Sax on the Streets
Chapter 6:
Bonn, Germany

© Dan Gordon, 2002

Suddenly we were in Germany, where the transition to Northern Europe was evident from the moment we stepped off the train. Fully two-thirds of the people were blond. The metamorphosis occurring around us as we traveled north fascinated me, particularly since it happened within such a short span of time.

Watching all these changes is more than just touristic fun and games. Being sensitive to them is important business for the street musician. Like any good performer, the busker has to know his audience and adapt to it accordingly. We knew that in Germany we’d have to alter our busking habits if we wanted to make our efforts profitable. Anyone who believes that a street musician can play at any hour of the day and make top money at it is mistaken. There are only a few periods during the day that are “peak” busking hours. When Gary and I say that we made about $40 apiece busking for three hours a day, that by no means implies that in six hours we’d earn $80 each, or $120 in nine hours. Three hours is about the limit. It’s too tiring to play more than that, and there are only about three profitable busking hours in a day. The trick is figuring out which hours they are in each place. In Spain and France, we did well playing in the evenings, when the people were out for a stroll, or during the long lunch breaks from around 1:30 to 3:30pm. In Germany and other Northern European countries, people’s daily schedules are different, and that has its consequences for buskers. We weren’t sure exactly how we’d have to change; we could only experiment and figure it out from there. That’s all part of learning the trade.

The humble capital of Bonn was to be our first German testing ground. As soon as we arrived at the train station, I called Corinna, a friend from the previous summer’s Hungarian workcamp. I got through to her sister, who informed us that the earliest bus to their place left an hour later. No problem—what do two street musicians do when they’ve got an hour to kill? Why, start busking, of course. We were in need of some Deutsche marks anyway. With our huge backpacks, we didn’t want to walk any farther than necessary, so we set up right outside the train station in the large pedestrian zone we found there. It wasn’t an ideal pitch—across the street from a McDonald’s and on the edge of the pedestrian zone rather than in the middle of it—but for an hour it would do.

The sounding of our duets on German soil represented a homecoming of sorts for Telemann, a German. He left us the music, and we brought it right back to his homeland. I doubt people made that connection any more than the Belgians had in our ceremony in Dinant. But with one duet book always turned face-out on the music stand, Telemann’s name was clearly visible for anyone to pick up our subtle hint.

About fifteen minutes into the pitch, I looked down from my music and saw some kind of paper flapping among the coins in the hat. Could it be a bill? I thought. The smallest German bill is 10 marks…that’s about $6…pretty generous toss. As we finished the piece I bent down to see what it was. “Ha!” I laughed out loud. “Look at this, Gary, someone from the McDonald’s over there gave us a gift certificate for two free dinners!”

A plentiful array of such unexpected objects appeared among the coins throughout our busking. Candy, fruit, key chains, buttons, brochettes, stick pins, hair pins, clothes pins, stickers, and assorted ads all found their way into the hat. Useless stuff, mostly, but good for a few laughs. Gift certificates even served a useful purpose. “Say, I’m kind of hungry,” Gary said. “Any objection to using those now?”

“To think we had to come all the way to Europe to eat at McDonald’s!” I snickered. “Sure, let’s eat. It ain’t gourmet food, but hey, it’s on the hat!”

Aside from taking care of our dinner, that surprise in the hat suggested a different possibility for the street musician: going the restaurant route. A busker can manage by asking restaurant owners if they’d like to have live music in or near their restaurants in exchange for a meal. Maybe the busker doesn’t make much money that way, but he’s sure going to eat well.

Gary and I never did this, even though a few instances brought us free meals. We stuck to the more standard busking in pedestrian zones. And in Bonn, conditions looked promising. The entire central area of town was one enormous pedestrian zone. We had visions of cashing in on it. But we couldn’t test it out just yet; the bus out to Corinna’s house was about to leave.

My friend Corinna greeted us with a warm hug as we stepped off the bus. She looked happy, robust, and athletic, with the broad shoulders and sunny complexion of the tennis buff she was. Corinna combined her athletic ability with scholarship; she loved books and was among the most well-read people I’ve ever met. I had often been embarrassed during our long and frequent discussions the previous summer in Hungary that she knew more about American literature than I did. Yet she was fascinated by my knowledge of music, and listened intently to all the stories I related about my musical studies and the saxophone. This time, our conversation quickly turned to music again when I told her about the free meal Gary and I had in the pedestrian zone.

