Violin buskers who are faking it

December 4, 2021, 10:04 AM · Violin busking is not exactly lucrative, as Joshua Bell discovered in the DC metro. However, this has not deterred scam artists who are ‘playing’ in parking lots across the country.

They typically use electric violins, although some use acoustic electric ones. They do not actually play, but pretend to do so. They use battery powered amps to play recorded violin music.

Violins usually do not get much exposure. Do you think this sort of thing is still positive for the instrument?

I suppose it increases sales of electric violins if nothing else.

Replies (31)

December 4, 2021, 10:47 AM · We all know about faking it in orchestra (One high-level opera violist told me he thought Wagner overscored on the assumption that players would be), but this is taking it to new levels!
December 4, 2021, 10:55 AM · One of my favorite acts, some time ago, was in the Paris Metro. In front of a portable record player that was blaring a Brahms Hungarian Dance, a marionette violinist sawed away with some vigor. It was shameless enough to be quite entertaining.
Edited: December 4, 2021, 11:11 AM · idk what the heck Joshua Bell was doing but I made almost 10k busking in my free time on weekends this summer. I don't know why it has a bad reputation. I think he had the wrong repertoire and a bad location (wasn't he playing solo Bach? What average joe wants to hear that on their morning commute?...)

I think faking it is ridiculous but only makes the "musician" look bad, not all of us as a whole. IME people can see a solid musician when they see one, though they may not understand what they're hearing. Not to flatter myself—that's literally what people said to me.

December 4, 2021, 11:43 AM · I saw several in France on vacation this year. They all have those cheapy electric violins that you get from ebay for about $80. I stood and stared a cold icy stare and they looked uneasy!!!
December 4, 2021, 12:01 PM · I had an interesting pair of encounters with one of them two weeks ago.

I first saw the guy while having lunch on a restaurant patio, where I could see that his bow changes were not quite matching the notes, and his left hand wasn't moving at all. I sat long enough to see he was "playing" the same five songs on loop. When I was walking back to my car and got closer to him, I also saw that he was changing strings in the wrong direction a lot of the time. I found it especially offensive because I've regularly seen a real violinist busking not very far away, which makes it likely that this scam artist was taking money that would have gone to the real violin busker.

The second time I saw him was five days later, in the same parking lot, except this time I had my viola with me because I was stopping for lunch on the way home from a dress rehearsal. I didn't confront him. Standing next to my car about 50 feet away from him, I pulled out my viola and started playing an improvised harmony line. Within 10 seconds, he had stopped playing and started hastily packing up. Then it got even weirder. He started coming toward me, holding up a violin bridge, saying it was broken and asking me to help him out by giving him mine (?!), which further proved to me that he had no idea what he was doing. As far as I could tell, it was his excuse for his sudden inability to play.

December 5, 2021, 8:39 AM · I'm familiar with one such busker at our local Saturday Market. He looks and sounds pathetic. I think that, as far as he's concerned, the more pathetic, the better! (Maybe that's where Joshua Bell, in his busking efforts, went wrong.)
December 5, 2021, 2:39 PM · There was a fake violinist outside when I went to the grocery store a few weeks ago. He was in an odd spot in the parking lot and had the volume turned up annoyingly high. No one really paid attention to him. He wasn’t really putting much effort into his faking, but that seems to be the norm with these fake players.

The Police in Montgomery County, Maryland recently sent out a public message warning people about this subject.

December 5, 2021, 3:50 PM · In my little city at the supermarket one Saturday there was a violinist with a sound system but he was actually playing and was quite good. He appeared to be in his late teens or early 20's. Even the not very discerning audience he had in this town seemed to appreciate him. I noticed he had a pretty good violin and a Bon Musica shoulder rest. His bowing was very good (compared to mine anyway).
Edited: December 5, 2021, 4:44 PM · Cotton
“ I think he had the wrong repertoire and a bad location (wasn't he playing solo Bach? What average joe wants to hear that on their morning commute?...)”

