Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Fair Weather Busker: An Essay On Phatic Chit Chat

Some weather we’re havin’ huh?

Hey buddy, how’s it goin’?

Have a nice day, hey.

A simple nod of the head.

A simple wave of the hand.

Whether we are standing at cross-walks or bus stops, whether we are at our workplaces or at our places of recreation, such phatic phrases are common among familiar strangers. (Familiar strangers are those people you expect to see and briefly greet in a frequently attended familiar setting.)

Such clich├ęd phrases and gestures are examples of time worn communication strategies usually referred to as small talk, or in Psychological terms, Phatic Expression. And such is our strategy of we gregarious creatures who cannot bear to be cut off too long from our fellowships, even if we really have nothing of importance to say. Phatic expression has the performance functioning social task to determine and establish the mood of another fellow being for potential affability.

Even when little words are spoken aloud, and little actions gesticulated, relationships and things become a little different, unless there is a startling and real response. The delivery of a weather comment to another person usually results with an in-kind response. For example:

Some weather we’re havin’ huh? often has a response similar to Ya, you got that right, enough is enough.

Should the response be more involved and lengthy (for example, Ya, you got that right. I was just on the phone with my brother who lives in Texas, he works in oil down there, been there for the past eight years or so, he says that … and so on), speaks more for the condition of the respondent, rather than the chit chat issue of the weather.

Generally, all of the above is the social law of phatic chit chat. This is not the case for phatic expressions with buskers. For buskers, common chit chat oftentimes leads into significant and mercenary discussions.

Due to the nature of the busking business, whether taking place on a sidewalk or in a parking lot, the performers and audience members have a very brief but reciprocal and ever susceptible relationship with one another.

Sometimes this relationship means sharing a laugh (lots of people have come up and told me funny stories about themselves). Sometimes it means an offer of gratitude (always from the performer, oftentimes from the consumer). Sometimes consumers confide (on every busk someone has confided that he/she used to play guitar, banjo, whatever). Sometimes the performer becomes a mentor (to the people that ask if I would them teach guitar or banjo I always give an impromptu lesson, usually a G-strum, then refer them elsewhere for instruction).

In sales the customer is always right. This is ought to be the same motto for those selling their songs and strums and peddling their wares on the street. When approached by a customer, be nice. When a customer asks for whatever (perhaps a song request), comply if you can; if you cannot, politely decline and give explanation (I always decline – I play only originals and politely say so).

I am not suggesting the performer be subservient or sycophantic to the consumer. I am not suggesting the performer disregard personal philosophy and practice for the sake of greed. I am suggesting that buskers are performance based vendors, and being vendors means being in business. And from a very mercenary stance, the business of busking is to get as much coin as possible over a limited time on a certain space.

When it comes to busking:

Nothing personal -- business is business but …it pays to be nice.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

What's in a Name: An Essay on the Sweet Sounds of Roses

Sharie and the Shades. The Shadows. The Grand Trunk Troubadours. Seahorse. Shadow Suite. High Noon. Friday Harbor. The Zymotics. B2. For me snappy band names have always been important. It seems I cannot think nor do anything musical without the appropriate sobriquet.

Sharie and the Shades

Ah, the very first band of which I was a member! Sharie, a teacher colleague, arranged us all in a standing singing row, and we sang our hearts out with Sharie playing on the Korg keyboard. We added a bass guitar, an electric guitar, and a set of drums. At the peak of our popularity we were comprised of four instrumentalists and five vocalists performing hits from the 50’s and 60’s. Within a year, Sharie (real spelling) and the Shades (of the past), due to membership politics, had been reduced to just one singer. The electric guitar player wanted to be the main man, and so did the bass player. Our keyboard player had been pushed to the backdrop and the auxiliary percussionist ('twas I) was seemingly kept round to lug equipment. Even so, we did manage one last grand Christmas television stand which kept us in notoriety for the next few years.