“You know, Daniel, I’ve heard stories about your saxophone ever since last summer,” Corinna said. “How do I know they’re all true? I don’t want to hear any more stories. Now that you have your saxophone with you, I want to hear you play.”

“All right. No more talk,” I laughed as we arrived at her house. “I’ll prove it to you.” Gary and I unpacked our saxophones for a concert right there on the front lawn. No putting it off any longer. Shut up and play!

Strains of Telemann brought a big smile to Corinna’s face, brought the rest of the family out of the house to the concert, and even brought a few neighbors who followed their ears to the music.

“Wunderbar!” “Zuper!” were the shouts among the enthusiastic applause from the modest crowd that had accumulated.

A polite bow to acknowledge the warm response.

“More!” “Encore!”

Soon the next door neighbor appeared with a bottle of champagne to share in the merriment. Champagne again! What a reception!

Beaming with contentment, Corinna approached slowly and took my hand. “Now I believe you, Daniel. Every word.”

* * *

Corinna and her family treated us cordially for our entire stay in Bonn. They set up a room in the basement and made Gary and me feel completely welcome in their home. During Corinna’s free time, she took us to the center of town to have a look around and play. Bonn is not what one would expect from a European capital. An unpretentious little town of about 350,000 inhabitants, it was chosen as the provisional capital of post-war Germany only until German unification. No major cities in Germany could serve as a capital after World War II; every one had been bombed. So Konrad Adenauer, the first leader of post-war Germany, chose his hometown of Bonn.

Of interest to musicians in Bonn is Beethoven House, birthplace of the great composer. Was another such celebration in order as in Dinant? Nah—we didn’t have the same personal relationship to Beethoven as we did to Adolphe Sax, and after all, Beethoven had been dead a good 10 or 15 years before the saxophone was invented. Had it been Telemann’s birthplace, it might have been a different story. Beethoven, although born in Bonn, spent most of his productive compositional life in Vienna, where he had to change residence several dozen times because of neighbors complaining about the racket of his music. That offers at least some solace to us street musicians when people asked us to move because of our racket, too.

That’s exactly what happened to us as we busked in the large pedestrian zone in the center of Bonn. We hadn’t played for more than ten minutes when a policeman apologetically asked us to take our act elsewhere. The cop had no objection to our music; he actually liked it, he told us, but some woman had called the station because the music interrupted her nap. To hell with interrupting the lady’s nap, the listening bystanders complained, now their entertainment was being interrupted. Several of them shouted, loud enough for the anonymous objector to hear, scornful remarks about how selfish and “typically German” it was to expect the entire neighborhood to keep quiet all afternoon just so one person could sleep. Corinna attempted a running translation of the squabble to little avail. Gary and I got lost amid a bunch of bickering Germans. But we got the point. We packed up and moved. So that’s what life was like for Beethoven!

There was plenty of other space for busking around the pedestrian zone, but we didn’t do as well there as we had anticipated. Mediocre money wasn’t the only disappointment; when people ask you to move, it’s demoralizing. Something about busking there wasn’t right, but we couldn’t figure out what. Maybe the pedestrian zone was too big, which meant less concentration of pedestrians milling about. Perhaps the Bonn folk had picked up our subtle hint after all and didn’t appreciate Telemann infringing on Beethoven’s territory. Or maybe the mediocre showing was just a case of not having yet figured out German busking intricacies.

For the time being, however, we didn’t have to worry about it. Instead, we returned to Corinna’s place and enjoyed the simple pleasures of domestic life for the first time in our two weeks on the road. We met some of Corinna’s friends, went to a birthday party (and played Happy Birthday along with more duets, offering, if you will, the gift of music), and watched Corinna display her athletic prowess in the mixed-doubles final of her local tennis club’s tournament. She lost in straight sets, but still impressed me. The awards ceremony followed, where dozens of festive German tennis buffs prepared to partake of the free beer that traditionally followed the handing out of trophies.

From among the crowd appeared the next door neighbor who had served us champagne the day before at our lawn concert. “Could you play your saxophones for us?” he asked. “I think the people of the club would love to hear your music.”

Ever prepared for unexpected invitations such as these, Gary and I slipped the saxophones off our shoulders and got ready to play.

“Achtung bitte,” shouted the club manager as he clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention. “We have a special treat this year to add to our annual party. From across the Atlantic, we have two American musicians, Mr. Gary Scavone and Mr. Daniel Gordon, guests of Corinna Kuhr and her family, who have offered to entertain us with their music!” (Or it was something like that—I couldn’t make out the German, but it was easy to get the idea.)