Curious about what you would recommend as a busker playlist. I once read somewhere that you want to play a tune/song cycle so that the crowd comes, listens, drops cash and then moves on. Rotation of the crowd is important. Maybe Mr Bell thought he was giving a recital and wanted them to stay

Any tips would be appreciated

Edited: December 5, 2021, 7:56 PM · My experience is such:

- Most people (99.95%) will *not* stop and listen, so recognizable music is best
- You want palatable music that is harmonically reachable for the average person (solo Bach is like singing to people in a language they don't speak... stick to I, IV, V and vi)
Classical music is fine, but it must be the hits. Actually all I played was eine kleine and the Bach air, plus some hornpipe. Solo arrangements ofc.
- I had the most success playing in places where people were already spending money, which in my area is grocery stores and shopping centres.
- Smile, make eye contact, and say hello! If you can learn to say thank you while you play, people respond very well to that.

- I don't know if this helps or not but I dress nice when I busk. Not too fancy, but I comb my hair and tuck in my shirt. I think people like to see that I make an effort. You might get pauper points if you look old and sickly, but I am young and can't really pretend to be unhealthy.

I think Bell expected it to be sorta like a concert hall like you say. Thing is, people are busy, and many have very simple taste. The average person is not the average concertgoer... if they want anything from a busker it's to feel uplifted for a brief moment by a shining talent with a smiling face, not drawn into a dark harmonic labyrinth.

Edited: December 6, 2021, 11:11 AM · I remember hearing about the Josh Bell busking experience. Didn't he earn $25 or so? The thing is that one person recognized him and gave him $20 of those dollars! Makes the story worse ...

Back in my youth I did busk and did pretty well out of it. I was not playing Bach however. Playing Bach in a busy street is a bit like feeding a truffle to an elephant! I did also do the London Covent Garden string quartet thing for a while. That is in a courtyard and well known classical hits did well.

The faker violinists I heard were miming to music that was studio recorded and mixed. The music sounded good from a distance even if they weren't playing it themselves. As far as what people are hearing, they are at an advantage compared to a lot of live performers playing without amplification or with bad setup.

Edited: December 8, 2021, 11:43 AM · My grandson did this - in fact it was the start of a 5-year venture that delayed his graduation from college for 4 years:
https://parkfieldbluegrass.org/band-steep-ravine/
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x668ED78LOk

(My grandson is the guitarist on the right in the photo in the attached link - by now they have 3 professionally recorded CDs - the "Steep Ravine" Band dis-banded over 3 years ago.)

Before they were STEEP RAVINE they had formed in Santa Cruz, CA as "the MAPLE STREET 5." That really is BUSKING!
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bXyTc72nfw
My favorite story was when a cop made my grandson, Simon Linsteadt and the violinist, Jan Purat, stop busking in the town square (essentially threatening misdemeanor and chasing them out) - something they would do at lunchtimes while they were in high school together. I once encountered that same nasty cop when I was in my 70s and jaywalking - and he treated me the same nasty way. Purat, who is a few years older than Simon, went on to get his degree in Violin Performance at UC Santa Cruz. Simon followed him there, but after one year (and Jan graduated) they put together their Steep Ravine band and that's what they did for at least the next 4 years. My grandson finally accumulated his credits from UC SC, the Jazz School Institute, and one year at New York's "New School" to earn his degre3es in music and film.

All their recordings were of their own compositions, but if you can find aYouTube of some of their live performances (especially of a couple of Django Reinhardt & Stéphane Grappelli favorites) you will find some "bluegrass jaz" the equal of the masters.

"STEEP RAVINE" is a canyon in western Marin County, CA running down Mt. "Tam" to the Pacific Ocean. A favorite spot for hikers and campers:
http://www.redwoodhikes.com/Muir/SteepRavine.html

December 6, 2021, 4:10 PM · Andrew - I just listened to your grandson's band on youtube - I'm really impressed! I'm also a bluegrass fan; it always puts a smile on my face.

I'm curious if the cop you're referring to was in Santa Cruz? It wouldn't surprise me; I've spent enough time in that town and heard enough stories. They're completely over the top there. You never really see buskers in downtown anymore (or any other kind of artists). If you setup there, it's guaranteed the cops will show up within minutes and run you off.

It wasn't so bad for a while in the mid 2000s - I played down there myself quite a few times and never had an issue.

