Street Musicians: Make Eye Contact, Choose Wisely

Street musicians dot the corners of city blocks, populate subway stations and camp outside of national monuments. But professional street musician Max Judelson says there are rules to follow, and tricks of the trade to ensure maximum earnings on the sidewalk or subway platform.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Anybody who has taken a guitar or a violin and started to play for a passerby at a subway stop or a park knows that street musician is a profession with rules of its own. Yes, of course, location, location, location, but that's just one of the tips Max Judelson listed in a recent piece for The Wall Street Journal. Max will join us in just a moment to offer insight into the profession, advice for aspiring street performers and the rules you've got follow.

So street performers, we want to hear from you: What's the key to filling up your instrument case with cash? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website and find a link to Max's article there, go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Max Judelson plays cello on the streets of Boston and joins us now from our member station there, WBUR.

Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. MAX JUDELSON (Professional Street Musician): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And maybe not on the streets of Boston so much as in the subways of Boston.

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. I found it's a little bit easier for me as a soloist to play in the subways. It's easier to project, and the sound doesn't just go out into the sound of cars and all that.

CONAN: But, Max Judelson, don't you have cars rumbling through every few minutes?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. It's true. I try - I play mostly at the Charles/MGH stop.

CONAN: That's Massachusetts General?

Mr. JUDELSON: Yes.

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. JUDELSON: On the Red Line, on the outbound side. And it's a very large station, and it's really pretty resonant, for me. And so I'm not too close to the cars - the train cars, but it is hard to hear when they come by.

CONAN: It's interesting you mentioned that there's another stop at Harvard Square that's also very popular but also very competitive, so the competition, you have to aware of that. That's one of the tips you offer.

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. I guess, the name of the article should really be called more guidelines for a musician because - street musician because it's not really any written rules or anything like that. But I found there I didn't quite have such good luck because there are a lot of musicians who play there and a lot of the passerbys sort of tune out to the musicians there.

CONAN: Oh, so they're - if they - they'll just walk from one to the next to the next to the next, but also, you said you got there at 7 o'clock one morning and all the spots were taken.

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. There's really one spot there on the inbound side of the Red Line, and that's right on the platform. So it's - it gets pretty crowded, and there's a lot of noise. And, yeah, 7 o'clock in the morning is a busy time in the subways for street musicians or subway musicians or whatever you want to call it.

CONAN: What do you want to - buskers, I think, is the...

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. That's another term.

CONAN: Yeah. Here's an email we have from Ty(ph) in Denver, Colorado. Bring a dog, he writes. Even if it's not yours, people can't resist a puppy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUDELSON: That's a - yeah, I haven't thought of that one.

CONAN: I...

Mr. JUDELSON: I don't have a dog.

CONAN: Well, you might be well advised to buy one. It might be well...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...worth the ALPO.

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah.

CONAN: I wonder, when you open your case, you obviously want people to put money in it. Do you seed the case with some money of your own, maybe folding money to encourage them that paper money would be fine, to donate that as well as silver?

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. I've tried a few different things. You know, if you put change in - sometimes, if you put change in, people will give you change. If you put bills in, they'll give you bills. Other times, when you start from an empty case, it fills up just as quickly as anything else. But it's important to not - to have your customers feel comfortable that they're putting their money in the right place. So it's mostly just to show people where to put the money is what - is why I do that.

CONAN: I see.

And this is a tip from Matt(ph) in Nashville, Tennessee, who writes: You can never let two much money pile up in your case. People don't want to give you money if they think that you have enough.

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. That's definitely true. I try to keep a reasonable amount of money there, so, in some ways, people see, well, other people liked him, so I might too. And then - but if you have too much, people think, well, you don't need my dollar so - especially big bills. If you ever get any, you know, five, 10, $20 bills, those are sort of important to keep away from...

CONAN: Keep away from...

Mr. JUDELSON: ...from the eye.

CONAN: ...from the eyes of the public.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah.

CONAN: We're talking with Max Judelson, a street musician, a subway musician in Boston Massachusetts. We'd like to hear from his compatriots in the street musician trade. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Matt(ph) is on the line from Baldwin City in Kansas.