The Shadows

Still lingering in Sharie's sunshine, The Shadows were a direct spin-off from Sharie and the Shades. Sharie kept herself on keyboard, Judy and I played pots and pans (percussion) and sang with a choice four or five high school students. We did lots of gigs in retirement communities and at school assemblies. The Shadows were a lots of fun and lots and laughs and through the school of hard and soft rocks I learned about sound and equipment. Sharie superannuated and The Shadows were fini.

The Grand Trunk Troubadours (the GTT)

We met at the university Conservatory of Music. For four continuous semesters we were in the same vocal classes, taught by the famous Wilma Bell-Wessel. The campus classroom was on College Avenue, formerly 16th Street, formerly the site of the Grand Trunk Railway station. The GTT began as a five boy band, two of which played a little guitar, two wanting to learn guitar, and all five wanting to sing. By first gig we were four, all singing and just two of us on acoustic guitars. Within a year we added a female vocalist (the best vocalist from the Conservatory) to sweeten our sound. And it worked! Currently (and eight years later) the GTT has three female vocalists, three guitarists, a drummer, a fiddler, and a banjitarist.


Baron and I had already auditioned and received acceptance for some B.C. busking on the Inner Harbour in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. To rehearse for the coming summer event, a few of the GTT members went busking for the very first time and needed more than a practice for Baron-and-self excuse; they needed a cause so to speak. Seahorse made its premiere in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, along with its new slogan, Save the Seahorse – Save the Sea. We performed in front of various coffee houses on Main Street. It turned out Moose Javians were not that interested in saving the sea.

Under the name, Seahorse, bongero Baron and I did begin our busking life on the mean streets of Victoria, British Columbia. Each morning we lifted weights at the Phoenix Club and had toast and tea for breakfast at the 99 cent cafe. We hit the streets according to the ship schedules. Every time a US ship arrived into the harbor, en route from Alaska to wherever, two thousand American tourists hit downtown Victoria with open purses and wallets. We had a great time and learned lots about how-not-to busk!

(Baron and I still busk under the Seahorse moniker.)

Shadow Suite

Shadow Suite was an effort to reduce the stigma of mental illness via public band performances -- the notion being that those assigned with a mental illness lived within the darkness of public opinion and scrutiny, an isolated shadow suite. A couple of the Shadow Suite band members had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and happened to be very talented musicians and singers. Alas, Shadow Suite was not meant to be, by me. We had talent but not without disarray. One of our band members was continuously suicidal and, in fact, her life saved by another band member on her last attempt. Such a noble endeavor needs much more that I can offer. Bands such as Shadow Suite need formal support with sponsored spaces and clients.

High Noon

High Noon was a teacher-driven high school band with a very Western flavor. Each noon hour we rehearsed with three guitars and pots n’ pans and lots of student singers. High Noon was plain darn blasted fun and lasted until a few key teachers were transferred to other schools. Such is the life of singing cowpokes riding the dusty trails of education.

Friday Harbor

Friday Harbor was created strictly for coffee house entertainment. Friday Harbor was named after the Friday Harbor Laboratories at the University of Washington where my daughter, Natika, worked her summers as a marine biologist. I love coffee house gigs. For me coffee house bands are best as a combo of folksy and classy and an opportunity to perform original material. Shakers and twelve string are my preferred instrument for coffee house gigs.

The Zymotics

A zymotic is an infectious disease. The Zymotics are, indeed, infectious. We decided on another high school band name that was punky and zippy. The Zymotics take random covers and perform them at top gun speed. The student response has been so far so good.


One of my buskmates, Trent Leggott of Trent’s Guitar Studio, just recently purchased a banjitar. Trent and I go way back and have done some serious busking together. Yesterday we were busking under our newly created duo, B2 (inspired by U2). B2 stands for either Banjitars 2 or Buskers 2 or both!

Ah, perfect names for not-so-perfect bands. Meanwhile, back at the busk. No matter the name, your busking kismet can only be discovered by doing it. Attaching a name to your busking sidequest adventure gives credence to your emprise. Trying different names you’ll eventually find one fitting for the occasion.

