Thursday, June 5, 2014

Playing For Alms- The Busker

As a busker, one thing that does not work is self-consciousness. A busker needs to be working. A busker needs to shed all ego and get down to work. Play your songs, play them well, earn your money and get out of people's way.
- Glen Hansard

I’ve listened to guitar players in subways, violinists on street corners, and an ensemble of banjo and harmonica players outside the original Starbucks in Seattle.  Once, I sat mesmerized under a bridge for almost an hour listening to a family of eight singing acapella, harmonizing with the voices of angels. But this pianist playing a baby grand in the park was a first. Last Sunday night, I wandered down to Washington Square Park in NYC’s Greenwich Village, following the classical notes as they drifted on the summer breeze.

The park benches were filled with people of all ages, listening to what the performer gently reminded his audience was not a free concert.  

“This will be my last song for the night unless someone buys my CD.”

Street performers, also known as buskers, have been part of every culture since the beginning of time.

Before the invention of recording devices, the street was the first and best place to reach an audience. The name busker comes from the Spanish word ‘buscar’, which means seeker. Seekers of fame. Seekers of fortune. Seekers of someone to simply recognize and appreciate their art. The seeker playing the piano was competing at times with a horn player on a nearby corner. As the sun began to set, he consolidated his tip buckets into the bucket he was using as a seat, put it on top of the piano and began pushing it toward the corner where a sand artist was creating a spectacular display for spare change.

I don’t know much about music. I only know what I like. I
didn’t recognize any of his pieces. I imagined they were the same scores that have echoed through out concert halls in Europe for centuries. Intoxicating. Timeless.

Like this pianist, Rod Stewart, Tracy Chapman, B.B. King and Jewel reportedly all got their start as street performers. Occasionally, already famous musicians still return to the tradition. Sting went in disguise in London’s subway a few years ago and earned 40 pounds for an honest day’s work.

I threw $10 in the pianist’s bucket. He answered my most obvious questions. He works the park every weekend and pushes his instrument to a storage locker about a half mile away. Where else do you play? What do you do during the week?

“I recover from the weekend.”

Is there something that you love to do enough that you would do it on a street corner for spare change?

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