My Guitar Goes Walking, Part 5 (Rush? What rush?)

Friday 16th December, Devonshire Tunnel, 08:00 -10:00, Martin Place, 11:30-12:30

In my quest to try to earn some larger sums of dosh I thought I’d try rush hour in the Tunnel. More people equals more money, right? Trying to remember the times when I’d been packed like a sardine on the trains I thought 8am might be a good time to get the rush of people.

When I arrived at the tunnel, however, I was dismayed to see other buskers already in action. Walking down the tunnel I passed a boy sleeping with his head between his knees, little bits of art for sale in front of him, an electric guitar-playing clown, another guitarist playing the didgeridoo and finally some chanters sitting together on a mat laid out on the floor, no doubt hoping to spread their alternative lifestyle.

Walking back down the tunnel I decided to that there was room for one more right on the edge of the tunnel. I doubted that the boy would mind unless it was because I disturbed his slumber. People seemed to be more generous today, unlike Melbourne Cup day. Once again a kind woman donated a $5 note. I kept waiting for her to take her change out but no, off she went.

One thing that I didn’t notice was a rush hour. The ebb and flow of people was pretty much the same as any other time, crowds of people being dumped by the trains interspersed with gaps. So I passed the time, quite comfortable with performing in the Tunnel now.

As I’ve mentioned before the acoustics are quite good down there. It was easy to hear the guitar-toting clown thirty metres down the tunnel. I quickly noted that he was singing to a Christmas theme. In fact, it seemed he was on repeat, continuously singing ‘Hark the herald angels sing’. Again and again and again. Perhaps it was the only carol in his repetoire.

Now, the beauty of the Tunnel is that you screw up as often as you like since your audience is constantly moving on and being renewed. The corollary of this is that you can also sing the same song over and over again and they’ll never get bored of it. Only your fellow buskers will.

I’m not sure how he didn’t drive himself insane (or maybe he was) but he would have me. Luckily all I had to do was play my own song to drown him out. A benefit of playing the one song, I suppose, is that you don’t ever have to pause to think about what song to play next. Very efficient, that clown. But then again he’s probably making more than I am.

After my two hours, I wandered on up to Martin Place where I was to meet a friend for lunch. Having time to burn I thought I’d try busking near the Lindt Cafe. The open space was not so much a problem this time as it was the paucity of people. All the office workers flood the area at lunch time but in the hour before that there really isn’t much foot traffic to speak of. Couple that with the spacious walkway that is Martin Place and anybody walking by tends to give you a wide berth. I think that is the advantage of busking in the tunnel; people are funnelled right past your face.

I made absolutely no money at all there. It was just me singing to the wide blue sky. I noticed a group standing outside the Channel 7 building for a while and one of them came up to ask if she could play my guitar. I obliged and May played something she’d composed for her sister’s wedding, singing along almost under her breath. Props to her. Maybe I’ll be composing my own stuff some day too. After that my friend came and I donned my cap again. Still I’d made plenty enough from the Tunnel to cover my lunch.

2 hours earnings (Tunnel): $10.30 (I’ve now made enough to cover my busking hat!)

1 hours earnings (Martin Place): $0.00

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My Guitar Goes Walking, Part 4 (Busking in the sun)

Saturday 3rd December, Hyde Park fountain, 15:50 -17:30

Taking advantage of a break in the crummy weather, I headed to Hyde Park. I had tried the Tunnel which was full but there were plenty of spots around the fountain near St Mary’s Cathedral and along the tree covered boulevard in the park. Looking for the right blend of sun and shade, a spot in the flow without being the centre of attention, I settled north of the fountain, out of its windy spray, with enough distance between me and an older busker who had set up along the path to the train station.

It was an open space, so projecting vocals was tough, made even more difficult than last time with a steady breeze blowing, sweeping my music away. As it was, I wasn’t feeling the vibe, not connecting with the people. Things didn’t improve when a wedding party turned up with horse and carriage to steal the show (though it was a fantastic day of sunshine for the newly weds).

