Thursday, October 28, 2010

Top Five Thursday: Busking Pitches


The Fiddler in the Subway: The Story of the World-Class Violinist Who Played for Handouts. . . And Other Virtuoso Performances by America's Foremost Feature WriterI just finished "The Fiddler in the Subway," a collection of feature stories by Washington Post writer Gene Weingarten. It's one of the best books I've read in years: hilarious, heartbreaking, and human.

But the title story -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning one about renowned violinist Joshua Bell performing in a D.C. subway station and the commuters who paid him absolutely no mind -- is the one that moved me the most.

It often surprises coworkers or acquaintances to hear that I used to be a busker, singing in streets and subways, but it’s actually a fundamental part of who I am. It’s a role I identify with more than any other – the free-spirited minstrel – and for good reason: street performance is where music, travel, friendliness and generosity all intersect.

“They are the ghosts.”
I can tell you from experience that Weingarten’s story hit on many truths, both beautiful and discouraging. Nearby merchants understandably care more about your volume than whether you’re any good. The large majority of passers-by will ignore you, or listen discreetly without giving themselves away. Many are too busy to notice -- “they are the ghosts,” Weingarten says with haunting insight – but others simply don’t care for your style of music, and that’s ok.

But children do always stop to listen, and it’s not just an attention span thing. They become entranced. I like to sit on the ground when I play, which puts me at their level.

And there is always someone like John Picarello out there, the man who stopped to listen to Bell, saying, “It was a treat, just a brilliant, incredible way to start the day."

Like any artist, or teacher, or anyone who cares about something, you do it for those people; for the few but deep connections that you make.

Many of the most meaningful experiences of my life have happened while, or because of, busking. A woman bent down to give me a 10-pound note on the Central Line platform at Tottenham Court Road, sobbing, because the REM song I was playing affected her so deeply. At the same station (Northern Line platform), a Japanese girl was moved to tears as I played “The Boxer,” and described how she had arrived in London just that day and had already been robbed. I still get chills remembering these moments, in awe that I could have had such an immediate and intense impact on a complete stranger.

I’ve had hundreds of deep conversations and made real friendships out of nowhere thanks to busking. I was plucked from the Notting Hill tube station to have dinner at a French woman's flat -- she insisted. I have sung impromptu harmonies with drunken revelers, and have befriended homeless men. Once I was asked to serenade a clerk at a Bond Street clothing shop who had just gotten engaged. Appreciative patrons have bought me beers and, in lieu of any change, offered me everything from drugs to jewelry to women’s undergarments.

There is a young guy with a husky, soulful voice who has increasingly been playing outside our office in the late afternoon, and I give him a dollar every time I see him. I always give at least some change to a street performer – knowing that even throwing in a couple of dimes helps, if only to break the ice so other onlookers might get the hint – but rarely a buck. But this kid is so good; leaving my rather corporate job, I’m jealous of him, and happy for him, too.

Quite honestly, in many ways I prefer singing in the streets to performing a real show. No one expects anything of you -- they haven't paid a $10 cover -- so you can't really disappoint. You meet new people and, hopefully, add something surprising and beautiful to an otherwise dull part of their day. There are no microphones or amplifiers to contend with, so the mix is completely organic and easy to adjust. And when people change their plans to stay and listen, you know you've really earned their appreciation.

From Faneuil Hall to Covent Garden, Grafton Street to Las Ramblas, I’ve played on plenty of street corners and subway platforms – “pitches,” in busker parlance. Here are my five favorites to date.

Top 5 Busking Pitches

5. Downtown Crossing, Orange Line platform (Boston, Mass.)
I owe all these experiences to my dad, who gave me both the idea and the confidence to try playing in the subway 15 years ago. Downtown Crossing was the first place I ever played; it was a terrifying debut. (This is where I picked up the habit of closing my eyes while I play.) My knees were shaking violently for the first few songs, but I settled down quickly, and soon kids were clapping along and money appeared in my guitar case. I got hooked.

4. Paseo de la Concha (San Sebastian, Spain)
My experience here has been well-chronicled in song, but the story goes like this: My friend Adam and I were on a train to Barcelona (after some misadventures), and while he was in el baño, the conductor came by. I had no money for a ticket (just an “emergency” credit card from my parents and a few British coins) and was promptly kicked off the train. (When Adam got back, he had a heated, inebriated confrontation with the conductor in broken Spanglish.)

This was well before cell phones, and I found myself alone and broke in San Sebastian – a lovely seaside town, though I didn’t realize that yet. El estacion del tren wouldn’t accept credit cards, so as the sun set, I tried singing near the beach promenade, and gradually the locals came out for their evening strolls. I raised enough money for my ticket to Barcelona, and even got invited to spend the night with four Spanish girls. (I refused, saying I had to go meet my friend… what the hell was I thinking??! Though to be fair, he did spend an entire day waiting for arrivals at the Barcelona train station.)

3. Tottenham Court Rd. Station (London, U.K.)
I was devastated when I learned that they started restricting buskers from playing in London’s Underground. (I was also crushed when they banned drinking on the tube, since, as a college student, drinking beer on public transport was one of my favorite things to do in London.)

This was the first place I ever made a bunch of money – whether at the very end of the long, Central Line tunnel, or on the Northern Line platform, I would typically make 40 pounds an hour playing here. When my parents came to visit, they were impressed by that! But it was a tough pitch to get – there was lots of competition. I gradually became friendly with the other buskers, including a lanky, punk-rock girl from NYC and a Jamaican guy who played reggae.

2. Haymarket Station, Orange Line outbound platform (Boston, Mass.)
This has become my go-to place. You might think that what makes one pitch better than another comes down to foot traffic, but it’s more complicated than that. It’s like page views for a website – it helps to have a lot of them, sure, but you also want quality page views.

Haymarket isn’t as busy as Park Street or Downtown Crossing, but that’s a good thing. There are fewer trains attempting to sing along with their squealing brakes, and after 7pm you can fit in a solid three songs between trains – giving you ample opportunity to win over listeners. You want people to have a chance to hear you; if mobs of people are whizzing by, they’re only giving you money because you’re there, not because they listened and liked you.

And the acoustics in this tunnel are phenomenal. When I return after not having played here in awhile, I am astounded by how good I sound! What’s more, given its location near Faneuil Hall, it often attracts tourists -- who are more likely to be in a care-free, spending mood than a commuter, and often get a kick out of seeing what they consider a Boston tradition.

1. High Street (Galway, Ireland)
Galway in summer is a musician’s playground. The arts, and those who appreciate them, are everywhere. I often tell people that living in Galway for the summer was like spending three months in the ‘60s.

It’s usually problematic to sing outdoors without amplification, but on Galway’s packed pedestrian thoroughfare, there are no cars to compete with, and the buildings are close enough together to provide some reverb and resonance. The shopkeepers are accustomed to the drill, and so are the passers-by; it’s fairly easy to draw a crowd around you.

In my experience, the Irish love music more than anyone, and have an unrivaled appreciation for street musicians. And waves of tourists seemed to think a 10-euro CD by someone they saw live would make a perfect souvenir for their friend or teenage niece.

I performed almost every day that summer, and during the peak of the season, I would often make 100 euro in an hour if you included CD sales. I’ve never been in better musical shape, or met as many interesting people, singing my little heart out on the metal box outside the Internet cafe.

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