*What's in a name? Really? And the answer is ... NOTHING ... unless you have the right bandmates and buskmates to go along with musical rides. Bill and I are the only original members of The Grand Trunk Troubadours (Lillie and Judy, who are still in the band, joined The GTT a year after it began). Judy, Lillie, Christina, and Eric (all GTT members) are come-and-go buskmates in Seahorse. Bill, Lillie, Judy, Lillie, Steve, Christina, and Baron are all in-and-out members of Friday Harbor. Trent, Baron, and I are buskmates in B2.

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name with the proper mates in buskingdom would smell as sweet (Juliet & Self).

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Rituals to Richness: An Essay on the Happy Busker

At 5:30 A.M. each day I check the weather forecast. I am always hoping for sunshine and warmth because the more magnificent the sun the more munificent the clients. Having a benevolent clientel always makes for happy busking. However, for any busker to continually stay happy in the buskingdom workplace, there must be existentially created at least three positive notions: meaning, engagement, and accomplishment.


In the zippered front of my buskpack I've always the same thirteen dollars: a wrinkled fin, three toonies, and two loonies. This is my lucky seed money, and I use this same money on every busk (so far so good). Deeper into my buskpack I've two portable signs, the Canadian Mental Health Association logo, and a replica of my blog header. Also, I pack a folding stool in case the coin is good and I decide to stay longer than my usual 90 minutes. Rather than a madcap rush out the door, these preparatory bagging particulars, mundane as they are, do give to me, meaning to my performance.


Just as important is my dress. To create that breezy, carefree look my cap-a-pie attire is always the donning of a derby or tam, white t-shirt, faded blue jeans, and hiking boots. I want to look the part of that romantic easy-going kind of drifter, who can, on a whim, just pack a duffel and follow a dream and strum in any locale where the sun is shining. For me, that folksy wholesome look presents one of the gentry who has chosen to be a busker, rather one desperate dreg for which busking has become the last option for survival. In such streetegenic costume, it is easy for me to stay in the flow, where time becomes irrelevant and the task at hand so naturally pleasant and fulfilling. Such artifice and engagement comes easier practice and dress rehearsals.


Mastery of skill is important for a busker. Good busking provides something of value that consumers recognize as quality (quality then being synonymous with value). To be the busker you want to be is a great accomplishment. Being good at what you do is the apogee of accomplishment. I have finally settled on the banjitar as my major instrument for busking. First off, it attracts public attention. This attraction is purely the result of ear-candy accomplishment. My vanilla busking guitar days are now quite behind me, as I can finally string twenty or so catchy and melodic tunes together on my banjitar!

Psychological richness is much more than any mercenary experience. For a busking metier, there must be meaning, engagement, and accomplishment.

After 7:00 P.M. each day I usually read, run, or 'rite, though these past days I've been watching lots of hockey on television (the Stanley Cup finals).

And on this hockey note … Go Boston Bruins!

*For those of you residing in places other than North America, please know that in the USA the NHL (National Hockey League) is entertainment; up in Canada, the NHL is a religion!

**For those of you residing in British Columbia, Canada (I love you guys!) please forgive my favoritism for the following reasons:

  • the Bruins are of the Original Six
  • I miss the good ol' days of Don Cherry, Bobby Orr, and Derek Sanderson
  • And how about the alliterative -- Banjitar busker & Boston Bruins

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Reborn Free: An Essay on the Busker Personality

The personality of a busker, being of that freelancer ilk, typically cannot stand the idea of schedules imposed by a caucus of others. Going solo, we buskers are generally free from others’ interferences, office politics, and colleague interdependence. Any musician (of sorts) who seeks catharsis from the so-called structured working environment, who ever yearns for that perfect metier, could have the potential to be a successful busker. But to be become that wanderlust, romantic, free-spirited minstrel requires confidence, self-promotion, and focus.

