Category Archives: Street magic

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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The second day on the pitch

Unfortunately, the weather today was much, much better, which meant that most people went to the beach instead of going for a walk. I moved to a new spot and started as yesterday: Performing one trick over and over again. This time, though, nobody stopped. I guess they just wanted to get to the beach as well, without unnecessary delay.

Oh, that’s right, there were some people who did actually stop. They would stand in a distance and stare at me but refuse to come closer, pick a card or even admit that they had been watching. They simply wanted to see the trick through, while pretending that they were not interested at all. That was quite irritating. Even more so when some of them succeeded.

I got to do some mini-shows that I enjoyed a lot, although they paid very, very little. Still it felt so great to give some joy and amazement to people who could not afford live entertainment (and in some cases could barely afford food). Until now I had not thought much about this aspect of street performing – it was simply a new skill I wanted to acquire and a new adventure I wanted to try.

Anyway, seeing all those rednecks sitting in a distance and staring at me, and also my boredom, made me look for a new way to draw people’s attention. So I went to the beach, took a swim and let the ideas flow. And they did.

The easiest one and at the same time requiring the least amount of courage was this: I would spread some playing cards on a sitting bench, along with some strings, markers, pencils and pretty much all of my props. Then I would pretend I was just setting up and try to make some noise when doing that. If someone stopped, I would proceed to the first trick (the one I had been using earlier for drawing attention). That led to some more mini-shows that did not pay at all (since I had removed the bag with coins).

But one time I did it. I got a decent crowd (probably approx. 30 people, half of whom stayed to see the entire show), did my set, took my hat off and the tips would fall in. That single show earned me 21 zł, which I consider a very nice amount for the first show done ‘the right way’. Also, after that show I earned my very first bill.

One funny observation: You might be waiting half an hour for a single person to show up to see your tricks. You might be waiting several hours for some adults to show up. But if at some point you get a few people to come watch you perform, within the next 60 seconds you will be surrounded by one or two dozen spectators.

During the show I was definitely too anxious, but that’s something I should get rid of with some more experience. Anyway, after that show I left. It was such a great experience I wanted it to by my last experience performing that day. The one I would remember when going to bed tonight and when going to the pitch again tomorrow.


The first day on the pitch

…was yesterday. First some stats: I was standing there for 5 hours (not including lunch & beach breaks) and made 49 zł. Which is way, way more than I was expecting.

As I had written, I would perform a single trick over and over again until it drew someone’s attention. Then I would proceed with the other tricks. Most of the time, I was performing the entire set for a single family but sometimes a bigger crowd would form, up to approx. 25 people. At all times there was a small bag lying in front of me with a few coins in it.

I’ve been reading quite a lot about other buskers’ experiences. Many of them mentioned how much it meant for them when a kid threw into their hats a significant amount of their allowance, even though it wasn’t much money for an adult. Now I think I really understand it. There were some really small kids who threw into my hat 1 zł. It must’ve been quite a lot for them. There was also a 12 year old boy who gave me 5 zł. It was so great to know that they had enjoyed my show that much. And that comes from a guy who normally hates kids. It also made me think more about all the things I could improve in my tricks and then I felt a bit unworthy of their money.

There were also some people, who had been dragged by their kids. At first you could tell they just wanted to get over with my tricks and go wherever they had been going. And after the first trick you could see their eyes widen and their whole body language change to ‘holly s**t, he is really good’.

Also a couple times I saw a person leave having seen all my tricks, stop a random passerby and say to them: ‘This magician over there is great, you absolutely HAVE to see him’. If you are lucky enough to be living outside of Poland: In Polish culture chatting to a stranger is something you never, ever do. Not to mention stopping a stranger.

And of course, I have learned a lot about performing magic and got rid of much of my anxiety (so long, shaking hands!). That was pretty quick, given that yesterday was pretty much my first time performing for strangers. Alas, there is a lot, lot more to be learned.

And so a new journey begins…


Other buskers

Over the past few days I’ve been visiting touristy places to see people’s approach to busking. I didn’t have much luck, though. It seems that hardly anyone in Poland performs on the street. Not including musicians, of course. There was plenty of them but performing music is completely different – most musicians  just do their thing and don’t care about gathering, keeping and then monetizing the crowd.

