Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Fiddler on the Pith: An Essay on Buskapades and Zen Compositions

Daussen Cassell is a fiddler phenom. He’s 13 years old and he’s hip and he’s smart and he’s a barrel of cachinnations (pun intended). Daussen and I were a busking duo at the last Farmers’ Market. It was windy, it was Wednesday, and the market was, I shall say, measured. We performed at our designated pitch for approximately ninety minutes, and abdicated in advance of the noontime pedestrian traffic. (It just so happened that Daussen was scheduled to be somewhere else, as was I.)

Daussen is a fiddler virtuoso; I am a banjitar and twelve-string thrummer. And the playlists that we brought to the market will attest to this.

Daussen’s playlist: Romeo’s 1st Change, St. Anne’s Reel, Tear Drop Waltz, Boil ‘Em Cabbage Down, Red Wing, Isbisters Jig, Road to Batoche, Whiskey Before Breakfast, Swallow Tail Jig, and Big John McNeil.

My playlist: a tabula rasa of riffs and frailings from the cache of melodies fixed in my cortex. (This list is not so lofty as I am presenting it to be.)

We started out exchanging solo performances. Daussen did his fiddle thing; I did my thrumming thing. This lasted but fifteen minutes. Then we decided to complement one another and the results were magical.

I managed to fit my guitar strumming, hear-matching some of my chords to Daussen’s Tear Drop Waltz, Road to Batoche, and Whiskey Before Breakfast. We jammed these songs over and over and over until they became improve instrumentals. Spring boarding from their original cadences and melodies, we dove into new beats of patterns and flow.

Daussen did the same to a couple of my suggested tunes; the first one being Dylan’s, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere. (This is my favorite, favorite, favorite busking song. Google Glen Hansard and Mic Christopher singing it on Youtube and you’ll see why!) The second song of mine, an original, which Daussen enhanced was TV Cowboy.

Within a half hour we’d composed five new tunes with which to busk, more than an adequate supply for the tranquil crowd members wandering about the unusually mild market.

Now, fellow buskers, I am not really a Zen guy. I’d like to be, but I’m not. I cannot distinguish Zen from Phenomenology from Existentialism. But I do know this.

If the skinny of Zen is to live is to suffer, then the phat of Zen is definitely the bliss and hilarity that Daussen and I had orchestrated (for ourselves) on that windy pitch at the Farmers’ Market.

Here is my thinking.

We played five whole new songs, focusing only on those songs, one song at a time. Both of us employed our free improvisation techniques to support one another’s song. Daussen did his dipsy-do’s and I did my frailing. With a lot of joy and so little effort those five songs just magically arrived, from his heart and from mine. We were spontaneous; we were fearless. We were auditioning for no one, though many stopped and listened. Though we were getting paid (we had a buskpot), the coins tossed to us were really incidental. In a synchronistic sort of way, these coins originally represented our mercenary purpose for being there, then symbolically rose to symbolize our Zen-like buskapade together.

Is there a Zen lesson here?

If so, this would be it:

  • ·Find a pitch. It will be neither perfect nor imperfect, but it will be (your buskingdom).
  • · Relax. Breathe. Look around. Appreciate.
  • · Focus on one song from your imaginary playlist.
  • · Play the song.
  • · Smile at everyone coming your way.
  • · Thank everyone who tosses coin into your buskpot.
  • · Focus on another song.
  • · Play the song.
  • · And so on.

This is the way of Zen – This is coming from a self-proclaimed Zen wannabee Buskologist.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Dream Along With Me (I'm On My Way To A Star): A Whimsical Essay In Social Buskology

Yesterday evening I took a thought-walk, hoping to sort out some busking baggage that I’d been carrying up and down the street as of late. I needed a thought-walk to reconfigure my thinking of overall busking strategies. My problem was simple. Though it was summer, my busk pot was not getting filled to the brim as much as it was a month or so ago. On a social scale, I do know that if a problem can be fixed simply by throwing money at it, it really is not much of a problem. However, on an egotistical scale, this mercenary situation was really pestering me.