Jovial cheers and applause arose from the crowd as the music arose from our saxophones. The club members toasted us with their steins and swayed back and forth to the music while they guzzled their beer. Three or four duets later, the manager of the club was so tickled that he came up beside us and announced, in English, “To thank these fine young gentlemen for sharing with us their lovely music, I offer both of them a free dinner at the bar, compliments of our tennis club!”

More roars of approval from the crowd.

“I don’t believe this,” Gary whispered to me amid the revelry.

“Sure beats McDonald’s.”

The manager stepped away and returned a moment later. “Here is our menu,” he told us. “Feel free to choose anything you like. What do you prefer? Fish? Beef? Pasta?”

“I like beef, actually,” I answered.

“If you like beef, then I suggest one of these two dishes,” he said, pointing to the steak dinners, the two most expensive items on the menu.

Oh no, I thought. This is embarrassing. I can’t order the most expensive thing on the menu. That costs 40 marks—that’s $25.

“Which one would you like?” the manager asked. “I recommend either one. They are both excellent.”

“Uh, well, if you insist…I’ll have this one,” I said, pointing to the less expensive of the two dinners.

“And you?” asked the manager, turning to Gary.

“Let’s see, if Dan’s having that one, I guess…uh…I guess I’ll have the other one.”

Slick move there on Gary’s part—he had found a polite way to order the most expensive item on the menu!

Soon our dinners arrived: thick, juicy, tender steaks, sautéed mushrooms, fries, and two enormous salads, along with all the beer we could drink. The meals were plenty for the two of us as well as Corinna and her sister.

“This is delicious!” Corinna said as she let the steak melt in her mouth.

“Haven’t you ever had it before?” I asked.

“No, never,” she laughed. “It’s too expensive!”

Gary looked up at me and smiled. “ ‘Enjoy this meal, Dan…’ ”

* * *

With our good fortune rolling again, we didn’t want to spoil things with another lackluster showing in Bonn. So when it came time to busk, Gary and I hopped on the train to nearby Cologne, another city in the densely populated industrial region of central Germany along the Rhine. We pitched right in front of the massive and imposing cathedral, which had plenty of people strolling about its front patio as well as several other street musicians. This time, whatever it was that dampened our debut in Bonn was absent. No complaints, no cops, no arguments. Just a lot of Telemann, trumpeting about the steeples and alcoves of the cathedral’s façade as it had undoubtedly done countless times for services inside the cathedral during its day. For all I know, Telemann himself might have directed his music in that very building three centuries earlier. Here, Telemann’s music was in its element—without the ominous presence of Beethoven to overshadow it. And we cranked in the money, a whopping 150 DM, just under $90, in an afternoon’s busking. We loved those Deutsche mark coins.

A walk around the city quickly changed my mood. Gift shops sold postcards and pictures of post-war Cologne, completely reduced to rubble by Allied bombs. Perhaps the Germans displayed these pictures to remind themselves of their industriousness in rebuilding their country; perhaps they did it to heighten social consciousness. I looked at those pictures and felt chills go up and down my spine. Suddenly I realized I was standing in the middle of the land that used to be a Nazi stronghold. I stared deeply into the eyes of older passers-by and wondered what went on in their heads during the Second World War. Were those friendly Germans walking around the pedestrian zone the same people who committed such atrocities a few decades earlier? Such thoughts even affected my perception of Corinna and her family. Without Corinna’s presence to remind me of her warmth and hospitality, my thoughts went straight to the militaristic portraits of her father that hung around their house. Corinna’s father was a career military man, and although he proved to be a delightful person, I caught myself staring deeply into his eyes, too. Gary was far less affected by this than me; his background was more distant from that history.

To take my mind off such somber thoughts, we busked often. Another day at the cathedral in Cologne brought more critical acclaim and cleared my head considerably. Over the course of a few days in Germany, our busking fortune had really turned around. By the end of our stay, we had successfully adapted to Northern European busking. There was no need to concentrate all our playing time into the mid-afternoon siesta hours as in Southern Europe; any time of day worked well in the North. We therefore busked in short stints of a half hour to an hour throughout the afternoon. The frequent breaks meant we were fresh every time we started again.

Our new strategy translated to healthy, successful busking. Even after a small music shopping spree on our last day, we had plenty of money left over to blow on our favorite pre-departure activity, another hat dinner for our hosts. Corinna and her sister chose the place: a fine Italian restaurant in Bonn that served a free shot of peppermint schnapps to all four of us after the meal, leaving us all in tipsy high spirits as our visit to Bonn came to an end.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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