Sax on the Streets
Chapter 8:
Copenhagen, Denmark

© Dan Gordon, 2003

Rain, rain, rain. The growing nuisance of bad weather became a major headache in Copenhagen. Without Jytte’s consoling presence, the rain’s souring effect on us went unchecked. A vicious circle presented itself: When it rained, we couldn’t busk. When we didn’t busk, we couldn’t earn money. When we didn’t earn money, we couldn’t enjoy the city. When we didn’t enjoy ourselves, we got grumpy. And when we were grumpy, the rain bothered us even more. Plain and simple, rain is the busker’s worst enemy. And there is all too much of it in Denmark.

If there is any good at all to come from a lot of rain, it is the phenomenon that occurs when it finally stops. The first sunny day after a long rain spell puts everyone in high spirits, and consequently everyone is more responsive to the street musician. Likewise, when the gray days of winter finally recede into the sunny days of spring, a pervasive freshness abounds everywhere. During these periods, the pedestrian zone in any city will be vibrant. If a busker happens to be around then, he should jump at the opportunity. For the some-time busker who occasionally appears on the streets of his town for some fun and a little bit of change, this is the time to play. The high spirits of those out and about, combined with the high spirits of the busker himself--which is readily transmitted to those who watch him, raising spirits still further--guarantee a successful day of music on the street.

Factors like these tend to compound upon one another to polarize busking’s effectiveness. When things go well, the factors work upon each other to make busking better; when they go badly, the factors work upon each other to make busking worse. The weather is the all-important element that determines the direction which the other factors will go. Unfortunately, the weather is the only factor over which a busker has no control. He can change his act, his location, or the time he plays, but he can’t change the rain. And the rain will set the relentless circular forces spiraling toward the busking abyss every time. As goes the weather, so goes the busking.

In Copenhagen we got a bum deal. We hardly had enough time between rain showers to earn our keep. It’s a shame the weather there is so lousy, because otherwise Copenhagen has a promising street-musician scenario. The city’s youthful vitality attracts a lot of street entertainers, which would normally mean a lot of competition, but the long, linear pedestrian zone that goes through the middle of town affords plenty of space for everyone.

This combination of high busker population and linear pedestrian zone (as opposed to a pedestrian area, as in Bonn) called for a bit of busking strategy. Even though plenty of space was available, certain locations were tactically more advantageous than others. If we pitched right in the middle, any people that walked by, regardless of which end they started at, would have already seen too many buskers by the time they got to us. We had to locate ourselves close to either end of the street, yet far enough from concentrations of other buskers who understood these subtleties as well as we did. Like a game of chess, we matched wits with our competition to acquire that all-important positioning.

Gary and I had become well-versed in such strategies by the time we got to Copenhagen. We had been busking for almost a month, and with our experience had developed a feel for these kinds of things. We had also practically memorized our music by then, so when the weather permitted us to play, we could have the wandering eye which earlier on meant musical disaster. That not only allowed us to admire all the fine Danish damsels that strolled by, but also let us see how people responded to our act. Some raised their eyebrows, snickered, giggled, whispered, or pointed fingers. Others covered their ears. But negative responses were the exception rather than the norm.

There was just as much variation in ways that people dropped coins into the hat. A few walked right by and tossed a coin without missing a step. Those who stopped to listen for a few minutes went through a standard procedure: Listen for a minute or two, make a judgement on whether the act is worthy of their spare change, and if it is, decide how much to throw. It’s easy to tell when bystanders are considering digging into their pockets for a coin. There’s always a tip-off--a shift in weight, a change of expression, something--that the experienced street musician picks up on. That’s when eye contact is most effective. If the busker catches their glance at that critical moment, he’s sure to have that teetering decision go in his favor. A polite nod as they toss their coins works well; it adds a human element to those mysterious guys behind the music stand. It also invites the people to come up and talk afterwards, always a pleasure for the busker.

Parents with little children offer the best coin-dropping ritual. Mommy, Daddy, and Junior stop to listen for a while. Soon, Mommy or Daddy decides to contribute to the hat. They give the coins to Junior for the honors. Parents all over the world think that’s adorable. Junior waddles up to the hat and drops the coins in. Mesmerized by the glittering pile of coins, Junior tries to take some. Mommy or Daddy then runs up to the hat with an embarrassed chuckle and shouts, “No, no, no!” If Junior doesn’t try to take any coins, he just stands there with a bewildered, wide-eyed expression, not knowing what to do next. A wink does the trick. That sends Junior running back to Mommy and Daddy with squeals of delight every time.

But the rain spoiled all the fun we were having people-watching in Copenhagen. “Does it ever stop raining for more than half hour in this city?” Gary grumbled as yet another attempt at playing washed away.

“Not as far as I can tell,” I sighed. “Foiled again. Any ideas?”

“Not really.”

We looked up at ashen gray skies and watched the raindrops fall.

“Hey, I just got an idea,” Gary said.


“Let’s leave.”

I raised my eyebrows. “Never thought of that.” I glanced up at the foreboding sky again. “Where to?”

“Away from here. How about Sweden?”

“Sounds good to me. Let’s go.”

Ah, the luxury of busking with a railpass. Run into bad weather? Hop on a train. Don’t make enough money to pay for a night in a hostel? Take an overnight train. City doesn’t suit you just right? Get on a train and go--anywhere.

Sax on the Streets, by Dan Gordon
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