MATT (Caller): Well, hi. I used to be a street musician in the music under Boston program. And I found that my biggest success was just playing a rather odd instrument. I, you know, found a certain amount of people interested in what I was doing. I play the hammer dulcimer, which in 1980 was really not all that well-known and has a very pleasant sound. And one of the ancillary benefits was somebody took a picture of me when I was doing this and it wound up in the American Heritage Dictionary under dulcimer.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: That's good, Matt.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MATT: At least it was in the 1980s. And then, in the 1990s, they switched to a little bit clearer picture of a hammer dulcimer. But if you find the second college edition, I'm in there.

CONAN: Okay, Matt. Well, I hope you got some wonderful royalties from that.

MATT: Oh, they're rolling in, I have to tell you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thank you very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

MATT: Thanks, Neal. It's a great subject.

CONAN: An odd instrument - is a cello considered odd in Boston, Max?

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. A lot of people don't - well, I mean, I also play the upright bass. I'm a bass student at the Boston Conservatory and cello is sort of like my first instrument, but a secondary instrument now. And it's sort of a novel instrument because you don't - people don't usually take them out. They're sort of large. You see a lot more guitars and violins or yeah, I mean, those two things mostly. But I also played upright bass in Paris, on the street with a drummer, who played he had a snare drum and a plastic bucket and sort of a pin-like chamber pot sort of thing.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JUDELSON: And that whole scene, having upright bass and sort of strange percussion was - the novelty of it really sold pretty well.

CONAN: It is interesting. You write also about repertoire. And you have to be careful to attune your musical selections to the mood of the day.

Mr. JUDELSON: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I have - I don't have a huge repertoire. I don't really claim to be a great cellist. But I have enough music to suit many different days. And just because I like one tune doesn't mean I'll play it - it might not work for that day. You know, I'll go through until I find something that works and that touches people that day. And it's not always the same tune.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rod(ph) and Rod is on the line with us from Beulah in Colorado.

ROD (Caller): How's it going, Neal?

CONAN: Not too bad.

ROD: Good. Great subject you're working on here today.

CONAN: Well, thank you for that.

ROD: Yeah. I - the first time I started to play for tips, busking, was in Germany back in 1965. And that's kind of where I learned how to make that work. And it's quite, quite fun and it actually can be a source of employment.

CONAN: And how did - what did you find that particularly worked for you?

ROD: Well, I think you have to reach out to the pedestrian, to the passerbyer, the person that's come up and joined the queue and is watching and see what's going on. I've seen a lot of buskers who - they're just kind of into their own music. They're into themselves. They don't look at the people who might stop and listen or might approach them. And I think that's really a key, and that's in addition to having some musical expertise.

CONAN: And Max Judelson, you said that was key, eye contact.

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. Eye contact, warm - that's what I pretty much worked on was warm, positive, engaging, smiling. I might even, you know, if I'm playing upbeat tunes, which I - that's what I do, I might just dance right along with the pedestrian and have fun doing that. Whether they turned around and they wanted to give me a tip or not was kind of beside the point, because that engaged - other people saw that, and it also brought up my energy and mood.

CONAN: And Max, I'm not sure it's easy to dance with somebody if you're playing a cello. But you did write that eye contact was very important.

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah, absolutely. Even just a glance. I mean, there's so little of that in the commuting world. Even in the everyday world, people don't look you in the eye very often. And it sort of - it's a boundary that needs to be broken in order to reach people. And so, you know, I don't wear sunglasses. I try not to wear hats. I realized the other day that the picture in the article, I'm wearing a hat.

CONAN: Yeah.

Mr. JUDELSON: And I apologize for the inconsistencies. But, yeah, eye contact is paramount. Yeah.

CONAN: And do you find most of your donors are people who are walking by and nod in appreciation and take something out of their pocket and throw it in, or are they the people who stop and listen for a little while?

Mr. JUDELSON: It really depends. I mean, I play usually - I mean, I pretty much only play at the Mass General stop and only in the mornings between 7:00 and 9:00. And there are a lot of the same people who...

CONAN: Come through every day, yeah, regulars.

