A busker’s life

Posted by jerry on April 14th, 2007 — Posted in Journal, Music

Having just spent four days doing street performances with Will o the Wisp musical circus, I was intrigued when Sharon spotted this article in the Washington Post online. Take one virtuoso violinist and place him out of his usual context playing to sell-out audiences in the US and Europe’s finest auditoriums and place him in a subway station in Washington DC and observe how people react.

The result is amazing. Watch the videos and see the reactions – or almost complete lack of reaction! I know how he feels: I reckon street performance is one of the hardest genres. As violinist Joshua Bell notes

“When you play for ticket-holders,” Bell explains, “you are already validated. I have no sense that I need to be accepted. I’m already accepted. Here, there was this thought: What if they don’t like me? What if they resent my presence . . .”

And he was playing a 1710 Stradivarius violin!

Some say my style is …well…vigorous – and that’s because I began my musical career by busking. Very quickly I learnt that if you move with the music people get more responsive. It’s that immediate that you can learn a lot from busking. You get instant feedback on what works and what doesn’t – at least when there is a responsive crowd of passers by.

I suspect there is also a bit of commentary here on US culture – people being utterly absorbed in their own worlds that it takes a lot for people to take in their surroundings.

The article is a fascinating insight into art and context.



Comment by Saw Lady

Hi Jerry,

Greetings from a fellow busker 🙂
I’m so glad to read your post!

All the best,

Posted on April 14, 2007 at 11:14 pm

Comment by Linn

Jerry, I adore buskers. There is no barrier between them and me. I can let them know instantly if I like what I hear and see – no standing in a queue after a concert at a reception (that the artist wishes they could avoid) to make inane comments about how much you enjoyed the performance.

Facing a busker you can say “where did you learn that? How long have you been doing this?” And you can dance around a bit if the music really “moves” you.

And I’m always willing to support with a bit of cash for the privilege.

Posted on April 15, 2007 at 4:56 am

Comment by Lynne

I wonder what would happen if this experiment were repeated in other capitols; London, Vienna, Canberra, Paris…

You’d have to pick the same sort of venue, though; heavy on the “bureaucrat” side.

On a different note, the D.C. metro has surprisingly good acoustics, considering all the concrete. Many a morning I can recall heading for work and hearing (mostly European) glee clubs touring the “Nation’s Capitol” burst into song. Good way to start the day!

Posted on April 15, 2007 at 6:15 am

Comment by jerry

And that’s just the sort of response that makes a buskers day in an age where people are increasingly focussed on their own lives.

And there have been some great experiences, like when a guy in a suit came up one evening and asked if he could have a go on my fiddle – I asked if he could play, and he said ‘a little’. Zubin Mehter was then lead violinist with the Israeli Symphony Orchestra and he played for myself and a few passers by for about half an hour – I shall carry that experience all my life!

That was in 1976 and he brought in about $6.00 to the ‘hat’ 🙂


Posted on April 15, 2007 at 9:23 am

Comment by jerry

As you can see above the experiment was not totally unique! I suspect a similar response would have been gained in london’s Embankment tube station near Whitehall, and similarly with Paris – I suspect much depends on the choice of venue – I’ve heard some lovely Vivaldi played in South Kensington tube near the museums – the acoustics are fantastic. But around the world the reactions are similar – in many peoples’ minds busking equates to begging, rather than public performance. There is truly no better way to learn to connect with an audience than through busking.


Posted on April 15, 2007 at 9:31 am

Comment by jerry

And it works across genres – I recently heard that one of the top circus schools in Paris has as the third year of their degree a requirement for their students to go out and do street performances and live off their ‘hat’ – their takings – for a year before being allowed to graduate!


Posted on April 15, 2007 at 9:52 am

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