A Street Performer’s Checklist – A guide to street performance the right way

by Heidi Montgomery

Ask any true extreme-sport enthusiast the reason for hurtling headlong down steep, snowclad mountains or clinging to stony precipices, and the response will undoubtedly have something to do with thrill and challenge, glory and achievement. Ask any musician, whether soloist or fourth-chair cellist, what makes him or her walk out on stage time and again and the answer is essentially the same. Whether racing around boulders and trees or through a string of rapid-fire 16th notes, the heart can pound and the adrenaline pump. And both can be addictive.

As addictions go, the lure of performing is no great cause of distress, unless, of course, the addict has insufficient access to concert halls, coffeehouses, or bar gigs. The solution? Hit the pavement! Create your own venue and go where the people are. I’m talking about street performance or, as it is more commonly known, busking.

As well-seasoned a performer as you might be, busking takes a different set of skills and tests a different set of nerves in comparison to stage performance. It is one thing to play a venue where you have been contracted to appear (that alone offers more security and confidence than you may realize). It’s quite another matter finding a spot in the middle of a busy pedestrian thoroughfare where neither shoppers, nor storekeepers, nor police will object to your presence.

The first thing to understand about busking is that there are no steadfast rules. However, there are certain guidelines that, when followed, are likely to increase your tips, and others that will most assuredly keep you in good graces with fellow buskers–an angry juggler lobbing a flaming bowling pin into your tip basket is not a good thing.

Be Prepared
Before packing up and heading into the streets, go over the following checklist:

1. Appearance. Anything goes, but being clean and groomed keeps you from being considered just another worthless beggar. Something with a bit of flair can help draw attention, too, especially in more crowded or spacious locations. Make it easier for people to spot you.

2. Sheet music. Leave it behind. Not only is it at the mercy of the faintest breeze, it also creates a barrier between you and the audience. Memorize a minimum of 20—30 minutes of material, and keep your head up and your eyes on the passersby. This goes for group performers as well; I’ve seen countless string quartets perform at London’s Covent Garden without stands and sheet music. In fact, they prance and spin and stomp through the likes of Eine Kleine Nachtmusik and Radetzsky’s March and are immensely popular with the crowd.

3. Repertoire. As lovely as they might be, airs, largos, and other slow-paced works just don’t cut it. Bright, toe-tapping tunes are the best crowd pleasers. Put snobbery aside, cut out the schmaltzy, pedantic bits, and stick to classic music excerpts, if you must. Tunes from popular songs and folk-dance music work well. Celtic pieces–reels, jigs, polkas, and quick-paced hornpipes–are my personal favorite.

4. Tip catcher. Have something–your case, a large hat, a box, or a basket–into which people can throw tips. And they do throw, so make it something with a wide opening; some folks like to drop their offerings without ever slowing their pace. Choose something reasonably easy to see and not easily tipped over (dazed pedestrians routinely stumble over even my royal-blue-lined fiddle case). Depending on the venue you choose, you might even hire a charming friend or a winsome older child or teen to pass a jar or basket through the crowd.

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