Nine Variations on the Idea of Street Music

If no one is really listening, who is the street performance for?

We played. That’s the verb every musician uses. I play drums. I play harp. I play for the New York Philharmonic. I play in a garage band. We played on a street, and other people were listening, more or less. We made a mood.

Photo by W. Scott Olsen

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1. Saturday Morning in Christchurch, on the South Island of New Zealand, and the weather is not good. This is May, autumn in the Southern Hemisphere beginning to think about winter. Rain falls, constant though not heavy, more enveloping than intrusive. Low clouds. Enough of a chill that collars get pulled close when heading outdoors.

It’s a gray morning, but not an unhappy one. The weekend street fair at the Arts Centre is open. Slate-colored stone walls of the old university buildings, as Old World English looking as you can get, shimmer from the water running off the roofs. Tents cover folk arts and crafts: handmade soaps, wool hats, mittens, scarves, carved wood, candles and paintings and socks. Puddles line the sidewalk, and the smell of hot food, gyros and curry with beef and lamb, pulls people through the crowd.

I’ve just left breakfast at Le Café, strong coffee and warm bread by the corner fireplace, and am walking down Worcester Boulevard, the Gothic buildings to my right, the old street to my left.

I do not expect to hear his voice. A young boy, no more than 10 years old, is, at first glance, standing just one step in from the gutter, his back to the street. He wears black shoes, black pants, a black overcoat. His posture is perfect, his chin a bit raised, and he is singing.

I stop on the sidewalk, as do the people around me. This is one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard, the boy’s high voice shattering every raindrop. The song is slow and the notes complex. I have no idea what song it is. A lament, I am sure. Irish or Scottish. The tone is filled with sadness and longing, and the boy’s high voice makes it seem nearly tragic. No one moves.

No one stands in front of him. We gather to both sides. Something about that front space seems more personal, more private. We are hearing, but we are not the audience. When he is done, he walks a few steps to a group of adults sitting on a small stone wall. His parents, I think. They wrap him in their arms. “Good job,” they say.

“That is the sweetest thing I have ever seen,” says a woman next to me. There is rain on her face. It’s possible she is crying.

There is an open hat on the ground near where the boy was standing, and as we all begin to walk again a few of us drop coins into the waiting space.

“That was really very good,” I say as I pass. “Thank you.”

His parents smile. The boy looks at me. He’s worked up every bit of courage he has to be here. That song is still in the air, and composure is everything. Nonetheless, he nearly smiles too.

2. Christmastime in Chicago. I am somewhere in elementary school, and my parents have taken all four of us kids into the city for a shopping spree. We’ve ridden the Chicago and Northwestern commuter train, and we even got to sit on the upper level. We’ve been in what seems like a thousand stores, every one of them decorated in the red and green and white of the season, and dutifully if not happily tried on clothes. We’re heading toward State Street, toward Marshall Fields, where the famous window displays are filled with animatronic characters, Santas placing gifts, children peeking around staircase walls, every window a new chapter in one long narrative that lines the street. This is our Christmas shopping tradition. There is a Christmas tree in the store’s Walnut Room restaurant that rises at least four stories in the open space, every inch of it decorated, and we are going to wait until there is an open table right at the base of the tree, and then we will order Frango mint pie and hot chocolate before heading to the train station again and home.

December in Chicago can be cruel, but this one is not. It’s snowy and quiet, and not that cold. We linger at every window, taking the time to look at how detailed and intricate each part of the story needs to be. We admire the clothes, the chairs, the small details in socks hung by fires. There is music, too. A lone woman in a very long coat and earmuffs stands at the building’s corner playing Christmas songs on a flute. It’s clear she does not work for the store. But here she is. No one asks her to leave.

I remember thinking how different the songs sounded from that flute. “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” “Away in a Manger.” “Do You Hear What I Hear?” There is a breathiness in flute music, a lightening, an opening somehow inside each note. And I remember how wonderful, too. The feeling of Christmas includes the weight of nostalgia, and I would not have been surprised if this woman, or frankly if all of us, didn’t wake up from her playing in some earlier century.

3. I look at this picture a lot. What are these guys doing?

Late February in London. Look at the people. Every one of them is cold. The woman in back is burrowing into her coat. The couple in front—gloves and scarves and heavy coats—can’t walk fast enough to wherever they are going. The drummer wants to be somewhere else. No one pauses long enough to shake a few coins into the case. The accordion player—look at his face. He might be insane. These men are ignored.

I am not very far away, happily bundled in my own coat and hat, good coffee in hand, so I linger to watch these two. The songs are happy, upbeat, toe tappers. If it weren’t for the wind, I think, there would be people dancing. If it weren’t for the cold. But here they are, despite the wind and despite the cold. It’s clear they know each other well. They have played these songs, together, a thousand times. They are not learning how to play together, how to make two styles one. They are not exploring exotic chords in a warm café or jazz club. They are not hoping to transport someone in the auditorium’s fifth row to some new emotional state. No one is listening. So, if no one is listening, why are they here?

4. I love street musicians. They are, for me, as mysterious as the two large planets that math says should exist in our own solar system on the far side of Pluto.