When I just stand in the middle of a shopping mall parking lot thrumming random tunes on my banjitar, I make lots of coin. Singularly strumming my banjitar in a Saturday farmers’ market, I do fine. I know that strumming on a Wednesday market, business will not be brisk. I did not know that busking with a mate over a noon hour at an outdoor mall, business would be so ho-hum.

Why am I now vanilla? Shall I change my busking methodology? Change my busking times?

I needed divergent thinking and introspection.

While walking the first thing that came to mind was my accordion playing automaton busking acquaintance, Roland Pierre St. Pierre, L’Accordeoniste Automatique. There Roland would be, busking away in Victoria or Paree, a blanched living statue, frozen in time on his plinth, until … the drop of coins into his buskspot. And then he would come alive, a virtuoso accordionist of the highest regard, his thawed fingers delicately dancing over ebony buttons and ivory keys, squeezing out exquisite and a la mode compositions to his consumers standing beneath his footstall, staring in awe.

How hard would that be? Well, to be Roland Pierre St. Pierre would be very hard. Roland is an accordion player savant and a master moiler and marketeer. Though Roland resides in Victoria (Google him – he is awesome), he spends half his year in residency elsewhere, mainly Paris, and partly Eastern Canada.

I could become a busking living statue of sorts, I guess. I could certainly scavengineer some accessories and transmogrify my presentation. I could don a milky derby, bleach my coiffure, continue to wear my crispy white shirts, pull on some white hot pants, slip my pieds into white shoes, add a pair of white shades to my face, and pack along my silver banjitar. I could stay still, I guess, until someone tossed some coins, and then I, like Roland Pierre St. Pierre, could spring to life and flounce about and dash off some random riffs on my banjitar, not to affright anyone, for but a brief animated moment, amuse my consumers, then curl back into my frozen state of buskingdom.

Between coins, a madcap idea I have as a living statue would be to practice Mindfulness Meditation, touted as a panacea for a matter of ailments (a lack of coins not being documented or mentioned as one of them). Mindfulness meditation, I’ve read, is a powerful self-induced therapy having phenomenal healing powers over an assortment of anxieties, physical pains, and day-to-day exhaustions. I have read that Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) teaches one to live in ten to thirty minute moments, focusing on breathing and breathing sensations, also teaches one to observe others in life without criticism, and teaches compassion toward others and self.

I am thinking that practicing a little MBCT as a living statue busker, would be the perfect opportunity to contemplate other personal issues, some observational (social) learning so to speak. While busking I could acquire the coin-gathering behaviors of other buskers nearby, firstly through observation, eventually through whimsical imitation.

In a blink and a wink of mine eye -- I’m going to make my move, make my star twinkle.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Phat Chances: An Essay on the Skinny of Busking Preparedness

It was a drizzmal grey, raining, and windy Friday. Only because it was at least warm, we, being my buskbud Trent and myself, decided to go for a downtown busk with our banjitars. Unlike guitars, banjitars are pretty much bullet proof, and cannot be damaged by light rain. Our definitive costume apparel was to be jeans and crisp collared long-sleeved shirts. Trent wore sky blue; I wore cloud white. Trent was hatless; I had a tam.

Predictably, the drizzle thinned the crowd. Clusters of people just scurried by, dashing in and out of the rain, paying no attention to us. For the better part of that noon hour we thrummed to nobody.

It's a good practice run, said Trent.

And then the sun shone! For a glorious twenty minutes the people passing were lavish, even stopping to listen. Our busk pot became the shining pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

In a line – We got phat.