Being part of a team, you can mostly hide within your work group. Confidence is not always a necessary requirement to get this or that job done. On your own, solitarily singing on some city sidewalk, or strumming your guitar in some park, takes incredible confidence, and to gain this confidence takes practice, practice, practice. Playing and singing in front of any audience for the very first time is heart stopping. As an SATB choir member, especially if you're singing in the high (soprano) and low (basso profundo) registers, you can choke a bit if need be, and only your nearby singing neighbors would know. Being in a folk or rock buzz band, when the going gets rough you can always get by with a little help from your friends. When you are a busker, however, you bare your soul every time you're on the pitch, relying only on yourself, and everyone of your audience members is ever aware of any self-imposed glitches. After a few hundred times, the busking does get easier, but I still get butterflies while setting up in new locations.

The first act of self-promotion is to seek permission. Seeking permission usually means attempting to buttonhole the shop keeper within the nearest proximity of your chosen busk spot. Again, after hundreds of these sorts of discussions, it becomes rather perfunctory, but until that time, it is a nervous rehearsal of selling yourself and explaining your purpose for wanting to be there, rather than elsewhere. The idea is to convince shop keepers, in demure fashion, that you are not some anachronistic scrounge, but instead you are a welcoming cultural gust that will potentially enhance, rather than cabbage, their sales. Just this week while scouting new territories, from two of the places I got these responses: Put that request in writing then bring it back to me, ok and Don’t hold your breath - we get beggars asking for money all the time (the first response really meaning a cowardly rather than a vis-a-vis no; the second response being downright rude, proving that busking can, indeed, be a demeaning kind of business at times).

No matter the clime, buskers must have the capacity to shut out distractions. A busker must always be deciding on new material, new presentations, and new locales. Earning an income as a busker is to busk, busk, busk, busk, busk. After four years of being in the business, I am finally getting it, finally honing some of the techniques to earn a bitty and ancillary income from busking. At last I have finally come to realize that if I go to a specific place at a specific time, I can predictably make X amount of dollars. For example, busking at a grocery store in mid-afternoon will produce few coins, because there will be few shoppers. Busking at that same spot just after five o’clock in the afternoon when most people have ended their work day and are shopping for their supper foodstuffs, will produce the most coins from that same location.

The skinny of all said, staying at a real job is much simpler than being a busker. In a real job you do things for others because you are accountable to others. And self-disciplined or not, to keep that job all you have to do is jump to others’ whims. But being a busker you, though you have the autonomy to do things that are meaningful to yourself, you are accountable only to yourself, and that demands self-discipline. To be a busker, if you have the confidence, the self-promotion, and the focus, you have the necessaries to break free from the clocks of others.

In relation to the above notions, here are some Psychological Candies to crunch on:

  • We are all of us thinking we are standing alone, when in fact most of us are standing amongst a flock of sheep.
  • Couch potatoes cultivate vegetable brains.
  • Loneliness is the pain of being alone – Solitude is the glory of being alone.
And the Chaucerian Parade this week:
  • All set to busk on a windless and sunny Monday, a brutish canine is chained to my usual busk spot. Side stepping and playing around the nasty beast (it wasn't really a nasty beast but at the time ...), it keeps snarling and barking at my tunes. Silently, I decide to await for the owner's return. Finally he shows, unties his dog, and smiles at me. I return his smile thinking to myself that I need new material.
  • On a very drizzmal Sunday afternoon I have earned a paltry eight dollars, the coins visible in my banjitar case. This beggar comes along and insists on borrowing a toonie for a cookie at a nearby coffee shop. He says he will pay me back. I refuse. He insists. I relent. (Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble!) I go home with six dollars worth of coin in my pocket and cookie crumbs in my banjitar case.
*If you have some characters from your own Chaucerian parades whom you want to share with the rest of the world , please email the details to me at :

'Tis time to find your freedoms and jubilate, buskers …
because that clock on the wall is just gonna keep on ticking!