I teach at a school where music is important. It’s one of the ways we define ourselves. In the music building there are hallways lined with heavy doors that lead to practice rooms, each one with a piano. Fifty people could be playing in those rooms and the hallway would be quiet enough for normal conversation. Tchaikovsky next to Bach. Practice is private. Perhaps not solitary, but certainly removed, cloistered, secret. If you really botch that high note or fumble through an arpeggio, no one will know except perhaps your accompanist, your sworn-to-secrecy co-conspirator. There are tears in the practice rooms. There is anger. I’m sure there is love there, too. Love for the music. Love for the instrument. Love for your partner. But love with a sense of foreboding. Practice is an act of anticipation. There is a performance on the horizon.

Performances are sacred. In theory at least, performances are elegant, faultless. Performances are whole. At a performance, music is played to the audience. Audiences pay attention. They listen. Their hearts rise and fall. At my college, we graduate 20 or so music majors every year. But there are five choirs, nearly 400 voices, and a 90-piece orchestra for our Christmas concerts. There are home concerts and a road trip. There are both radio and PBS.

There are jazz bands here, and a percussion group, a gamelan or two. Quartets and quintets and solo work. There are performances all the time.

On the street, though, more often than not the audience never breaks stride. People hear, but no one really listens. Hell, no one remains in earshot long enough to hear a full song.

There are no street musicians at my college.

5. I make a list on a summer trip to New York, the tour in from the airport:

1. A street drummer pounding on upturned plastic buckets in midtown.
2. An acoustic guitar player, with only three strings, at a subway entrance.
3. Another guitar player, with an electric and a small amp, in a tiled subway corridor.
4. A saxophone player walking fast through Central Park.
5. The naked cowboy in Times Square, with a guitar.
6. Some guy singing show tunes near a cab line at LaGuardia.
7. A violin player sitting on a stoop.
8. Two kids with kazoos in the hotel lobby.

6. In winter, there are no street musicians in Fargo, North Dakota. In summer, I did once see a Mennonite choir singing under a tent downtown, the women in plain dresses and caps. No one stopped to listen. But it didn’t really matter. There they were. Out in public. Singing for all heaven to hear.

7. I tell this story to a friend of mine, and it all becomes suddenly clear:

Early one night in Sydney, Australia, I was walking up George Street with students. Typical tourist stuff. There were four of us, maybe five, on the way back to our hotel. The air was warm and humid. The streetlights were bright. Everyone was happy.

In the alcove of some building, a man played two conga drums. The rhythms were Spanish and African. Complicated and fun. Drumming for dance. Pedestrians slowed and then lingered. A few people tried to dance. They were not very good. The drummer motioned to a student and moved away from one of the drums. An invitation. The student—his name was Greg—stepped up and started to drum. He started to drum fast, loud and hard. It didn’t sound very good. No sense of context or history. No sense of rhythm. Even worse, he was hitting the drum but not listening to his partner. It sounded confused. It sounded like pain. People laughed.

Greg stepped away, embarrassed but happy he took the chance. The drummer motioned to me. He did not know I took drum lessons for more than a decade when I was young. My students did not know I used to play at all.

I let the drummer start a cadence and instead of trying to mimic him, I filled the spaces he left for me. He worked the edge of his drum skin, so I worked the edge and middle of mine, the occasional heavy note with my thumb on the edge to accent what he was doing. He let me fill his rests. I did not step on his notes. We played together for at least thirty seconds. Maybe a minute. I had fun.

So obvious. We played. That’s the verb every musician uses. I play drums. I play harp. I play for the New York Philharmonic. I play in a garage band. We played on a street, and other people were listening, more or less. We made a mood.

8. There is a band in the band shell at the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris. Another cold early-spring day. They wear heavy coats and mittens and hats that would be at home in Minnesota. Their audience is one
elderly lady with an orange purse. This is not practice. Not the kind of practice where you learn the notes, the fingerings, or work out the faults. These guys are having fun. This is not performance, either. No flyers were printed. No program was announced. They just showed up, unpacked their instruments, and started to play. In public.

This is a happy group. At the end of each song, the sound of that one woman clapping makes them smile.

There is another band on the bridge between Île de la Cité and Île Saint-Louis. Tourists linger to take a photograph, then hurry on.

And then there is the quartet on the banks of the Thames, playing, it seems, straight into a brick wall. People on the Queen’s Walk above them stop, smile, dance, take photographs, and then move on. A few drop coins—a kind of target game to see if they can get them to land in the case.

It seems perfectly clear. Go outside and play. Street musicians play music. Sure, they are hoping for a break, to get noticed, to get better, to make some if not any connection. Most of them are not good enough to turn professional, to make a living this way. But they are musicians. They love to play. It makes something of their heart real and out loud. Maybe they make a bit of money, too. But it’s like a game of tag in late-summer twilight. There is no winner. Just the joy of running around, reaching, hoping it will never end. That’s all there is.

9. No, I was wrong. There is one thing more. It’s the idea that lingers when I walk away from the ballad, the protest song, the aria, the jazz, the hymn, and I find myself thinking about the music, the people who give it breath. Street music is public. It is performance. It is a statement of something, intended to be more than an étude behind a practice-room door. But if no one is really listening, who is the performance for?

Oddly, though maybe not, I find myself thinking about Buddhist prayer flags. With every snap in the wind, I’m told, the prayer printed on the flag is supposed to be released into the world. It is not a prayer to a god. It is a prayer for everyone. A blessing for the world. A wish for a better place.

I like this idea. The street musician a kind of monk. That little kid in New Zealand as well as the Mennonites and the tattooed and multipierced punker in the London Tube. Especially those guys playing to a brick wall. Every song is a prayer. Every note a hope for something more.


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