Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Busking, or as we called it, "playing on the street"

I played on the street for years before I even knew of the existence of the word "busking." It has been a while since I have busked (maybe forty years), but I can still fully appreciate this study done this year by Samuel Stäbler of the Netherlands and Kim Katharina Mierisch of the UK.

I started playing on the street in New York in 1977 (mostly flute duets with fellow Juilliard students). Our best spot was in Greenwich Village in front of a bookstore, where we were given permission to play. When we were no longer allowed to play in front of the bookstore, we moved to a spot in front of a bakery. Our best day was Sunday, and the best time of day was the afternoon. The music was always classical, and we were almost children (I used to play a lot with the equally seventeen-year-old Jeff Khaner). After playing for about two hours, we made about $25 each, mostly in quarters. I would use the money to buy groceries.

Other Juilliard students tried their hands at playing on the street. I remember seeing Nigel Kennedy and Thomas Demenga on Fifth Avenue one cloudy day, playing in an alcove in front of Tiffany's in the late afternoon. Nobody stopped to listen. They didn't do so well on the street, but both have done extremely well in professional musical life.

It was a more innocent time. As long as we had permission from store owners, we didn't need any kind of permit. Nobody thought about amplification, nobody thought about videos (they weren't "invented" yet), and we could only measure our success in the volume and value of the coins people threw into our cases." People took pictures, though. I'm sure that images of me playing flute and recorder are on many an ektachrome slide, taken by tourists on vacation, and having been loaded onto carousel players long ago, now sit in basements and attics, only to be unearthed by grandchildren and great grandchildren, who will wonder if they are worth saving.

The only remnant of that time I have is this pencil drawing done in Graz, Austria.
I wrote a post in 2006 about my street-playing (or busking) experiences, which you can read here.


Chris said...

Which bookstore was it? I worked for a while in the Wise Book Shop on Eighth Street (across from the more famous Wilentz). That would have been from the middle of 1977 to the following spring. Maybe I heard you!

Elaine Fine said...

I think it was the Eighth Street Bookshop, so if you heard fluting across the street, it would have been us!