Symphony or Mozart 40 arranged for a solo instrument. That's absurd. There are sometimes simplifications of the "Ode to Joy" tune that appear in beginner's method books. There are some orchestral works that get reduced for solo piano and every once in a while you might see such works arranged for violin and piano. Flight of the Bumblebee is one such work, which has gotten arranged for lots of different instruments; it lends itself well to such arrangement because it's basically a single voice (the flute) with orchestral backdrop, as opposed to the rich texture of most symphonies which decidedly don't lend themselves well to arrangements.
July 16, 2019, 10:46 PM · It's amazing what tips can do for the ego of a burgeoning musician. I've been playing farmers markets for almost 10 years now. It's a long gig (4 hours), but in the beginning I was so excited, I would play 4 hours without a break.

And, it's important to allow people to compliment you with their small offering of a tip. It's more than just the money. There's an exchange that is going on.

July 18, 2019, 3:54 AM · What do you mean by "people do NOT"?
What are you playing when you play Ode to Joy? Brahms's violin concerto? A Beethoven sonata?
No, you are playing the 9th symphony, of course a melody, a simplification of what the chorus does, which is the most significant part of it.
What do you expect to hear, all the symphony all the way through, 4 movements full of chords and melodies?
Of course not, it's an arrangement, and you definitely can arrange a symphony for a solo instrument, people do it all the time.

Just yesterday I was walking by the street and a violinist was playing Suite for Variety Orchestra Waltz n.2 by Shostakovich, a work composed for orchestra, just like a symphony, and he played the whole thing.

Oh, and yes, in piano you see it all the time symphony like, orchestra works basically, played in a solo instrument. There's no much to argue...

July 26, 2019, 10:24 AM · In high school a tuba playing friend used to make a lot of money busking at the local shopping centre - all the stores paid her to move on! She was a good enough player threat they always seemed to do it with a smile...
July 26, 2019, 10:29 AM · The two most popular buskers I've seen play classical concertos with orchestral backing tracks (large crowds with lots of phones out but the owners of said phones rarely donate), and Irish jigs and reels (plenty of money from passers-by, minimal crowds). Neither does top-pops.
Edited: July 26, 2019, 10:35 AM · Here you go:


Opportunities for genuine improv sadly missed.

July 26, 2019, 11:07 AM · Jeez, Lydia. Do you know nothing of the Liszt-Paganini transcription of Beethoven's 9th Symphony on the G string? I play it all the time!
July 26, 2019, 11:29 AM · Hah, Christian. One does have to wonder what would have happened if instead of Liszt transcribing Paganini for piano, Paganini transcribed Liszt for violin. :-)
July 26, 2019, 1:07 PM · To be fair, the youtube I linked of the arrangement of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is a cartoonish rock version -- with a backing track. The backing track does not contain much musical content, but there is enough there to establish the harmony, so it's not 100% obvious that the arrangement would work with violin alone.
August 12, 2019, 1:56 AM · Well I did it :)
Last time it went wrong, but yesterday was my first time busking. Thanks for all your advices. I was a bit stubborn, because I kept my violin case shut when I started, but immediatly at the first song two people tried to give me money and couldn't. You were so right! And also a really good tip was to take my spare bow out of the case. I would have never thought about that myself, but here in Europe we use a lot of coins so it was a really good advice!
Now I have some experience I'd like to react to the discussion about what to play. Of course it is just a n=1 opinion. But yesterday it were not the popsongs that made people smile. It was the music that really suits the violin and where the violin suits the music. It was film music (vianne opens shop and Morricone's music) and an old jazz standard (Fly me to the moon) that made people stop and sit down on the benches to listen. I really do think you can also play classical music here. Yesterday I played in a modern city street. But here in Europe we have real old nice small city centres (medieval) and when people play there (the better known) Vivaldi or Bach, people enjoy the ambiance. I noticed that when I heard other people play in those cute little streets.
So my opinion now: I don't think you have to play pop music to let people enjoy. First of all you have to like what you play and play it well and convinced. It helps however when the music is easy listening and really suits the violin sound.
And as ever: there are people that love it and people that hate it.

What I do have to learn yet: end conversations in a polite but quick way. There were constantly people who wanted to chat and didn't go away. I played only 20 minutes of the whole hour, pfff. Never to old to learn haha.

But: I really LOVED it!! Especially when people came back to listen to the music and just sat down on a city bench, closed there eyes and just smiled. That is really what I was looking for, it makes me so happy to see people enjoy my violin. THank you all for the encouragement and advice!

August 12, 2019, 4:26 AM · Enjoyed reading of your busking performance.

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