Sax on the Streets
Chapter 25:
Amsterdam, Holland


© Dan Gordon, 2003

Ugh. Amsterdam. Three days to kill with absolutely no desire to do anything. We were burnt out in a burnt-out city.

With a state of mind like that, of course, we had no chance for successful busking. First we tried the pedestrian zone, which was so full of people that we had difficulty finding space to set up. Here was an example of a pitch where there were actually too many people around. Passers-by didnít even hear us amid the commotion. Instead, they trampled all over the hat. The poor hat! Filthy, wrinkled, and limp, it gagged on the few coins that found their way into it. The hat cried out to end the agony.

We tried again at an open-air book fair the next day. It was a struggle to even put our instruments together. The music sounded hopelessly feeble, soggy, languid. It dribbled from our saxophones and coagulated into a puddle at our feet. One of the booksellers soon asked us to move because the noise bothered him. Rather than fight it, we gave up.

That was itówe could busk no more. We spent the rest of our days playing cards in a park to kill time. So it ended with a dying whimper in Amsterdam. * * *

Looking back on our busking experiences, Gary and I saw that we had a classic case of serendipity. All we really wanted to do at the outset was cut our costs and add some fun to our travels. Instead, we found adventures at every street corner and paid our way in the bargain. The ecstasy of that revelation carried us through the entire first summer; the second time around, we discovered the humbling realities of the trade.

The first summerís successes and excesses actually made things more difficult on our return trip. We were not prepared for the vagaries of the busking pendulum; we hit the positive side of it the first summer and never swung back until the second year. Then, when the lows hit and time dragged on, the disheartening reality that busking was not always so rosy pummeled our spirits. Thatís why we donít do this forever.

We put undue pressure on ourselves to make our busking earnings last. It became an obsession, and we suffered unreasonably over it. We fell into the nasty trap of judging a city based on our earnings, and an even nastier one of becoming resentful of everything that stood in our buskingís way. Such attitudes spoiled many of the pleasures of our travels. Would it really have been so terrible to cash a couple of hundred dollars worth of travelerís checks for two months of travel? Thatís a bargain by anyoneís standards. But for us at the time, it seemed like torture.

The irony of it is that while we became so maniacal about making our act pay the way, we did not allow ourselves to make it any more profitable. The rags in Barcelona proved that popular music had more general appeal than our baroque duets, yet we didnít continue with it. Nor did we ever consider using a bottler. These, however, are issues of morality; we felt like trying to make it with our real love, classical music, and we didnít want to beg in the process. I have no regrets about that.

Our pitch, despite its drawbacks, served its purpose admirably. The uniqueness factor was in our favor. We saw a lot of different acts along the way, but never anything like ours. Seeing two people standing on a street corner playing baroque duets on two tiny saxophones is likely to turn anyoneís head. Originality means almost as much as talent for successful busking. Anyone offering yet another act of folk guitar songs on the street had better be darn good if he expects to draw much attention.

Successful busking also depends on the compatibility of those involved. While this is true of any team effort, it is especially true of buskers, who not only work together but travel together as well. Traveling can put an enormous strain on a relationship. Gary and I were entirely compatible travel partners, but we had still grown sick of one another by the time we were done. Before we reached that saturation point, though, the mutual dependency that busking in duo required often strengthened our relationship. The companionship of a busking partner is essential over a long haul. Some may like the independence of busking solo, but two months would be a long time to travel alone.

Although playing duets means splitting earnings in half, it reaps big dividends musically. For street purposes, music in two parts is more than twice as interesting as solo music. There is no substitute for harmony. While that makes a big difference musically, it doesnít translate financially. The few times Iíve busked alone, I made as much as with duetsóand didnít have to split the earnings. Yet even earning twice as much, itís not as much fun. Thereís no one to share your enthusiasm with when youíre cranking, no one to console you when youíre scraping.

The interplay between two duetting instruments did wonders for Gary and me. After several hundred times through the same music, we began to think together. We knew exactly what the other would do and how we had to adjust. Playing in tune with one another became second nature. Changes in tempo were always exactly together. We even played trills at the same speed. I never played as well as I did when I played beside Gary. Our musical compatibility brought out the best in me.

Busking has made me a better musician. Playing under all the conditions we came across, often against a lot of competition, has made me more adaptable and has heightened my powers of concentration. Now, playing alone before a quiet, attentive audience seems too easy. In a formal setting, however, finding people to play for is difficult. Busking provides instant audiences and plenty of feedback, which all musicians need.

I would like to believe these audiences are better off because of our busking, too. Gary and I offered people an opportunity to hear a kind of music they didnít readily have access to otherwise. Classical music can have a resistant shell about it; for those who are not familiar with the idiom, it can seem distant. To make it more accessible, one has to hear it more often. Doing so requires spending good money on concerts. Most people donít bother. The result is a genre of music that is both created and consumed by a small fraction of the public. How do you make classical music reach the layman on the street? Why, you play it on the street. So much of the ingratiating feedback we got came from people who had never given themselves the opportunity to hear music like that before.

But we did it more for ourselves than for others. We wanted to see how far our music could take us, and it took us far indeed. Not just financially, but socially as well. No longer were we outsiders looking in, but part of the life and activity of each city. We were not passive receptors, but active participants who came in contact with local people. And all the unexpected adventures added a twist to the usual tourist activities.

By overall busking standards, the adventures Gary and I had were not extraordinary. The same kinds of things happen to all buskers. Stop and chat with one some time and youíll see that every one of them has got an endless supply of stories to tell. And as we learned from the wise old busker Callum on that fateful night in Zermatt, many buskers have raised the act of story-telling to an art form. Exchanging tales and tips with other buskers is one of the true joys of the trade. Despite our limited experience, Gary and I found that we could trade tales with the best of them. What we never found out was how well we did financially compared to other buskers. For all that buskers reveal about themselves in their stories, few ever divulge their earnings. But thatís not a characteristic unique to buskers; not too many people tell total strangers how much money they earn. Actually, it didnít make much of a difference. Our act was just fine for taking care of our needsóeven if we got ridiculous about making it do so.

I feel a rapport with other buskers I see on the street now. Naturally, I am inclined to throw them a few coins. But not always. Friends have been shocked to see me pass a busker without making a contribution. I offer my spare change based on the quality of the act, not merely on the principle of busking. I hope others contribute to my cause for the same reason. I do not want people to offer me money out of pity; I want them to offer it because they enjoy the entertainment I offer.

So if that busker is reasonably well-groomed and you do enjoy his talent, throw him a few extra coins. Youíll both be glad you did.

The End

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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