The old fellow eventually called it a day and I deciding that it wouldn’t be quitting if I was to move from my poor position. No point in stubbornly bashing your head on a wall right? I thought I’d at least try a different wall. The old fellow had been sitting on one of the benches playing guitar with an amplifier. The spot was well placed to catch the people coming from St James train station plus there was a bench to sit on, so I thought I may as well borrow some of his wisdom and see if his spot in the sun would be more favourable.

Unlike my previous busking sessions, the sun shone over the city buildings rising to the west, over the path and over me and so I put on my sunglasses. The effect on me was surprising. The shades cut me off from the people and allowed me to pretend that it was just me and the guitar in the lazy afternoon sunshine. As I sat there I played only for me, played the songs I wanted to play without worrying about details like acoustics. It was like I was sitting on the brick fence at the bottom of my driveway, basking in the last of the day’s rays, playing just to play, singing just to sing.

There is a kind of freedom in that, a relaxation, when there is no need to perform, no effort to connect with the crowd. I’m not saying that shutting the window to people is right, after all, why go busking otherwise? Why even leave the house? But it was nice to play the way I play for me, to put feeling and soul into the music with no other agendas, no fear and no need to impress. That is the performance I want to let them see.

In the future I’ll see if I can’t play up to the crowd with some songs and let go and lose myself in others.

1.5 hours earnings: $3.55

My Guitar Goes Walking, Part 3 (Late night busking)

Thursday 17th November, Pitt Street Mall, 20:30 -21:38

I actually went out to Pitt St Mall late on a Friday night but it was dead. I thought I’d make the most of the opportunity and took out my guitar anyway. I sat down and checked out the acoustics; a sound test before the real thing if you will. I left my hat on and was just some dude playing guitar on a lonely street. I did have a fellow from Samoa try to sell me chocolate to raise money for education back home. I don’t know how much luck he had with the Friday night crowd or lack thereof. Sydney is pretty disappointing that way. I suggested Thursday late night shopping might be better. He came back later and even played the melody of Creed’s One Last Breath. When the slightly inebriated dolts started appearing on the streets I knew it was time to go home.

A week later I decided to take my own advice and tried Pitt St on a Thursday night. As expected there were plenty more people wandering around. So many it was quite intimidating in fact. I did not want to set up where it was too busy and I’d attract too much attention. I know, not a very good strategy for a busker ay? I decided on a patch of street light more on the edge, next to Skygarden. Even then I considered just heading back to the familiarity and comfort of the Tunnel. But that would be a waste and the coward’s way out.

So I do what I do every time. I lay my case down and unzip it, pulling out my guitar and go about tuning it, all the while thinking of what the passerby sees. Probably what I think when I see a busker. Here’s a fellow playing for some change. And that’s about the extent of it. No big deal.

It was a short session. I quickly came to appreciate the acoustic advantages of the Tunnel. Out in the open your voice goes out…and keeps on going, lost to the void. I felt I had to consciously project my voice otherwise I wouldn’t be heard. I guess that’s why buskers have amplifiers.

I’d made a dollar and the shops were starting to close, the people thinning out. Once again there was a nice Asian woman who stopped to place $3 on my guitar case and soon after I called it a night. Pitt St Mall at night. During the day will be another challenge.

1 hours earnings: $4.00

My Guitar Goes Walking, Part 2 (Melbourne Cup day)

Tuesday 1st November, Devonshire Street tunnel, 11:45 -13:52

The first Tuesday of November. Melbourne Cup day. With nothing else much going on I decided to go out busking again, still very much high on the success of my first busking session. Still not too daring I decided to go back to the Tunnel.

It was an ill-omened start when I spent twenty minutes trying to tune my guitar. This was unacceptable. The damned battery was low and causing the electronic tuner to give wild readings.