Fellow buskers, such phatness is not the product of happenchance; it is the product of hard yakka. If you want to get phat, here is the skinny of performance preparedness:

  • Be patient. Life is comprised of a million fillips. It takes time to develop a particular busking style. Only after a dozen buskapades can one realize what busking is really all about. Trent and I have been busk buddies on several occasions in different venues over the years. We've gone busking with two guitars. We've gone busking with one guitar and a banjitar. Lately we've gone with two banjitars. Trent just purchased a mandolin-guitar. Perhaps he'll pack that along for our next busk.
  • Be persistent. Busking is hard, hard yakka. It is always easier not to (just fill in whatever). Sometimes the weather will just not cooperate. Sometimes you have to decide that rain or shine, you've got to go. It may mean you'll be packing an umbrella, or seeking a sheltered pitch. Whatever your need, just do it.
  • Be practical. I'm a strummer; Trent is a ringer. (Trent owns/manages/teaches at Trent's Guitar Studio in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada.) The efforts and rewards of busking are always input versus output. When busking with Trent, since I'm just a strummer, my job is to strum the principle rhythms. Trent is a ringer, and so his job is to pluck-and-pick impromptu intricate melodies in the backdrop. Not surprisingly, we've been told time and time again on every busk, that we sound awesome.
  • Be positive. Where there is yin there is yang. And there is yin and yang on every busk. Every pitch is a buskapade, a Chaucerian parade of characters about to be met. Anticipate adventure. Learn to sing in the yin and strum on the yang.

  • Be purposeful. Guiding principles are essential for busking. We created B2 solely for the purpose of busking. B2 is the acronym for both Buskers 2 and Banjitars 2. Being a member of B2 means creating a duo persona over a prescribed period of time (two hours tops). This is our purpose, and on a busk we behave accordingly.

After my buskapade last week (I wrote about the bad vibes I received from a couple of vendors), I feel compelled to give a pitch for some very welcoming marketeers from this week's Farmers' Market: the forever sweet trio of Darlene and Kaelyn and John (A Fudge Above the Rest), the always affable and florapheliac Jordan (Sacred Earth), and my newest fructuous vendor friend, David (Pure T Organics). And I must give more than an honorable mention to the downtown ambassadors who spread goodwill and public relations to both the downtown and the Farmers' markets. It is people such as these that make the art and craft of busking fun!

And my Chaucerian Parade of characters this week are:

  • The Preacher Man who stole the show with his in-the-rain-on-a-pedestal declamation at the downtown market mall

  • The two young and buffed and not-so-friendly police officers on foot patrol at the same downtown market mall at that same time as the Preacher Man.

I thought they were going to arrest you guys! said one of our listeners to Trent and me.

Those guys are not friendly, stated one of the student downtown ambassadors.

  • The Preacher Man who again stole the show with his second sermonation within my earshot, this time squaring off with the amplified guitar busker at the Farmers' Market. I must confess to experiencing some schadenfraude in this situation, especially in light of my last week misery at the market.

  • The young police officer called in to calm the Preacher Man and convince him to leave the stage. This police officer was friendly ... and smiled!

I remind buskers that our fortunes are based in our buskingdoms. It is precisely these kinds of interpersonal interactions that keeps our buskingdoms ever adventurous, for we know that on any given pitch we never really know what is going to happen in any moments next. Being a busker means having the courage to actually be among our customers.

Busking is that callithumping heart beat, that real life relationship pounding between performer and customer.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Dog-Eat-Dog and Dark Thoughts in Buskerville: An Essay on Vendor Venting

It seemed the perfect morning to join my familiar fellows at the Wednesday morning Buskerville -- the local farmers’ market. I had imagined myself to be setting up among the usual benevolent and welcoming vendors, A Fudge Above, Sacred Earth Soaps, and Outreach Plants. I had imagined having a calm and kibitzing kind of a busking day. The sky was bright and blue, the wind was warm and dry, the market a mere five minute walk from my door. It seemed the perfect morning – until I arrived.

Right off the hop, my usual buskspot was not to be for me. It so happened that Jacob Hornblower was set up on the far west side of the market square where Fiddler Dave always sets up (first come first serve, the early bird catches the worm). Fiddler Dave had grudgingly relocated his pitch to the middle of the square. Choosing not to be the interloper, I rambled around to find a not-so-familiar and a not-to-interfere pitch elsewhere.

I strolled up the sidewalk along the north-east side. With a frantic wave-along exchange, a grumpy male vendor selling veggies scowled at me and motioned for me to keep going as I approached. Not finding any particular place that seemed attractive enough for a pitch, I changed direction, 180 degrees, and sauntered south-east until I found a pleasant little sward situated amid three vendors.

