After 4 months on the road with #BuskEngland, I’m really starting to get a feel for the dark art of busking. I’m still a beginner compared to those who have done this for a job, day-in day-out for years, but the chaos and random interactions of the street have started to resolve into a something familiar. I see trouble coming now, reckon I can read a street, play the right notes. It doesn’t scare me like it did.
I first busked years ago in Hull when I was dating a lady who lived there. I was fresh out of university and completely skint. I relied upon the people of Hull to provide for my train ticket home each time. They always saw me right.
It’s easy to look back on it as a golden time, a romantic way to make one’s way through life. But in truth, it was born of necessity, and bloody hard work. I wasn’t used to playing for so long, my technique was all over the place, and everything ached. It was cold in the winter, and fingers gave up after a while. Rain was not your friend. There were a lot of 2ps. Anyone who does this job for a living is a tough nut, for sure. I was glad when I took my career far enough to not need it any more.
I always took my cue from Laurie Lee’s beautiful writing in ‘As I Walked out one Midsummer’s Morning’, when as a teenager in the 1930s he busked his way away from a rural childhood home in Gloucestershire to London, then across to pre civil war Spain and Southwards. A fiddle player, he recommended steady tunes, so not to drive the audience past at high speed, nothing too miserable, keep it simple and accessible. Always have a few coins in your case before you begin, never let the pile grow too high. Pick out the best of them periodically for safe-keeping. Nobody wants to be the first to give, nobody wants to reward too generously if there’s a big pile already.
As a solo fiddle player without amplification in a world of motor cars, shops with piped music, other buskers with amps, and any number of other noises, the biggest challenge is to get heard at all. This becomes a technical challenge. I try to pick spots with good natural acoustics. I love narrow streets with tall, uncomplicated buildings opposite, whose walls funnel the sound down the road. I play to the acoustic, growing notes on the string before letting them off like soft arrows.
At least that’s what I think I do! It certainly encourages me to think tone and clarity. On a bad day in a bad spot, the notes die, forced and unresponsive. On a good day, I can even take it right back, confident in the sound cutting through, drawing the listener in. It can become a Zen-like space, lost in tone.
This simple and perfect mental state is frequently shattered by interactions with the general public. And a good thing too, for without them the whole endeavour would be pointless and uneconomic. Most people just go past, and that’s fine. There’s no obligation at all, and I’d hate anyone to feel they had to give a coin. One of the addictive things about busking is the constant little validations. Each coin is a small vote of confidence, a personal gift of an ego boost from a total stranger.
Besides the many fine people who simply give you smile and a generous coin or two, there are a variety of interactions you can expect during a long day on the street.
1) The walk past: These people will be striding along quite happily, find themselves enjoying the music, start fishing for coins, but crucially keep walking away for as long as it takes to find them, often quite a long way, before awkwardly having to walk all the way back to drop them in the case.
2) The nonchalant flipper: This character decided well before they passed you that they were going to hand over a coin, and will eject it straight down without breaking stride or making eye contact.
3) The precise figure: This character will shake a bunch of coins into their hand, and slowly calculate your exact worth to the penny, replacing the surplus coins in their wallet or more often their cash bag. They frequently give 37p.
4) Projectile bike man: This terrifying figure will try to land a 50p in your case from some distance without slowing down. It’s very much like watching a cruise missile attempting to enter a downstairs toilet window at 800mph. The mathematical calculations involved in this feat are far beyond our generous cyclist. This fellow, (It’s always a man) will have to calculate the exact angle of release and kinetic energy, allowing for their angular momentum and wind drag. They never manage it, and the coin goes feral, pinging off street furniture or your face, before hitting the ground on edge and rolling straight down the nearest grid.
5) The idiot: Despite the obvious pile of coins in the case by my feet, they will insist on trying to put them down the f-holes on my fiddle or into my moving hand or somewhere else totally inappropriate that would never have occurred to anyone but them. These people are particularly alarming if you’ve been absorbed in your music and not noticed them coming and your first awareness is an enthusiastic attempt to stuff 74p up your left nostril or into your flies.