Rant aside. Recently I returned to the music store where I had purchased my guitar. The store guy said to try replacing the battery so I purchased one. But he sold me the one that he’d pulled from out the back, not even a new one from a packet. I knew this at the time so I can only damn my own timidity. Still, what the hell sort of service is that? Okay, rant over.

After finally getting close enough my guitar was tuned, sort of, and I was good to go. As I said it was a bad start and it didn’t get much better. My chord formations were messy, my strumming hand rigid. My confidence was down and I went quiet with uncertainty over the lyrics. Where was the connecting with my audience?

Granted it was Melbourne Cup day, when everyone is heading to the TAB with their money, so maybe not the best day to go busking. All in all it was a downer, especially compared to my debut but even a poor second performance is still a performance out there in the real world.

2 hours earnings: $2.00

Yuta from Yokohama

I was on an errand walking up Pitt St Mall yesterday when I saw an Asian with a guitar case on his shoulder, pulling an amplifier behind him on a trolley. What the hell, I’ve got five minutes. I introduced myself as a fellow busker. It turns out Yuta was from Yokohama and played jazz fingerstyle (no singing though). In fact he’d actually been busking earlier in the main spot at the Westfield entrance. Obviously he was not afraid of performing for the day crowd. I thought it might be a bit rude to ask how much he’d made and didn’t want to hold him up from setting up. Maybe I’ll see him play next time and get to use a bit more of my Japanese.

My Guitar Goes Walking, Part 1 (Debut)

Tuesday 25th October, Devonshire Street tunnel, 10:25 -12:25

I set myself the challenge to take my guitar to the streets and perform in public. I started playing a few years ago but between backpacking and my not owning my own guitar until I got back to Australia, they were by means solid years of practice.

Advice from various sources all told me to not wait though. Don’t let not being perfect hold you back from getting out and busking, otherwise you’ll never get out. It’s good advice and my first outing was to the Devonshire Street tunnel, you know, the one from Central Station out to Railway Square.

Walking along the tunnel I was lucky enough to spy a decent stretch where no one else was busking. I should have stopped but this was my first time busking, still a virgin, all nerves and uncertainty, so I continued walking to the end of the tunnel, eye out for a toilet. You go to the toilet before starting a road trip, right, and I figured busking was no different. A note to pedestrians and buskers alike: There are no toilets on that side of Central Station!

The hell with it I thought to myself. Let’s do this. I went back into the tunnel and approached the busker at that entrance who was between songs. I introduced myself and asked him if there was any etiquette on asking a busker when they would be finishing up, etc, but he just waved me on down the tunnel. Okay, not terribly helpful.

So I set down my case while the traffic flows on unperturbed. I unzip and go about getting set up and no one is paying attention. Of course why would they? I strike a few chords to warm up and decide to play ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’ by Greenday; the first song I learned and I’m pretty comfortable with it. By the end of the song I’d discovered two things. Playing a song sitting at home and standing up performing it are two completely different things. My fingers were all cacky and I’m sure it sounded pretty rough.

The second thing I learned was that playing in the tunnel is easy as there really is no pressure on you. People are flowing by too quickly so that if you mangle a chord or forget the lyrics the people who heard it are gone in five seconds and you have a whole new audience to start fresh with.

It should never be about the money when you busk and really it isn’t. But now let’s talk about the money. When the first person deposited some coins into my hat a rush of gratitude surged through me. Here was validation in monetary form!

Later an Asian lady stopped to donate and asked me if I was an overseas student trying to earn money. Replying in Cantonese I told her no, I was born here. From that she surmised I was busking in order to gain confidence from public performance. Now here was true validation or at least understanding. Plus we did it in Cantonese! When I counted up my money later I was amazed to see a $5 note that she had donated. Such generosity from her and from others!

My first time out and it was a fun experience. I smiled and got nods and smiles in return. It wasn’t so hard but I overcame the challenge.

2 hours earnings: $12.90 (enough to cover my busking permit!)