An Honest Audience

My last experience playing a musical instrument of any kind was about 15 years ago. I was in the supposedly soundproof practice rooms of my college’s music building. After I spent not an insignificant amount of time tuning my borrowed guitar, I launched into a show-stopping rendition of Row, Row, Row Your Boat. When I finished I distinctly heard a beautiful melody coming from the next room in which there apparently was a protégé of Yo Yo Ma doing Bach.

I know everyone has to begin somewhere, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with one step, etc. etc, but since then I’ve not been inclined to play the guitar while any souls are within a 100-yard radius. Considering I live in spitting distance of 8 million people, you can safely conclude I don’t play at all. Note: this also applies to karaoke no matter how many drinks I’ve had.

So I admire the folks who put themselves out there, get up on stage and bare their souls. It’s indeed a strange exercise to subject oneself to extreme vulnerability on a regular basis. (You writers know what I’m talking about, too.) The hardiest of these is the subway busker. Some are great and some should take a vow of silence, but either way, these people have guts. They play in hostile environments – trains roaring into the stations, brakes squealing, heat, gross stuff being thrown into their instrument cases, and possibly the worst, people just ignoring them. It’s a bit masochistic if you think about. Most do it, not for the pittance of change they get, but because they are driven to play music for people.

That’s one of the reasons I invited Don Witter to play at the book release party for The Subway Chronicles at the New York Transit Museum, housed in a converted subway station. He left his job in 1994 as a computer network troubleshooter to play classical guitar full time. He considers playing in the subway “as natural as anything else.”

Grand Army Plaza is his preferred station. I see him every Wednesday morning. He positions himself on a stool under his banner and plays one soothing tune after another. My favorite is Girl from Ipanema. Yeah, I’d rather be on a beach in Brazil than 100 feet underground on my way to work.

Recently at Grand Army Plaza there has been a man playing a full-size harp. I mean, good gracious, how dedicated (read crazy) you must be to lug that thing from your apartment, all the way to the station and then down at least two flights of stairs to the platform. (See the Rainy Days post.)

It’s a misunderstanding to think that buskers perform in the stations because they can’t get other gigs. Don, who is a member of Music Under New York (MUNY), an MTA group that boasts membership of 100 musicians and organizes the stations and times of their performances, regularly plays around the city, including venues like Lincoln Center. The musicians in MUNY range from the Big Apple Quartet (barbershop) to the Ebony Hillbillies (left) to Sean Grissom, the Cajun Cellist (linked on YouTube). From what I understand the auditions are fairly rigorous.

But I’m just not sure what to make of the Saw Lady. I guess if teenage boys can turn plastic containers into drums, why can’t she wield music from a saw? She’s performed in Paris, Rome, Florence, Prague and Tel-Aviv, but likes busking in New York best. “New Yorkers make an honest audience.”

I think that’s all that anyone, be it musician, writer, tax attorney… is looking for: an honest audience. Validation is a powerful thing. When I ask trusted friends to read my work, the absolute worst response I could receive is, “It’s good.” If I wanted an answer like that I’d just give it to my mom, who thinks everything I put on paper is better than Hemingway. (Thanks, Mom!)

That’s the blessing and curse that buskers live with – instant feedback. As Don put it, “You have to have character to play there.” He has also learned some valuable tips from playing on the platform. “If someone is hanging around too long, do not have too much money in your case. Play every single note well and bring your business cards because you never know who might hire you.”

That’s probably Susan Cagle’s mantra, ‘You never know.’ More on her tomorrow.

Listen to Don Witter play Girl from Ipanema here.
Listen to the Saw Lady here.

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