All three acknowledged it would be okay for me to perform there. It was during my very first song, when the forty-something hippie Pasture Lady, who had just a moment ago given her consent for me to set up screeched, Is that thing tuned? She was shaking her head in disapproval as the sarcasm dripped from her lips. I walked over to her and asked if she had any song requests.

I just really hate banjos, was her response.

Within minutes, the ever affable and accommodating market executive director, not coincidentally, happened by.

I’ve had a complaint from one of the vendors near you. I’m afraid I’ll have to ask you to find another spot. There are some excellent grassy spots just up the way. She pointed to whence I had just been.

Instead of returning there, I headed straight across the middle of the square and noticed that not one, but two other buskers had set up between Jacob Hornblower and Fiddler Dave. Fiddler Dave was furious. See that guy, he said to me. He’s too close! He’s too noisy!

Up the north-west corner of the square I discovered what I thought would be an okay pitch. Again, I sought permission from the nearest vendors.

Of course, said the first as he smiled in his response.

The response of the other vendor, a blue-haired Puppy Lady was not so kind. You can’t play here for that organization! She pointed to my CANADIAN MENTAL HEALTH ASSOCIATION sign. You need a permit. You have to see the director for a license. No, no, no! You can’t play here! Go over there somewhere! The whole time she hollered she gesticulated at me whilst at the same time chatting to someone else on her cell phone.

Feeling deflated, I decided to pack it in. As I strolled out of the market immature thoughts entered my head. This makes perfect sense; I thought to myself, since both these vendors sell dog food, they ought to get together and have the logo: Biscuits for Bitches -- Made by Bitches!

I must assure the reader that in Psychology, such ruminations are not considered to be unhealthy, and that all of us have dark and dirty thoughts on occasion. We humans tend to spend considerable chunks of time thinking thoughts we'd rather not have. Fortunately, only very few of us ever act on such forbidden mind flavors, for being so consumed by such notions would certainly signal momentary mental instabilities. Ah, the creative powers of the mind, subjecting us to an endless fascination with our thoughtful selves, making us essentially -- human!

Whilst exiting the market, I bought a bar of soap from the always cordial and kindly Jordan, of Sacred Earth Soaps. (Jordan has covered my pitch, to the extent of even playing my banjitar on occasion.) To him I disclosed my morning discontent.

When all the other F*&#ing buskers are gone, that is the time to busk, I always say, was his comedic reply.

Having Jordan somewhat uplift my spirits, I decided to redeem my crappy morning and busk in the shopping mall parking lot over the soon-to-be noon hour. I’d like to report that my day ended in sunshine, but sadly it did not. In forty minutes I made just two dollars.

Reflecting upon that day I’ve decided that Wednesday is not a good Farmers’ Market scene for busking. I think that most of the Wednesday market consumers are downtown work drones just taking a bit of time to do some quick shopping, in contrast to those members of the Saturday throng who actually drive to make a positive event of their morning market experience.

Perhaps the day was just too hot; perhaps the crowd was just too thin. In retrospect, these two vendors had no doubt put considerable effort into producing and marketing their wares. Do I forgive them? Yes! And I thank them, especially, for providing such an enervating experience of psychological kibbles and bits for me to bark about in my blog!

Meanwhile back at the shopping mall parking lot. And this disappointment, too, can be explained. During the weekday noon hours, grocery shoppers are likely on a one hour work break, driving to the store in a dither and dashing in and out, and just getting back to a workplace in the nick of time. Generally, this is quite in contrast to the evening shopper who has finished work, happy that the work day is over, and taking some leisurely time to shop for an evening dinner. (Typically, I am a supper busker, and after a couple of noon hour busks, shall continue to be a supper busker.)

To conclude, this blog entry as every other can be a catharsis of sorts, even though, fellow buskers, we know:

A bad day busking is better than a good day at the office -- except during those times when we allow our self worth to be determined by the caustic comments of others.