Busking in several of London’s big train termini continues to provide a stream of bizarre, sometimes insightful, sometimes frustrating, little human snapshots, as well as a valuable though surprisingly unpredictable stream of income. Being photographed or filmed is not uncommon (though sadly no repeat of being recorded for a broadcast on BBC Radio 4 yet!); heckled occasional; applauded rare but not unknown; danced to, with varying degrees of ability and usually for about 20 seconds, common.
I’m still not sure how much of what I think are my observations about tendencies of people who stop and give money to buskers are real and how many reflect my prejudices. Are more of them elderly (perhaps the elderly like folk and classical, the mainstays of my busking repertoire, more?), perhaps simply because of being less likely to be cutting it fine for a train, or because the idea of buskers is familiar, or because they carry cash, or because they are less likely to have headphones on? Are they really more likely to be women (perhaps something about culturally ingrained gendering of compassion here, since it is always hard to distinguish whether buskers are paid out of appreciation or pity), or (dark suspicion) do I just remember more of those? Similarly, is it a high proportion of adults with young(ish) children who stop to actually listen, or are the ones who do stop just much more memorable than the ones that walk on? (Admittedly, I do still think the families with little kids are a disproportionately large share of the few people that actually stop to listen to buskers.) Are musicians actually less likely to give to buskers (because they’re probably cash-strapped, they are more likely to listen critically, they may be buskers themselves and recycling cash among buskers doesn’t really gain anything) or is it just that people with music cases are more likely to grab my attention than anyone else who doesn’t take notice of me, and therefore I notice more of the musicians passing by than other people? That said, the other day I did get a couple of handfuls of change from a violinist and a bassoonist who turned out to be going to a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsal; besides being gratifying to my musical ego, a salutary reminder that none of these trends are absolute even if any of them are real.
Requests are always a strange one. Many of them I actually use as prompts on what to memorise next (most recently, the title theme from John Williams’ score to Schindler’s List), though the recurrence rate of specific requests is so low that this is more a stab at playing things that people know and recognise (and so are more likely to pay for) than a guarantee of it. Though I haven’t done anything about the request (encountered a couple of times) for ‘anything Italian’. Suggestions of well-known Italian tunes / songs with a strong enough melody to be recognised instrumentally and unaccompanied welcome (and no, I don’t think the requesters meant Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, though you never know).
I had a particularly (to me) curious request the last time I was out. I was coming towards the end of a pair of Irish reels when a middle-aged-plus bloke approached and took up that hover people do when they want to speak to you but not to interrupt you playing. I gave him a (hopefully) friendly nod when I wrapped up, and he opened with:
‘Do you know any tunes?’
I should explain why this was so puzzling: in British folk circles, jigs, reels, hornpipes, etc., the instrumental dances of the traditional repertoire including the pair I had just finished playing, are called ‘tunes’ to distinguish them from songs. So it was odd to apparently be asked for what I had just been doing. Brain a bit fried (long week and over an hour’s solid unaccompanied playing already under my belt that session), I didn’t manage a more elegant expression of my confusion than:
‘What do you mean by tunes?’
‘You know, tunes. Greensleeves or something.’
I duly started up Greensleeves (what the customer, or rather prospective donor wants, the customer gets, if I can supply it) and his face immediately brightened; he dropped some money into my case, and then, after what felt like about 8 bars, wandered off.
Leaving aside the question of how he had spent so little time on hold in the Noughties to ever want to hear Greensleeves again, to a lot of people Irish fiddle dances are good tunes, though I can understand how they are in some senses less melodic than a traditional song tune. It just goes to show: however much I try and hone my set towards most pleasing the people most likely to give me money (by focusing on what seems to pull in the cash and the positive comments), you can please some of the people all of the time, or all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time…