6) The small child: This infant has been given a coin by a parent, and is now expected to make the arduous journey across the pavement, all on their own, towards the sweaty, bald fat man gyrating alarmingly for coins with his instrument. This clearly goes against the sort of advice small children would normally be given, and they will frequently stop to look over their shoulders in scepticism. Some turn back. They are the ones who will make old age.
7) The paid conversation: This character regards their donation to the busking collection as a purchase of my time in whatever form they see fit. I have some sympathy with this, and enjoy a good conversation. But you won’t get my detailed thoughts on the current Brexit situation and the political and economic road ahead for 10p.
8) Husband/Wife combo: Wife will draw husband’s attention to busker, husband will nod, pause, release a few small coins to wife, who is then permitted to proceed towards the busker for release. Thus completed, she will rejoin husband and their journey will continue.
9) Selfie man: This gentleman is generous, usually Asian, and will drop high value coins in the collection, before standing right next to you filming selfie videos with a huge grin on his face. He will often repeat this a number of times throughout the day.
10) 1p Grandma: Slowly manoeuvring down the street, she will give you a warm, genuine smile, thank you for the beautiful music, before carefully and deliberately releasing a single penny, watching it land, and heading off satisfied in the knowledge of a job well done.
11) Other buskers: Buskers lock onto one another from a great distance, following chord fragments down passageways as a St Bernard would seek an avalanche victim under a snowfield, appearing in your vision a respectful distance back, enjoying a deceptively nonchalant sausage roll and Subway coffee. They watch for a while, nod, and then give you 20p, which all true buskers know to be the minimum meaningful coin in the collection. Later, you will find their spot with similar cold calculation and return the exact same coin.
Of course, most people will simply walk past without getting involved at all, and that’s fine. However, there is a second group who will get involved who are altogether less generous than the first.
Let’s meet them;
1) The bean counter: This character walks out of their way with a determined stride to get a good hard look at your busking case. They stare at the coins within, counting them. The implied meaning is ‘How much? Stealing a living! First thing I’ll do when I’m in charge is ban the lot of them!’. There’s a jealousy and disapproval to their undisguised stare at your meagre earnings, made all the more pointless by the twin facts that they have no idea how long you’ve been there, and you’ve already removed quite a few coins.
2) Random object dude: This person prefers a quirky gift to currency. I’ve been given everything from fruit to poems to a grueling book about a Japanese prisoner of war camp. A friend of mine busking in New Zealand recently so impressed a drunk gentleman that he donated her his coat, phone, wallet, car keys, and shoes, before fleeing gloriously and uncatchably into the night.
3) Abuser: Thankfully rare, some people fly into an unstoppable rage at the sight of a busker. I’ve always adopted a policy of moving on if asked, regardless of my legal entitlement to be there, but so far nobody has ever politely asked me. On the rare occasion where someone has a problem, they instead scream and bawl at me, hurling insults and threatening to call the police.
4) ‘I own a Ukelele’: This tedious character has no intention of supporting your collection, but instead wants to interrupt you to regale you with stories of a Ukelele they bought 4 years ago and intend to learn some time. Hints that they may wish to go away are deflected with the calm assurance of one who intends to occupy the crease all day.
5) Geriatric conversation squad: If a group of old people meet their friends coming the other way right next to your pitch, you are doomed. The conversation is simply going to happen where they are right now, and you might as well grab a coffee or write that dystopian sci-fi novel you’ve been meaning to write, because they ain’t going anywhere for a while. To be fair, such conversations are usually joyous in the way that only old people talking far too loud with undisguised relish about physical ailments can be, and I don’t resent them at all. It’s hard enough being old, and at least being medically interesting is some consolation.
6) Dog in training: It’s a large puppy, cute and impossibly friendly with a frantically wagging tail, and it wants to wee lavishly in your fiddle case. Emergency manoeuvres must be taken.
7) Old Friend: “Haha I thought you’d have made your first million by now! What went wrong?” Thanks mate. Although sometimes they do drop a coin in, or a hot sausage roll.
It’s a rich tapestry for sure. No two days are quite alike, and no two entirely dissimilar. Mostly it’s pretty good fun!
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to firstname.lastname@example.org or through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!