After the first week of busking

I’m on my way back to Gdynia now. The last 10 days have been very intense. I’m not going to stop busking so soon but I feel that right now, I could use a break and some more practice. Afterwards, I will probably hit Władysławowo.

Kołobrzeg

Kołobrzeg (Photo credit: zkvrev)

I’ve done quite a few shows in Kołobrzeg. At first I tried to draw in spectators by playing with a rope and cards, e.g. doing some very simple flourishes. Then it stopped working due to the noise: I got surrounded by busking musicians. Then I figured out that simply saying ‘I will show you a trick for free’ worked pretty well, at least with some people, namely boys and young men. I guess other people felt too intimidated or insecure to check it out. The trip to Kołobrzeg made me realize again that Polish people are not only rednecks but are also terribly grumpy and unfriendly.

On my last day in Kołobrzeg I had my first major mess-up: I dropped playing cards just before the finale of my card routine. After that I showed another trick and a guy gave me a really big tip: 20 zł. I don’t know whether he felt so sorry for me or really liked the other tricks. Anyway, I felt and still feel quite bad about having accepted it.

On Wednesday I moved to Świnoujście. The town is full of tourists which makes the atmosphere quite unpleasant. It seems that every single person there is determined to get out of their summer as much of either money or drunken, Polish-style fun as possible.

I found out that offering a trick for free didn’t work there. After a few hours of trying that, I started building a tower of cards. That was a brilliant idea. Firstly, I really like doing that. It was a kind of sand mandala exercise for me. Secondly, it did attract attention. And thirdly, it allowed me to select passersby I might want to perform for. If someone blew on my tower, I considered them assholes and ignored. Not that I cared about it tipping over, but they couldn’t have known that. If someone on the other hand stopped, smiled and patiently watched my trembling hands add on another pair of cards, I offered them a free trick. That worked great.

English: Promenada in Świnoujście (Poland) Pol...

Świnoujście

Oh, I had a hilarious encounter with a couple of city guards. For those of you who don’t live in Poland: it’s a kind of police force controlled by the city mayor. They have absolutely no legal power or authority. The strongest measure they can take is call the real police.

Anyway, there were those two guards approaching me. One was wearing a white shirt and sunglasses and had a very stern face, the other one was wearing a standard uniform. The one in a shirt asked what I was doing, complained about the mess I had supposedly made and asked me to show them a trick. While doing that, he was quite unfriendly, unlike the other guy. Anyway, I decided to show them a trick I had recently created (nothing original, though) and had been using to draw a bigger crowd. I asked the other guy to hold a card clapped between his hands and not let them part. Right after that a passerby asked him something. The guard spent few minutes talking to him, all that time with his palms clapped. While we were waiting for him to come back, the guy in a shirt was giving me a look as if he was one of the detectives on the CSI, suspecting me of a murder. Anyway, we didn’t finish the trick since they had something to do. When they were leaving, the white shirt guy looked back at me, pointed at his eyes and then at me with his two fingers. When I looked at him a bit puzzled, trying my hardest not to laugh, he said: ‘We will be watching you’. The other guard added in a cheerful tone: ‘He meant we will be trying to figure out how you do your tricks’. Guess they were playing a good-cop-wannabe and a bad-cop-wannabe.

I’ve met several buskers both in Kołobrzeg and Świnoujście. Most notably, I met Marek, a street clown who was staying at the same camping as me. He has already got a lot of skills (juggling, playing several instruments, riding a unicycle, to name just a few) and is starting to get into illusion. Most importantly, he teaches how to play drums, and I would love to learn that, even though I didn’t have enough patience for any of the musical instruments I’ve tried so far. He is also starting out with contact juggling – another art I would love to learn. Anyway, he inspired me, told where I could buy some insanely cheap juggling balls (for classical juggling) and I started practicing.

Some time ago a friend I had met in Canada tried to teach me that, but I was too resistant to her teachings. We shall see how it goes this time. Thanks to the little experience I have with busking, I didn’t feel intimidated when practicing and failing with basic exercises (e.g. throwing a single ball) while waiting for a train on a platform full of people. Quite opposite, I’m getting to enjoy more and more being a weirdo.

