Monday, October 15, 2012

Busker Days

They have begun and they are sweet.

The weather’s gotten crisper, but the sun shines warmly to mix with the blustering autumn wind. Lee and I usually walk for at least five minutes before settling into a spot, Lee leading the way through tight crowds of Korean shoppers. When we find the spot—that in itself is the art: a spot with lots of foot traffic, but still room to play, where there aren’t any angry street vendors or too much blasting music from the nearby stores, where we can have a solid wall behind us to amplify Lee’s voice, away from any sewage grates where it smells bad—when we find that spot we detach from the stream of shoppers and swing our instruments from our shoulders.

Lee’s guitar appears seconds later, and he begins to fiddle around while I go through my more laborious process of suiting up my violin. My case is in sad disrepair, the shoulder strap broken twice over and the black exterior shamefully scuffed from toting it through buses and subways and setting it on dirty sidewalks for busking. My rosin broke a while back, and the little shard of it I’ve been using won’t last much longer. I don’t take time to look at the scuffs on my violin’s body anymore, the fingerprints, the divots and dents, the little bit of blood on the D-string from where I broke open a cut on my first finger. The discolored, slightly warped bridge has gone long distances with me—the Tennessee Waltz in the Degage homeless shelter, symphonies in LaPorte amphitheaters, Blessed be Your Name in Chiang Mai, Jason Mraz on the streets of Busan. We’ve been together for a while.

I’m not a good violinist anymore, but I like to think we’re still close.

The crowds start to gather as we tune up. Lee asks me to play a B for him, sometimes, and I wonder if he knows I don’t have a B-string and how problematic it is to tune to my whimsical second finger on the G-string. A crowd gathers, people taking pictures and video as soon as the instruments are out. We’ve learned to ignore them until the money hat is in place. Seeders—a couple of 천원's (very roughly $1), a five(오천), a ten (만원, give them options)—come out of our wallet and into the hat first. Once a group of high school boys gave us money before we even started playing. Sometimes nearby street vendors drop in a couple ’s for us. You learn a lot about generosity and joy when you’re busking.

The ahjumma (older lady) vendor next to us smiles, showing her gold-capped tooth, and encourages us to play nearby when we ask. The jewelers down the street glare at us, certain we’ll clog up traffic (we will) and impede business (we might). Couples snuggle closer into each other’s linked arms and whisper as we play. Kids point and their parents gawk. We play for the smiles and for the schoolgirls leaning out of the sixth story window to wave at us.

Our first song is a crowd-gatherer (Stand by Me), if the crowds are willing. We cater. All the girls stare and giggle at Lee. The ahjummas smile at me and the men look baffled or concerned. When other musicians walk by, their violins at their side, or guitars or a cello strapped to their backs, they give us a nod, a smile. The bold ones jump in and play for a song or two, but that’s rare. When we finish the first, we “kahasamnida” the heck out of those who give a little money and start right into the second.Then the third. Jason Mraz, Ingrid Michaelson, HakunaMatata. Lee sings, Lee strums, I waffle about on the arpeggios, occasionally remembering harmonies and the licks we’ve practiced in between classes in our office.

Our third member for this day was Grace, a wonderful
percussionist and singer.
After four songs, Lee yells, “마지막 노래!” (last song) and we finish the set with “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” Sometimes people send their kids forward with money, sometimes everyone slinks away looking bored, sometimes we get large rounds of applause, and sometimes people want pictures with us. We take a break or, if the nearby vendors or shop-owners look peeved and we don’t like the acoustics or the crowds are stingy with smiles and 천원’s, we take off and move to another street corner.

Eventually we pack it in, give out our last smiles, and blend back into the crowd. On the bus we fish the천원’s out of the hat and guitar case and check the loot, straightening and counting all the single bills like a couple of change-machine heist-ers. How much do we make? Depends.On the whimsy of the crowd. Sometimes it’s good money, sometimes less so. Either way, it’s a perk.[1]

It is definitely work—it’s tiring and it takes a quick mind, a happy heart, and, for me, quite a few years of violin lessons—but it’s terribly fun. It’s like having a license to make people happy, to smile at them and to play a little music. It’s a way to connect with people who can’t speak to you about anything that matters, a way under the language barrier to something deeper and more joyful than words, a way for us to recharge, to learn that God is generous and joyful as well as merciful and just.

[1]A perk that pays for my choco-pie and ice-cream habits, unfortunately.

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