Busking in Ireland

Busking on Grafton Street

This is partly inspired by a recent post by Nimue Brown, which had some excellent points to make about the quality of the audience and its effect on a performance, but mainly it’s about the fact that I’ve just come off Grafton Street in Dublin, having barely made the price of a pint. I’m in Farrington’s now, a place that serves Irish craft beers and good food. And has free wireless. It may be the last chance I ever get to be here, so I’m taking it. 
I’ve played Grafton Street the last two days, as well as a pretty amazing session in a pub on Monday night. Both days on the street I’ve done a whole lot better monetarily, but really, no time spent on the street is ever wasted. 
It never depends on your audience. I always, always look in the mirror first. The reason I did crap today was that I broke one of my cardinal rules. I played for tips. I did not play for the love of it, and I deserved to make shite. Yet I did catch ears. It’s funny, people on the street often don’t want to be caught listening, at least at first. It’s kind of like hooking a salmon. Let them stand off to the side if they like, and keep feeding them beauty. They’ll often come around. Sometimes all you get is a tip, sometimes you get conversation. Sometimes even a chance to pass on a bit of knowledge. 
Audiences and performers are two halves of a whole. The ancient Irish knew that. There was a blessing on the teller of the tale, who told it fully and completely, and on those who listened completely, to the end. This was, and is, how the knowledge moves forward in time. 
I played at Emain Macha earlier this week. I stood up there completely alone and played “The Pangs of Macha” to the land it was tied to, the sky, and the sea surrounding the island of Ireland. It was good, but it wasn’t enough. When a gaggle of kids and parents came up to the hill, I asked them if they wanted to hear the story of the hill. It seemed no one heard me, and I was willing to let it go. They didn’t come there to hear me. I offered an opportunity, no more, no less.  But one man in that group heard me. He wanted to hear the tale and he spoke right up, made the kids sit down and listen. 
After I was done, the kids got up and kept rolling down the hill. But some of the adults thanked me. They got it. I also found out that rolling down the hill was a tradition, later when I no longer had the chance. All I knew at the time was when I saw fathers and their children rolling down Emain Macha, laughing their joy, that the curse was over at last. I didn’t need to catch every ear, after all, only the ones who needed to hear the story. If busking hadn’t made me fearless, I, an American, would never have dared to approach a group of Irish people and offer to tell them their history. The very idea! 
The session was another gift from the street. The man on the street, as it were, showed his worth again. I asked for directions near the bus station and he saw the bodhran on my back and pointed me not only to Grafton Street, but to O’Donoghue’s, and the Monday night session. On the way down, I told myself that if they didn’t like what I was doing, I knew the way back to the hostel. I’d already been given the brush-off in Inverness, I was prepared to get the same here, but I was going to try, at least. 
Tommy was in the back with a guitar and he was welcoming from the start. His mates, who arrived later, were the same. I was a little rusty and uncertain at first, but they made me welcome and I was soon in the swing of things. The other American there, who had a fiddle and was invited to play, wouldn’t, till almost the end. These guys really wanted the Americans to jump in. The pub was full of us and they did the best they could to even get people to sing choruses, which they wouldn’t. We have lost our voices, sticking plugs in our ears and being intimidated by skill instead of inspired by it. 
That night was magic for me. Yes, the happiness of the audience was part of it, as well as the easy acceptance of the regulars, but it was busking that made it possible. Tommy told me, when I was first called on to sing, that I wouldn’t get silence, just to jump in. I hadn’t expected it. I didn’t even want it. I wanted to catch ears, and catch them I did. I don’t even remember what I sang first, but the second tune was General Guinness, and it got me a free pint of same. I didn’t pay for drinks the rest of the night. And we got the other American to take out her fiddle in the end. You could tell she was thrilled and so was I. I hope she got hooked. We all can and should make our own music. 
And I am going to finish this pint and see if Temple Bar is kinder than Grafton Street was. I will not be playing for tips this time

Going Home Empty Handed

Going Home Empty Handed

It happens every time. I put out my case and pick up my drum and people walk by me as if I wasn’t even there. I can’t help thinking “this is going to be the time I go home with nothing.” It’s a traitorous thought, always lurking, ready to come out like a bus stop cigarette.

Busking is a hard subject in the School of Life and this is one of the lessons. I’m actually getting good at this one. I remind myself that I’m not really playing for tips, I’m playing to get good at what I do. If I go home with nothing, so be it. I fall into the song, and I keep track of what’s going on around me. Does the spot feel good? Am I getting smiles? Tips? Glares?  Are there other spots to be had? Ah, that’s the rub, especially after work. There are a lot of us, after all.

Busking can teach non-attachment if you let it. Really, how can I possibly go home empty handed? The more I play, the better I get. The more I put myself out there the less important the judgments of others on my presence as a busker become. It is becoming easier and easier to acknowledge the smiles, tips, and positive feedback and let the crap roll off my back. Since I’m beginning to know my material cold, I can pay more attention to what’s going on around me and less on remembering lyrics and getting the drumbeats right.

