Highlights and Lowlights of the 2013 Busking Season

Hannah's Case

Hannah’s Case

I’ve decided to describe some of my busking experiences with a list of the 10 best, worst, weirdest, random and perhaps helpful tidbits that have made this busking season memorable:

1. Best Day of the Summer: Definitely Independence Day, and oddly enough, it was one of the very first days I was able to busk this summer as well, and man was it a good day. :) Met a lot of friendly festive people and made a fair amount of tips. People would clap along to the upbeat tunes like ‘Yankee Doodle’ and I even heard a few people singing along with us to songs like ‘God Bless America’ and of course, ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. The simple pleasures of playing some good ol’ American music.

2. Worst Day of the Summer: There were many (more than last summer), but one particular day, temperatures were skyrocketing to dang near 100 degrees, it felt like a sauna bath outside. It was definitely too hot for me, and way too hot for my fiddle. As I recall, I think I played for about a half hour, sweated like a coal miner, then decided to call it a day because it just wasn’t worth it! The planets were not aligned that day.

3. Best Place to Play: My favorite places are all along Michigan Avenue, especially around Magnificent Mile (hopefully in the shade). There are many good spots, but I look for places where lots of people are shopping and kids and families are abundant.

4. Worst Place to Play: I haven’t come across a really horrible busking location yet, though one time on State Street after playing my fingers off for about an hour, I only made $2 in my tip jar. I must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. In general, I always avoid places that don’t have a lot of foot traffic and might be dangerous or less welcoming parts of town.

Hannah K. Watson, violinist

Hannah K. Watson, violinist

5. Questions People Ask: Some people tend to get real chatty, which makes it hard to get back to playing sometimes. As a woman, I can double task with the best of them, but it gets difficult to make intelligent comments and play Mozart at the same time! I usually get questions about my violin, how long I’ve been playing and where I went to school. I’ve had a few people ask if they can play my violin for a song or two, and I always reply a polite, “NO”.

6. Most Recognized Tune: ‘Canon in D’ by Pachelbel, obviously! Everyone just gushes when they hear it as they walk by, and a little part of me cringes inside each and every time I have to play it, again, and again, and again (it’s the bane of every violinist’s existence). However, playing this piece has gotten me a fair amount of wedding gigs. :)

7. Most Requested: Again, the answer would be ‘Canon’… but besides this, lots of people request Mozart or Bach. I’ve also gotten a lot of opera requests, such as ‘Meditation from Thais’. Other than the classical stuff, everyone’s always up for a Beatles tune. :) I love when people recognize ‘It’s Been a Hard Days Night’.

8. Random Things People Have Given Me: On one occasion, a little boy came up to listen for a bit and then gave me 2 bags of Stacy’s Pita Chips, I think he thought I was homeless, :p but no complaints here! Because Stacy’s those pita chips are mmm good!

9. Weirdest Request I’ve Gotten: A man and his son asked me to play some Paganini once. Oddly enough, I have gotten this request once before but the guy was joking (thankfully). This particular man was completely serious and quite put off when I told him I didn’t have any Paganini memorized… sorry, but you just asked me to play some of the hardest violin music known to man, ha ha. I’ll put it on my list of tunes to learn for next summer. :p

10. My Favorite Experiences While Busking:  On one exciting day, a group of about 15 people on a ‘city treasure hunt’ surrounded us to take a group photo while we were performing. I never got to see the photo but I bet it was hilarious! On another day, I decided to play a cover of Skrillex’s ‘Scary Monsters’ for the very first time on the street, not even 5 seconds into the beginning of the tune, a guy turned around, told me how bad ass it was and handed me a 20 dollar bill. I have always incorporated this into my routine ever since, but have yet to get another reaction like that.

Becoming a Street Performer, No. 2

Playing at the LaSalle Street Station

So, I just got back from my first performance in the subway. What an incredible experience! I thoroughly enjoyed it. Something about it made me feel very free – far from shore but swimming in calm, warm waters.

I decided to play this first time in the LaSalle Street CTA (Blue Line) station, which is about 5 blocks from where I work. I admit to being a little nervous as I walked over there during lunch today.

I promised myself I would stay for at least 20 minutes – about 4-5 songs. In the end, I played for an hour, made $8 in tips, had one person photograph me and got one business card from a listener.

The LaSalle Street station was the perfect venue for my first time. There is a good amount of traffic but not a ton of people like some of the central Loop stations – a good place for a newbie. It is close to my office and a comfortable station with a wide central area between its two tracks. The station is also amenable to performing in that the main entrance to the tracks is at one end of the station and leads passengers in one direction (not to both sides as do some stations).

LaSalle Street Station

The LaSalle Street Blue Line Station

My voice always sounds much better with a good amount of reverb. In that regard, the subway station was like a marvellous European cathedral wrapping its arms about me. I could hear myself very clearly and frequently also noticed echos as the sound reached the far end of the station and the ceilings above each of the tracks.

It’s amazing how the volume level within the station changes with the coming and going of the trains. When no train was nearby, I was loud and could hear my voice and guitar clearly echoing throughout the station – I just loved the sound. As a train pulled in, however, I couldn’t even hear my guitar no matter how loudly I played.

The people waiting for their trains were kind to me. A handful of people dropped a dollar or so in my bucket. Most people sat on the benches or waited on foot, turned in my direction, listening quietly. One woman gave her (3-4-year old) daughter a dollar to drop into my bucket. I thanked her and bowed as she dropped it in. Such a fun experience.

My Bucket

My Bucket

The only negative was that, even though it is supposed to reach a balmy 50-ish degrees here in Chicago today – very warm for the winter – it was still a bit chilly in the station, and my hands definitely became cold as I played. I’d probably look into getting some of those fingerless gloves for the next time out…though I’m not sure I’d like playing in them.

So, it was indeed a great experience. That said, could I do this all day? I’m not sure I could. I think about the many street musicians I’ve worked with in the past several years – George, Ron, Norm, Keithen, Maverick, Meisha, Joe, Scott, Vimont, Fritz, Talon… – how they often put in several hours in a row performing for countless passers-by. It’s a lot of work, and those talented musicians do it with a joy and pride in their jobs that many of us might find enviable. If I’m ever to earn a living through music, I’m not sure I could do it quite the way that they do.

At any rate, my day one was encouraging, interesting and full of joy. I can’t wait to do it again.

Becoming a Street Performer, No. 1

Looking dapper for my first performance


I’ve been working with street musicians in Chicago for almost three years now but have never actually played on the street or in the subway myself. It’s more than past time for me to remedy this situation, and today is the day that I do!

I recently bought a permit to play in the CTA and plan on going out at lunch for my first foray into playing in the subway. I respect and enjoy the art of street performers and feel certain that experiencing it for myself will deepen my appreciation for what they do. I’m looking forward to it and will report back here later today.

Gabriel