why i quit busking


I think I figured out why I have quit busking.

In his book, Power Failure: Christianity in the Culture of Technology, Albert Borgmann discusses what makes a public community of celebration and how we are sorely lacking these in our society.

It may seem odd that he speaks of “communities” of celebration. But he is defining community in the way Robert Bellah (whom he cites) does:

a community of memory and of practices of commitment, and refers to a group of people who are in one another’s bodily presence and engaged in a common enterprise that is an END rather than a MEANS – Robert Bellah cited by Albert Borgmann

and celebrations are seen as

real and focal things – commanding realities not disposable ones

In  his discussion of these communities he comes up with particular instances where he talk about them. The first one he chooses is street-corner music (his term).

In Borgmann’s take on street-corner music, the community is made up of the musicians themselves and the celebration is the act of live music performing and being listened to. “The audience is usually anonymous, sporadic, and passive. But a community is not an all-or-nothing affair. The bodily presence, the skill, the engagement, and the goodwill of the musicians radiate into the  listeners and transform them to some degree.”

So far, so good. But then Borgmann begins to comment further. “Music as a celebration that is real all the way down will also sink its roots into the reality of the public space where it takes place. Celebration and place will inform one another. Thus, although street-corner music is not and should never be the result of a design thought up by the public officials….”

I stopped reading here and began thinking about Holland’s Street Performer history. It was started by interested businesses, business owners who had an interest in music themselves convinced the city council to allow musicians to play on the street.

So it really started in the sense of the community of musicians addressing the public officials. I was involved at this stage and played several pilot program instances of playing on the street.


Borgmann continues this way. “…. much can and ought to be done to make the physical environment of the city more generous to such music. It is a matter of providing space, shelter, and a little quiet in the midst of the urban commotion.”

As the Street Performer program continue to expand, the public officials set aside Thursday night and hired musicians and other performers to come and play at stations they determined. These stations got more and more crowded. The notion of who was performing what expanded to include acrobats, magicians, dancers and other street activities.

Along about this time, I began complaining to the public officials that it was difficult to do music in such close proximity to other musicians.

And the noise was not just live music. Dancers of course provided their own recordings to move to.

Also, the public officials more than once would ask musicians I was playing with to turn down. We were too loud. I remember pointing out to one of these people that the saxophone she wanted me to turn down was not miked.

Finally, the last time I played on the street was during the day one spring. I took my electric piano downtown, set up and began to play Mozart. Within minutes, a policeman asked me to turn down.

I tried to continue playing after turning down. But got frustrated, packed up and went home. I did report this to the Street Performer organization but never really had the urge to play again in the streets of Holland.

Borgmann’s observations about the need for the city to be “generous to such music” helped me understand how this local program started more like a community celebration and ended up more like a regulated commercialization. No wonder I quit.

6 thoughts on “why i quit busking

  1. Makes a lot of sense to me. We’ve only been downtown a couple times to the Thursday night thing. It was always too crowded and loud for me, and I get exhausted in those big public event-type environments, though theoretically it should be great for kids, and we could bike there easily in the summer with the kids. I would have liked to have experienced it in the early days, before it became codified, and regularized.
    Liked the pic of you and the combo of guys.
    Want to get together to read the duet sometime in a couple of weeks?

    1. At first, I enjoyed playing on the streets. I didn’t limit myself to Thursday evenings (which is an invite sort of event for buskers). I took my harpsichord down at least once and played mostly Baroque music. That was fun. I remember doing what I usually do and demonstrating to interested kids how harpsichords work. I took my marimba down more than once and got so I could play it and sing “Under the Sea” I played duets with Jon Fegel many times and had fun. But the fun went out of it for me for the reasons described in the post.

      I’m still learning the duet but am looking forward to putting it together. I practice it sitting on the right side of the bench. Heh.

  2. Steve,
    I certainly understand your point, but am torn in my feelings about busking because of some of my own experiences with it in London and Ireland.

    At the Cliffs of Moher, there was a single tin whistle player that piped as the winds whirling off the Cliffs carried the haunting music all over the area setting my memories of the last days in Ireland to wonderful musical ones. A similar experience set the Tube in London firmly in my memory, too. But it is hard to hear the music sometime and can give a circus kind of experience too.

  3. Great memories! I think “circus” sums it up well. In addition I find that people more and more think of live music in terms of music they listen to normally, that is, music that comes out of a machine of some sort. They lose the idea that music is being done by living breathing human like themselves. I think this leads to people ignoring musicians and treating them much like a speaker box or someone who is doing something that is very easy and inconsequential. This is not malicious on their part but reflects a paucity of understanding on what music can be.

  4. New Orleans struggled with this most of my life as the areas around Jackson square were way more lucrative than most of the city, and also emblematic — causing a quality concern. The city had elaborate maps and charts of daily usage, usually making it two tarot readers between musicians and performers, and clearly designated badges and spot numbers. Nobody happy, but less fighting.

  5. The road to Hell, and all that. What a shame. I love surprise musical encounters. I used to ride my bike on the flood control channel here in San Diego. It’s a long stretch of mudflats where all kinds of birds hang out, on the San Diego River where it’s about to dump into the ocean. Once in awhile, I’d ride by a trumpeter or a drummer or a clarinetist, practicing along the waterway. If it somehow became organized by the city, those happy accidents would lose all of their charm.

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