For the past few days, I've taken my violin and gone busking in Silver Spring, fairly close to the theater. I’ve gotten a little spare change here and there, but the experience has been invaluable in finding a deeper understanding of the “Busker” character from Agnes Under the Big Top.
On my first day, I was shooed away from the Metro station, despite my protests: "I'm 20 feet from the entrance!” “There's no bus stop nearby!” “I'm over 10 feet away from an ATM!” “I'm not panhandling, I don't have a sign."
I wandered around, not sure where to go. I finally settled on a little bench just outside Baja Fresh. Whole Foods wasn't too far away. There was a guy selling roasted nuts. I figured foot traffic would be good. I set up shop on the bench. My case was open, with the planted "seed dollar" to make it look like someone had already donated.
I played for an hour - anything that came to mind. Often, I would just improvise and play around. I would repeat pieces when I felt like it, because the audience changes constantly; no one really knows if you repeat. (Well, I suppose the guy selling roasted nuts knew.) I played gypsy pieces, jazz pieces, klezmer pieces, tangos, flamencos, classical excerpts, etudes I remembered from college, Beatles songs, Adele songs...anything that I felt like playing.
My haul? 15 dollars, a bottle cap, a button, an iced coffee from Starbucks, and a phone number. Most people, however, ignored me entirely. Some looked and smiled. A few even took out their earphones, which pleased me greatly. I got a few nods of appreciation here and there. Some people even stopped to listen, visibly moved by the music. (They were the ones who usually left a dollar.) But the thing I got the most? Judgmental stares.
That last bit was where I found the Busker.
As I met the eyes of the passersby, I couldn't help but notice their disdain. In my mind, I was suddenly nothing more than a homeless beggar.
"I actually have a job," I felt myself wanting to say. "I have a home. I'm an artist." The need to defend myself grew in intensity as more and more people stared. I couldn't help but feel rejected. Here I was, offering my violin music to the otherwise urban soundscape, and I was treated with resentment, rather than being thanked for making music. I had been spurned. To them, I didn't have a name; I was just a busker.
If I had been playing on stage or in a concert hall, people would be paying money for tickets and applauding afterwards. But because I was on the street with my case open, I was no better than a man shaking a cup of coins. The disparity bugged me greatly, and I felt myself growing bitter. Even if they didn't toss a little money in my case, they could at the very least appreciate the fact that there was music in the air.
But my hope was restored by the people who listened, whether they gave money or not. For a moment, they were transported. I saw their eyes glaze over as they listened, diving back into their minds as they hunted down memories. That's exactly what the Busker in Agnes does, except a bit more theatrically.
The violin is a truly evocative instrument. A dear friend of mine has described my violin playing as “taking the sadness and tragedy in your life and turning it into something beautiful." The people who listened heard something. There might not have been anything familiar in the exact notes that I was playing, but the sensation, the evocation, or the vibration resonated within them. They were reminded. They remembered.
Such is the Busker's ability to move freely through time and space, and this experience reminded me that I'm capable of doing the same thing. To the majority of people, he and I are nothing more than buskers - and outcasts. Yet, when someone who walks by opens their heart for a moment, we can work our busker magic and take them someplace beautiful.
Agnes runs Sept 5-28, 2013.