One thing I need to think about is my approach to tips. I don’t perform for money. I have plenty of that and I will be always earning at least several times more doing software engineering, no matter how good a busker I become. Still, it would be nice to pay for train tickets and accommodation with the tips. And most importantly, there is no other measure of how good you are. On the other hand, a common approach to street performing with a set show (i.e. where you gather a crowd, perform, and then get some tips) is to make people feel guilty about leaving without tipping. That’s something I don’t feel like doing, at least not right now. I quit using any lines mentioning tips, commonly known as the ‘hat lines’. Now I simply say ‘This is the end of my show, I hope that you enjoyed at least some of the effects of my work’.

Despite that, sometimes people still feel guilty about leaving without tipping, but when that’s the case the tips I get leave me quite unsatisfied. Oftentimes, they are very low even though they come from grown ups who are apparently doing ok. And I find that quite irritating, perhaps because of the time I have spent in North America where leaving a small tip is a way of saying that you are very dissatisfied with the service. And most importantly, it’s not a result of them having a great time; it’s a result of them feeling pressured to leave something, doesn’t matter how much. As long as they leave something, they feel ok.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not just the amount that matters. When a young professional gives me 10 zł, that’s probably as satisfying as some kids or teenagers giving me some change that is a fair part of money they can spend. That’s their way of saying ‘I’m really happy I’ve seen you perform and I think it was well worth that money’.

Sometimes I don’t get any of that. Yesterday I did a really nice and big show. Towards the end there were probably 40-50 people watching me. I could see that they were blown away by some of the effects. Some of them could not help but laugh hysterically when they saw the impossible happen. When I finished my show, some of them reached for their wallets but when they saw everyone else walk away, they did the same. I can’t say I feel bad about it. It’s better than getting a handful of change and 1 zł coins. It’s also better than making them feel guilty after 10 minutes of making them feel amazed. Still, getting a few nice tips would probably feel even better. Perhaps I will try saying something like ‘If you liked something you’ve seen, please let me know. I don’t necessarily mean the tips, but if you say thanks before walking away that means a great difference to me.’

And one time I was approached by a couple and asked to show them some magic. As I was doing that, a small crowd was slowly starting to gather. I didn’t consider it big enough to do the entire show, so I skipped one effect. Afterwards, the couple gave me 10 zł. Unfortunately, I didn’t see them pass me by again. I wish I had got a chance to perform the other effect for them. Maybe that’s the right approach for me: Do a small show and if I can see that people really appreciate it, do some more. In order to do that, though, I would need to learn some more tricks.

I’m starting to get over all that excitement of performing in front of strangers, even though some of them might be a bit hostile and unfriendly. I knew that would start happening, I didn’t realize it would be that soon. Perhaps I need to work on drawing attention and gathering a crowd (buskers call it ‘building an edge’), so that my performing/waiting for the audience ratio improves. For that, though, I think I would need to be louder and act sillier. Those of you who have met me in person know that I’m a quiet and calm guy. I wouldn’t feel comfortable acting like I suffer from ADD.

Another thing worth checking out might be going abroad and trying to busk there. Hitch-hiking and busking in the north in Norway sounds like a pretty cool adventure, eh? I think I might give it a shot in August or September if everything goes well in Poland. One cool thing about stepping out of one’s comfort zone is that you only need to put some effort into the first step. The next steps follow naturally and before you realize, you are doing stuff you never thought you would dare to do.

And now some random remarks:

The trip proved to be quite expensive so far. I’ve destroyed my ebook reader (they didn’t mention in the user manual that you are not supposed to sit on it). It cost quite a lot when I was buying it and served me really well over the past few years. Time to get a replacement. I have also broken a piece of my tent. That made me realize that even MEC-branded equipment is not indestructible. With that knowledge I will probably be gentler with my backpack and the remains of my tent.

It seems that I’ve unknowingly made a sexual offer to a little girl. Note to myself: Never tell a spectator you are going to use their hand later on. In retrospect, it’s funny how she looked at me and ran away.

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