Trip planning continues. The tickets from San Francisco to the UK are bought. I’ll come into London and go straight up to Scotland. London to Inverness by train is under a hundred pounds and the bus to Skye takes three hours. The hostel in Inverness is around the corner from the train station and they say they welcome musicians. I can get from any train station in the UK to Ireland for under forty pounds, so Ireland from Scotland will be cheap. I may have to change train/bus/ferry multiple times, but that’s why I’m packing light. Adventures make you late for dinner, right?

Freedom Is Only The Beginning


Freedom is a really dangerous concept. All true sources of power are. That’s why it’s so important to know where your own idea of freedom lies, and realize what pursuing it really means.

For me, this is an ongoing conversation. The answers are different every day, because the choices change. Asking the question keeps me awake, because it’s very easy to fall asleep, because plenty of people are always out there trying to sell us their idea of freedom, and get us to give them our time, energy–and money, in its pursuit.

So first, what is freedom to you? If you could do anything with your life, what would it be?

This isn’t an easy question, but it’s one of the most important ones you can ask. Without it, you are at the mercy of those who will define the boundaries of your life for you.

For example, I’ve been handed two very large chunks of freedom over the past year. First, I was handed back a large amount of my time in the form of an hours cut and a schedule change. Three whole days a week are now mine to pursue my dreams, and I can actually get up at a decent hour instead of having to be out of the house long before daylight. On top of that, I was handed most of the money to take the trip I’ve wanted to make for most of my life.

You’d think I had it made, no? Well, yes, but now I have to make it real. In order to do that, there are choices to make, questions to answer. For me, it’s where to go and when. What does my music want of me, and how do I turn that into a livelihood? Do I busk today, blog, or write music? What’s fit to record, and what’s the next step to the album? What shape does a life making music have?

Where in your life are you? Your choices are different at age twenty than they are at age fifty.

Having a mortgage, a family and a job is a very different situation than being twenty with a backpack and an instrument. Both have their advantages. Having a day job, and a growing livelihood at the same time, is a constant process of switching gears. A life as an employee is easy, just show up on time and do as you’re told. Creativity is possible, but it is exercised within narrow lines, in service to the organization one is part of. Being able to just take off and put your whole life into your dreams is scary, but can be the fast track. Knowing what you really want is the hard part.

If you found yourself free to do anything tomorrow, what would you do? Where would you start?

Truly, you are already free. We all are. We make choices every day, to go to work, to school, to do nothing at all. Why do you do what you do, and what parts of it are meaningful to you?

So freedom isn’t free. That has always been true, but the meaning of those words is fluid, and easily twisted. Fighting for freedom is certainly one of them, but if things have been allowed to deteriorate to the point of warfare, we have been asleep at the switch. I’m thinking more in terms of the person who has just won the lottery and quit their job. Many people daydream about that, and about what they’d do if it happened to them, but very, very few are ready for it when it happens to them.

What do you need to do in order to bring your life in line with your awareness?

What are your goals? What can you do right now? This year? Where do you want to be in ten years? Is it possible to pursue your freedom within an existing organization, or do you need to strike out on your own? Can you build this life beside your existing job and pursue it after retirement?

It took me from last summer to now to make a dent in any of these questions. I had to be flat on my back for a couple of weeks before I was forced to consider them seriously. I had begun the process, done some basic things like acquired a good mic and created a place to work, and then suddenly I was unable to do anything at all. I choose to view this as a blessing, the chain of events that put me on the road I’m on now. I hope you choose an easier way to put yourself on your own path, if you aren’t already walking it.

If you are walking this path, where are you? How did you get there? Where are you going from here?

If you aren’t, do the questions above have any meaning for you? What questions would you ask? What are your answers?

That Perfect Crystalline Moment

We’re all chasing it–the perfect expression of our passion. In art it might be the perfect sentence that expresses that thought completely, the perfect piece of sculpture, the tune that recreates the moment when the song was born. These things can’t be created on command, but the fertile ground on which they grow can be prepared.

The ways this is done are completely different for each of us. That is why they can’t be taught, and that is why the one constant piece of advice we are given in all creative endeavours is to put in the time, to practice often and intensely. Only by doing that can we teach ourselves what our methods are, and only in that way can they evolve over time. Consistency comes from this. The muse is balanced on a knife edge, and we can only take fire from her hands if we develop the skill to stand on that edge with her.

What is your craft and how do you practice it? It doesn’t have to be music, or writing or art. It could be cooking, gardening, or anything that ignites that fire of creation within you. We all have something we love, whether we have discovered it or not. We all practice our passion in some way. This question can be asked anywhere–and it leads to one of my most useful tools. All of us spend a lot of time somewhere where our minds are not necessarily fully engaged. A friend of mine calls this his “sanctuary time.” For me, this time is spent walking, bicycling, or on the bus. You won’t see me with headphones jammed in my ears or a phone in my hand. In fact, you won’t be able to tell me from any of the people packed around me on transit, or walking down the street. Sometimes you might see me with a notebook or iPod in hand, but that just means that some of that time has paid off and I’m putting down the fruits of my labors. Where is your sanctuary time?