December 6, 2021, 5:42 PM · Erin, it was in San Rafael, where I live and where Simon and Jan were going to high school
Edited: December 7, 2021, 9:12 AM · Well, I would have melted at his feet for solo Bach and probably just decided to stay and listen and not go to my job that day. :-)
But yes, most people will enjoy something more "popular" with a backing track...

I often examine the fake violin-playing in movies and shows. For instance, when Sherlock Holmes plays violin and his bowing is not matching the notes and he doesn't shift when it goes high. :-) That's what it is like watching fake buskers, slightly amusing.

I think that going out there and playing holiday carols, with a beautiful backing track, would be lucrative right now!

Edited: December 7, 2021, 10:25 AM · The point of Joshua Bell's escapade is that he played in one of the downtown subway stations, chosen for the same clientele as would likely pay $150 for a ticket to hear him in a concert hall. He also played the same repertoire - yes, it was solo Bach. I watched the video when it first came out and it just reminded me of that fabulous song by Joni Mitchell, 'Playing or Free'. The point really was the same.

Here's Joni - who really should have got the Nobel with Dylan ;)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CUo9C1vUt0A

Edited: December 7, 2021, 12:31 PM · Joni Mitchell did some really fabulous stuff, including the original version of "Woodstock", which Crosby Stills and Nash rock-and-rollerized, turning it into a much bigger hit.

The Joni Mitchel version:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cRjQCvfcXn0

The Crosby Stills and Nash version:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4lx86B6a3kc

"We are stardust"

"Caught in the devil's bargain"

"And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden".

December 7, 2021, 12:33 PM · I saw Josh Bell in the subway station, and I kept yelling "play Freebird!" until he got annoyed and packed up and went home.

He never did play Freebird....

Edited: December 7, 2021, 1:12 PM · My wife and I ran across a Lynyrd Skynyrd performance several years ago while attending a "biker event", which we rode to and from on our two "his and hers" Harleys.

Yes, one of the songs they played was "Free Bird".

I'm guessing that three of the band members were in their sixties or seventies, yet they put on a studio-quality live performance. We were most impressed!

The guitar solos in Free Bird lend themselves rather well to being played by a violin. Joshua Bell could do it.

December 7, 2021, 1:42 PM · I could actually see that being a tricky, but effective song to busk with.
December 7, 2021, 3:41 PM · I have not seen a fake violin busker (yet) and I'm really surprised to hear people actually do that. Perhaps because I don't visit the bigger cities in these times. Or it is not very common here in Europe, I don't know. I think when I saw someone faking violin playing I would stop to watch and just don't believe that haha.
I did some busking this summer myself to practice how to play with nerves. Not very much because it was raining a lot this year. But I liked it very much. Most people kept listening when I played the feel good classics that are also suitable doe violin (like ABBA's mamma mia) but also with film and musical music, like Ennio Morricone, the Godfather Theme and Phantom of the Opera songs. But also some fiddle tunes made people stay.
They gave money when I stopped looking at the ground or my violin, but started to make some eye contact and smile. Like Cotton also said. It was a great experience so I hope we have a dry summer next year. I will go busking again. And perhaps I can fake the solo Bach then, because I never learned to play it myself;)
Edited: December 7, 2021, 10:38 PM · There have been reports that the fake buskers are an organized scam ring in the US. Their equipment, signage, and song rotation seem suspiciously uniform.

The fake busker I saw was getting money from many of the people I saw passing by and could easily have raked in over $100 during the 45 minutes I watched him. The real busker I've seen in the same area, who was playing Kreisler's Liebesfreud when I last saw him, seemed to be getting much less.

Which is one of the reasons I pulled out my viola to see if the fake busker would be rattled by the presence of an actual string player. He was.

