Attack (and Release) of the Downtown Busker

November 19, 2010 at 12:01 am | Posted in Humor, Saxophone | Leave a comment
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Late October had put a chill in the air. The grayness of the sky seemed to suck energy from everything. I shoved my hands deep in the pockets of my brown leather jacket as I trod the grimy sidewalks of downtown, heading toward its center in search of something to eat.

The sound came faintly at first, barely noticeable as it began to penetrate the rumbling of tires over brick and the white noise of water rushing from a nearby fountain. As I came closer to my destination, the wailing became eerily recognizable. As soon as I rounded the corner onto Meridian Street, I couldn’t help but cringe as I spotted him at the entrance to an alleyway, honking away in constantly changing pitches. There was no doubt—I was approaching the dreaded downtown busker.

It took several seconds of listening before I recognized the pattern of the sounds coming from his tenor saxophone. It was what can be most complimentarily described as an original rendition of “In the Mood.” I hurriedly took refuge in a nearby Mexican fast-food joint.


Now, there’s nothing wrong with being original. Music can be interpreted in different ways with variations in style. But playing every note fortissimo and clipping every phrase (well, actually, partial phrases), plus pausing a beat after each (partial) phrase is not exactly the most musical of styles and actually could be argued to not be a musical style at all. (Saxophones actually can be played quite musically, as evidenced, I’m pleased to say, by the Wind Symphony’s sax section. It might be in their interest to sue this guy for defamation of instrument.)

I hypothesize that this street musician plays loudly to be heard by as many as possible so as to maximize his handouts. (Please don’t suggest to him that a trumpet can be played even more loudly.) Consequently, he has to take deep breaths fairly frequently, creating a clipped and staccato style where too many breaks are inserted into the “music”.

But I believe his approach is less than optimal. Wouldn’t people be more likely to give and more likely to give more to a busker who shows some true musical talent and entertains them? When people move to the other side of the street or roll up their car windows (which doesn’t help much) to minimize the assault on their eardrums, one’s instrument case is not going to be filled with cash at the end of the day.

If he doesn’t realize this or just doesn’t grasp the concept of musicality, I’d recommend that he go instead for sympathy. Wearing a sign that says “Can’t afford music lessons” would, no doubt, increase the contributions.


After finishing my tacos, I found it necessary to head outside again to make my way back to my office. The busker was still honking away across the street, but in the block or so I walked before his notes faded once again below the sounds of tires and fountains, I wasn’t able recognize the new tune. Fortunately, I didn’t have to attribute that to a lack of musical knowledge.

The walk back allowed me to reflect a bit and realize that there are a couple of good aspects to the busker’s performances. He is attempting to earn a few bucks by doing something more than sit on a street corner with a cardboard sign and, as unmusical as he may be, he is still much more melodic than someone rattling coins in a plastic cup.


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