This weekend I took a stroll down the street that hosts hundreds of venders and street musicians at our local Farmer's Market every weekend. It was invigorating, so full of life and so full of every kind of expression: creative, agricultural, musical, and edible.
What really inspired me to be there were the barrage of musicians singing and playing at every corner for whomever should walk by and acknowledge the little piece of their heart they have so vulnerably set on display.
I have a lot of respect for street musicians, mainly because I used to be one. When I look at these guys and gals singing and playing their heart out as hundreds of people pass by and only a handful stop to look and an even smaller handful who throw in a dollar or two, I appreciate something profound about them that a lot of people probably don't.
Street performing is not like any other kind of performing. It's not like playing in a bar or a concert where you are scheduled and people come to see you and pay a entrance fee to get in. The best way I can describe it is you are choosing an unspecified place on an unspecified day to an unspecified audience and choosing to play music that this unspecified audience may or may not be wanting to hear. It's terrifying!
I remember the first time I decided I wanted to be a street performer. I was 17 years old, and I was staying with my cousins in California for the summer. I had with me one suitcase filled with clothes and what I deemed "rocker boots" that I carried in my left hand, and a backpack on my shoulders that housed a small battery powered amplifier and some chords, and then in my right hand I had a hard shell guitar case which held my gold top Les Paul copy that my dad had purchased for me at a NAMM show earlier that year. I could carry it all myself and travel anywhere which made me feel like an extremely proud hippy with semi expensive guitar gear.
I excitedly told my cousin about my idea to play on the street and maybe make some tips in the process and he instantly thought it was a great idea, in fact, he became more excited than me, I think. He said he'd take me down to Hollywood Blvd tomorrow. My uncle and aunt were going to audition for Family Feud the next day and we were supposed to go down to LA to support them. After the audition (which they didn't get) my cousin said, "Let's go get you set up!" As we were driving down the crowded streets of Hollywood, suddenly I became unsure about my decision. There were a lot of people...a lot of strangers...and they didn't look particularly friendly.
I started doubting myself. "What am I going to play? I don't have a band to play to, I just have a guitar and an amp. I'm not that good. What if people laugh at me? I can't handle that right now!"
I told my cousin, "I don't want to play here. There are too many people." He looked at me and said something to the effect of, "Isn't that the point?" I said, "Yeah, but I don't even have backing tracks to play to and the songs I know don't sound good without backing tracks, and..." he interrupted, "Just do it, you may suck, but afterwards you'll have one street performance under your belt and you'll learn something and be better the next time."
I finally agreed.
So I walked down the busy street with my cousin walking a few steps behind carrying my amp bag for me, until I got to a spot that felt about as terrifying as any other spot and set down my guitar case and opened it up. I hooked my guitar strap onto my golden, glittery guitar and tried not to look at the people who were walking by whose stares I could feel, all wondering what I was going to do.
I plugged in, strummed a chord to get a quick sound check and then took a deep breath. I decided I was going to play "Black Magic Woman" by Santana. I started with the chord pattern to set up the song, since I didn't have any other instruments backing me up, and then I busted into the solo at which point I heard a few people gasp and cheer ( I don't know who I never looked up). At the end of the song, I heard a substantial amount of claps and cheers so I managed to pull my gaze up for a few seconds and noticed a small little crowd had formed around me and a few dollar bills had appeared in my case. I nodded my thanks and gave a nervous smile at these strangers being sure not to make any eye contact.
I felt my confidence boost a little bit, so I went on to play another song, I think it was either "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream or another Santana song. I noticed some of the crowd had dwindled and a lot of people were walking right past me not even turning their heads. I started to feel that anxiety again, and as I began to improvise some blues licks for my third song I felt all hope flee from me as one girl walked by and yelled out, "YOU SUCK!" as she passed by.
It was like all the joy, excitement, fun and adventure of that moment was killed instantly as I felt all of my insecurities become a harsh reality.
I packed up after that song. As I was packing up a few people stopped me to tell me that they really enjoyed my playing. I thanked them and went home broken. I decided that I was never going to play on the streets again.
I wondered why it hurt so much, I was used to getting mean comments from strangers on my YouTube videos and sent to me on Myspace, way meaner things were said and it didn't even bother me. I realized later that it's because street performing is an intimate art. It is one person removing the barriers of a stage or a computer and laying their deepest fears, hopes, dreams and aspirations on the table and allowing anyone to take them and do as they wish.
I did get back out on the streets again with my guitar and little battery powered amp, and I was better and I had learned something. Each time I did it, I understood the exchange and I felt more connected and more appreciative to the people who stopped to handle my heart for a few moments and were gentle with it.
So when I see street performers, never do I think that they are any less than brave, vulnerable musical warriors who generously invite you right into their world for a brief moment...and I always throw them a few dollars too, it's the least you can do to thank them for the real connection to humanity they so openly share.
These are some of the street musicians I saw this weekend, if you know who any of them are please let them know they are featured in my blog! Thanks!!