A bus is the perfect place to ask yourself questions. If you can block out the constant chatter of cell phones and mp3 players, it’s a place where we’re the most alone. Everyone wants to be somewhere else, and they’re concentrating on anything but the people around them. The interaction between strangers is at a minimum, though those few occasions can also be very fertile. It’s a good time to take a deep breath–or several–and see how it changes you. No one will notice, I do it all the time. For me, it slows me down, cools me to operating temperature. It is a perfect complement to my meditation practice. The focus and concentration I am working on in solitude means nothing if it can’t be created anywhere, anytime. If you can’t block out or otherwise smooth out what’s around you, that’s okay. Believe me, it’s an ongoing practice for me too! Put some background on that mp3 player. Space music, classical, or nature sounds might work for you. What allows you to access the silence within in the midst of chaos?

Transit used to be a little slice of hell for me. I ride at rush hour and it’s always crowded, noisy, and unpleasant. But the fact that I rarely if ever sit down means that I can’t fall into a book as I used to. The fact that there’s always someone who wants to have a loud phone conversation or turn their iPod up to maximum volume makes it the perfect laboratory for bringing practice out into the world. Since I don’t have a car, I am essentially trapped on transit, but many of us feel just as trapped in a car. I invite you to find the places you’re trapped in and see if you can reclaim that time in some way and put it to use. Reclaiming my time and putting it in service to my music is an ongoing process. Since I made the choice to pursue it I’ve been a lot happier. The things that used to drive me nuts still do, but it’s easier to shift my focus back to what really matters because I have something beyond the daily grind.  

I often ask a question that I’m going to ask you now: What would the world look like if everyone was doing what they were meant to do? What if our true work was the coin we used to measure success? That’s impossible, I hear you say. Who would clean the toilets? Who would take out the trash? What if we all did so, I say. What if we all took turns doing what needed to be done? What if we stopped trying to avoid those jobs and just got them out of the way? What if we all left a public restroom or a fast food restaurant table cleaner than we found it? What if we all generated little or no trash? San Francisco’s composting program and the new practice of charging for disposable shopping bags are steps towards this. There are people out there whose passion is to make us a trash-free society. There are people who make their living selling composting toilets. My point is, anything can be your fire. It is the way you add value to your existence, and to the world around you. What if more of us asked the questions that would change the shape of the world around us?

So what is your passion? What would you do with your life if you weren’t having to spend so much time making a living? How can you carve out a little time for it right now, and if you’re already doing so, what strategies are working for you? I really want to know. Because I want to live in that world, where we’re all doing what we love. It all starts with me–and you.

The Best Problem To Have

What is your dream? What would you do if suddenly, it was placed in your hands? I really want to know, because that’s what just happened to me. I really want you to think about these questions, because I’ve done so so often in the past, and perhaps the simple act of doing that opens space for it to happen–and I would love to see your dreams come true too.

What would the world look like if everyone was living their dreams? It would certainly be a different place–but how so? What would disappear? What would appear? Maybe if we share our stories with each other, we’ll build something larger than we can envision right now, as those questions hang in the air between us.

I am going to Ireland. Not two years from now, but this summer. I had a $4000 check dropped in my bowl last week. The first thing I had to ask myself was, ‘is this cheating?’ I didn’t earn it, after all. I soon realized, as I thought about it, that if I hadn’t earned it when it happened, I was sure going to. With the major obstacles removed, a dream becomes a responsibility, something that has to be lived up to. All those things I’d thought were so far in the future are happening now. Instead of two years to plan and accomplish, I have mere months.
What a *wonderful* problem to have!
Once I’d opened that envelope I couldn’t think clearly enough to give a good performance any more. I wasn’t getting tipped, and I didn’t deserve to be, frankly. So I packed up my gear and went around the corner to my credit union and used that check to open a new savings account. Might as well start with what passed for a responsible act, I thought. Then I went back to the BART station and played till I ran out of water.
Everything is happening faster. I took another look at my album songlists and realized that with all that BART station practice, I’m much closer to recording at least one of them than I thought. I don’t want to leave on this trip till that’s done. I also have to earn that last $871.00. An album will do that a lot quicker than the BART station will–and will allow me to submit my music to places that won’t take a single track seriously.
Then there are the mechanics. Where, when, how, what to pack, who to visit, etc. The coffee table is strewn with travel guides and maps. The library is quite accommodating when it comes to such things. If you live near Dublin, or the Isle of Skye, or have heard of Swinton Castle, I would love to hear from you. If you’ve been to an OBOD Summer camp, what was it like? These questions are just the beginning, believe me.