First I went to the Old Town in Warsaw. I saw a guy who probably just wanted to step out of his comfort zone and gain more confidence. He was wearing a pathetic outfit (Kubota shoes, thick socks and shorts – a combination you cannot understand unless you are Polish), holding a small plastic toy guitar. He was pretending to play it and sang along some well-known Polish songs. Needless to say, he couldn’t sing at all, but still gave it his best shot. I found that really impressive – it’s easy to just fool around, but it takes some guts to really try as best you can and let everyone know how much you suck. Anyway, there were some people cheering for him and clapping but I don’t suppose he made any money or even tried to earn anything. That was a true eye-opener, though: You don’t need to be good at anything to gather a crowd. You just need to be loud.

After that I saw a proper busking team. A few people were doing hip-hop dancing. They were pretty closely following a textbook scenario of a busking show. Still, to my unexperienced eye it seemed they were quite unsuccessful. They gathered a nice, big crowd and then lost vast majority of it before the end of the show. I talked briefly to one of them after the show and he said they had been doing that for a very long time. So perhaps they had found out that this way was working best for them. Also, it seemed that quite few of them felt uncomfortable and even intimidated performing in public. Even though they had some nice skills to show. Anyway, after that encounter I felt pretty good about myself. Maybe I’m being to optimistic, but I think that with some practice I can pull off something as entertaining.

Then I went to Sopot, a charming town filled with tourists. I was expecting to see a lot of buskers at every corner and take some notes. To my disappointment, I saw only one (not counting the musicians). He was a contact juggler. There were 3 short bits he was doing over and over again. It was quite impressive, especially for me – I absolutely love contact jugglers. Still, I think he hadn’t given much thought to his show. There was no interaction with the audience, no hat lines. He was pretty much doing it the musicians’ way – just doing his thing. Still, he managed to gather quite a nice crowd and a coin would drop into his hat every minute or so. Good for him. He had small speakers and a separate soundtrack prepared for each of the bits he performed. That might have helped gather some attention. Unfortunately, since he was doing his show over and over again, I didn’t get a chance to talk to him.

Oh, there was another lady: She was sitting on a bench with a sign written on a cardboard: ‘Fortune telling’. I wasn’t interested in that, though. As a rationalist, I was actually even quite appalled. It reminded me, however, that I would really love to learn cold reading.

There is one common thing I noticed about all of those people: They don’t have to worry about the angles. I envy them so much!

Well, that’s pretty much it. Perhaps I will meet someone in Kołobrzeg. I will let you know soon.


Street magic – intro

So, in a few days I want to try doing some street magic. Not the Blaine’s hit-and-run style. The old school busking style. If you are reading my blog, you probably already know that much, but I thought some introduction was due.

My props

My props – ‘pack small, play big’

Right now I’m visiting at my parents’ home in Gdynia. The day after tomorrow I want to go to the town of Kołobrzeg. The day after that I will hit the street, weather permitting.

The art of busking, especially in regard to magic, is often summarized with ‘Make them stop, make them stay, make them pay’. Being talented in some art, e.g. juggling, dancing, magic, is not enough. A successful busker knows how to attract attention of a crowd, how to keep that attention, how to use it to attract even more people, and finally, how to convince them to part with their money. All of those require a lot of knowledge and experience. There are books being written on all those subject and more. There are lectures and classes being given worldwide.

The quality of tricks does not really matter. There are people who make their living showing bad tricks, but are entertaining when doing that. There are also some great magicians who wouldn’t have much success on the street.

I felt a bit overwhelmed by all that. So here is my plan: For now, I simply want to gain confidence in my tricks when performing for small groups of people (i.e. 5-15 people). So I will just go there and keep doing a simple trick until it attracts someone’s attention. Then I will proceed with the other tricks until they have seen the whole (10-12 min.) set or got bored and left. I don’t care about making money (although there will be a hat lying on the ground) or managing the crowd.

Those things will come later along the way. Hopefully it won’t take too long before I can start focusing on those.


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