December 7, 2021, 8:22 PM · I can imagine the syndicate. If the business does not pay up, they will play classical music in front of their store.
December 8, 2021, 4:27 AM · Oh dear Michael...
December 8, 2021, 5:17 AM · I am kind of amazed this is a thing. Hmmm... I guess if it's theatrical miming and goes with good music, I would be okay with it.
December 8, 2021, 1:25 PM · Faking it has been going on for years in all sorts of strange situations. Years ago, I taught theater in a high school. We financed ourselves by bringing in a professional traveling theater company. They'd charge $10 a seat. The 800 seat auditorium would fill up with elementary students, and we'd get a cut of the take. During one performance, I noticed the actors didn't wear microphones, and yet their voices were clear, without any projection problems. This was very odd in a huge barn of an auditorium (built in 1903) where the acoustics were awful, and microphones were necessary if we wanted any kind of good sound quality. Also, when a laugh line came along, they didn't pause for the laugh, but kept right on with the dialogue. Being curious about this, I quietly made my way outside the auditorium, and used my key to get in the backstage door. I saw the stage manager sitting on a chair in the wings. In front of him was a reel-to-reel tape recorder, and the spools of tape were rotating. The truth came out. The actors were lip-syncing their lines. This wasn't live theater. This was actors going through there motions. I've also seen this sort of thing in touring "Broadway" musical shows. I saw a production where the sound was perfect, where the orchestra was clear, and full. I also noticed the actors stepping on laugh lines and other responses, where in genuine situations, they'd pause. At intermission, I went to the front of the auditorium and looked at the musicians. There was barely a skeleton crew in the pit. The sound, and the voices were obviously from recordings. It's a real shame. People walked out saying, "Wow! That was perfect!" Well, perhaps, but it was far from genuine. For any theater or musical experience - plays - musicals - buskers - the experience should be communication at the moment between the performer(s) and the audience. The risk needs to be there. If you want to watch a recording, go home and turn on the television.
December 22, 2021, 9:43 AM · A bad busker who does not fake it will give the violin a bad name!

My orchestral leader (concertmistress?) occasionally called me to fill in for a sick colleague."No rosin"! She chose me as a good faker, without actually saying so…

December 22, 2021, 11:01 AM · I have never done busking. It can be just another form of begging. But there was one evening when I was camped on the lawn at old town Monterey. The seals were barking continuously and keeping me awake, so I tried an experiment. I took my violin out on the pier and played some fiddle tunes to see if that might distract them,, quiet them. No result. But somebody walking by gave me a dollar.
December 22, 2021, 12:23 PM · Some years ago my wife and I were on holiday in Ireland, for folk music and dance workshops. We stayed in a B&B in the countryside some miles out of town.

The B&B had a spacious back garden separated from a large field of cows by a ha-ha (look it up!), and after lunch one afternoon I went out into the garden with my fiddle for some undisturbed practice in the open air. After a couple of minutes the herd heard me and ambled over to the ha-ha to investigate, standing there for the next quarter of an hour watching and listening attentively to my playing. Surely the best audience I've had, even if they didn't have a penny between them!

A couple of years later I was in Leuven (Belgium) visiting that side of my family and attending a fiddle workshop. I was crossing one of Leuven's big squares with my fiddle case when I heard some very loud fiddle playing coming from the opposite corner of the square. The music was obviously that of Eastern Europe and when I reached the violinist I could see that his violin had a trumpet-like amplifier attached. I stopped and listened and then we got chatting. He was from Romania, and English was just about the only language we had in common. His acoustic setup was entirely home-made and certainly delivered the goods to match his playing. He noticed my violin case and started talking about music. His music, very well played, was Romanian folk with some Hungarian, and my music was Irish, which he was quite unfamiliar with. So I took my fiddle out and played a couple of quick Donegal polkas and a jig, which he liked a lot. That was the closest I've ever come to busking. We parted the best of friends, a monetary token of my esteem of course passing from me to him.

December 22, 2021, 1:55 PM · Some years ago, I was trying out pianos at the Steinway store in one of the largest malls in the US. My intent was to have something that pianist would enjoy playing, and that would be used in exclusively a chamber-music context (and the occasional violin-with-piano-reduction work), since I am not a competent pianist myself. So I brought my violin and some sheet music, and one of the salespeople accompanied. Drew a surprisingly large group of listeners into the store. (Enough to make me wonder if the store maybe should hire someone to do this on sale days...)
Edited: December 22, 2021, 5:26 PM · "Dear Ms. Leong;
Thank you so much for your employment application at our mall store. Along with your application, we also have applications from three jugglers, two magicians, and 142 strippers and massage parlor artists. We are in the process of personally interviewing all applicants.
Again, thank you so much for your interest." ;-)

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