Sunday, December 31, 2006

Playing Music on the Street

I used to do a lot of playing on the street when I was a flutist. I started doing it in New York in the late 1970s. I even played flute duets with people who went on to become famous flutists like Jeff Khaner, who is now the principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as a whole bunch of other Juilliard students who have gone on to find "legitimate" work in music. Jeff and I used to play in front of a book store in Greenwich Village. The book store people liked it because we brought in business, and we liked it because we always got a nice audience and actually made what we felt was a respectable amount of money. Back in the 1970s the whole thing was rather novel and exciting for people walking on the streets, and it was a way for me and my musical partners to feel like were were a part of the city.

When I went off to Austria I continued playing music on the street because I was in serious need of money. I was preparing to go to a flute competition in Budapest that required a bunch of solo flute music, so I sometimes even played alone. One day while I was playing on the street in Graz, an art student drew this portrait of me. Then she went away for a little while and returned with a whole bunch of brightly-colored chalk, and drew the same portrait on the sidewalk itself. When I moved to Vienna, the Kartnerstrasse became my new "work place." I played there every day with a Finnish bassoonist, and we did quite well for ourselves until it started to get cold. People photographed us all the time, and I'm sure that many tourists thought that what they were hearing were Austrian musicians. I really had the time of my life.

When I returned to New York after being in Europe I tried playing on the street again. It wasn't the same. The "hot" venue was now Columbus Avenue on the upper west side. I do remember having a great time playing with a violinist named Jenny Nilsen, who I believe is now married to Garrison Keillor, but street playing had already become a fixture of New York life and was no longer the kind of novelty it had been a few years earlier. People were walking around with Sony Walkmans (Walkmen?) in their ears, and it seemed that in order to be successful you needed to have some kind of act, shtick, or ballyhoo in order to grab people's attention. Eventually people started getting permits and using amplification. Now they even sell CDs.

Playing on the street in Boston in the 1980s was also interesting. The place to play was Harvard Square, and securing a place on the square with some protection from wind and traffic noise was difficult. I remember one particularly difficult evening when I had gotten a great spot in front of the Harvard Coop. My busking companions and I were probably playing Haydn or Mozart, and we were totally blown out of the auditory waters by a Klezmer band. I believe that group was what now has become the Klezmer Conservatory Band.

I haven't played on the street for a long time, and as a string player I don't think I would want to expose my instrument to the elements the way I did as a flutist. When I hear someone play on the street who plays well, I always stop, listen, and try to remember what it was like when I played on the street in a more innocent time. A time when hearing someone play un-amplified music in an unexpected place was a moment of serendipity.

1 comment:

Erin said...

There's a cellist that plays down the road from the Royal Festival Hall here, underneath a railway bridge. He's there about two or three days a week. He's pretty sheltered from the elements under there, and it's the pedestrian path to the Thames from Waterloo station so there's lots of foot traffic. He's quite good I think.