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. And, you know, there's a woman who sometimes - if I'm - if I just get there, she usually is there a few minutes before 7:00. I try and show up a few minutes 7:00 also. And sometimes, she comes up the stairs and I'm not playing yet. I'm still sort of setting up and getting - sort of waking up also. And she'll, you know, throw some dollars down just because she knows who I am and has heard me before. And just because Im not playing right then, she still supports me.

CONAN: Were talking with Max Judelson, whose article "Ten Rules for Street Musicians" appeared in The Wall Street Journal. Theres a link to it at our website. Go to npr.org. And youre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Heres an email question from Meg(ph). Ive always wondered if you only have large bills and only want to tip a buck, is it acceptable to make change out of the money in a musicians case?

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. I actually have a regular customer of mine who twice a month usually shows up with a $20 bill and wants to give me $5. And so shell just go through the case and take a bunch of ones and leave me a $20. And its great because a lot of times when you end up with 50, $60 in ones, it takes up a lot of room in your wallet.

CONAN: Though I suspect its important to show the 20 before you start taking the singles.

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. I trust her to not steal.

CONAN: Okay. Lets see if we can go next to Damien(ph), Damien with us from Waltham in Massachusetts.

DAMIEN (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: All right.

DAMIEN: Im good. I have found that engaging children - I used to play a lot at Salem Hall. If you engage to the children, you're talking to them and then playing, like, upbeat music, the parents will stop because theyre thrilled that someone has entertained their child, especially in a crowded marketplace. And they're the one carrying the wallet.

CONAN: I think you may have channeled Max Judelsons piece. You Max, you wrote that the children are your best audience.

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah, very consistently, stop and get their parents attention and try and get their parents to stop and make a big deal about it and get other people to stop. And theyre just easily engaged, and thats really important to get other people engaged.

CONAN: Damien, thanks for the tip.

DAMIEN: Thank you. Bye.

CONAN: Heres an email from B.Z. in Sonora, California. How you busk depends on where you busk. Your approach needs to somehow match the venue. No sober, sad music in a family state park where everyones out to have a good time. More eclectic on a busy city street where all kinds of people are going by. Would you agree with that?

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. I play mostly sort of top 40 classical arias, cello pieces and things at Mass General. And I played for a while on the blue line at Government Center with a guitar player whos spent many years in Guatemala and knew a lot of popular tunes.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. JUDELSON: And theres a lot of the blue line goes out to East Boston where a lot of immigrant folks live. And we were able to play traditional tunes, pop songs that people knew the words to. And if I had gone down there and played solo cello, it really wouldn't have worked out very well.

CONAN: Im not sure that there are a lot of pop tunes written for solo cello.

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. I you sort of have to just play them whether theyre written for them or not.

CONAN: Lets go next to this is Andy(ph), Andy with us from Boston.

ANDY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Andy.

ANDY: I am an opera singer. I used to be a street opera singer. But now I sing on the stage, not on the street. But I started my brief street-singing career in Naples, while I was on exchange. I was supposed to meet my friend and he was going to give me money for the train ride home.

CONAN: And then came up a little short.

ANDY: Exactly. So I got a cardboard box, put it down the Galleria, sang the three Neapolitan songs I knew. And the people went crazy to see this obviously - I have red hair, Im Irish-looking.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ANDY: People see this young kid whos obviously not Italian singing their songs. And I made enough for about three or four train fares in three songs.

CONAN: Did you consider just staying in Naples?

ANDY: Yeah. I wouldve done well.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I wonder, though, and youve since got on the stage, Andy, but for a moment did you think I mean, youre obviously successful too, but is this begging?

ANDY: I dont think so. Youre giving people something that they obviously want and value and would pay for, so no.

CONAN: All right. All right, Andy, and congratulations on your elevation to the stage.

ANDY: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Lets see if we can go next to this is Nick(ph), and Nick with us from New Haven.

NICK (Caller): How are you doing?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

NICK: Yeah. Im a jazz trumpet player. And I play a little the first time I ever played on the street was, I think, in San Antonio. I was on the road with a band. And a blues band that was playing in the club I was playing outside of actually invited me in to sit in with them.

CONAN: Wow.

NICK: But yeah, it was a great experience. But actually, contrary to what your other callers have been saying, Id say its very hard to make it as a street musician when youre not, you know, one of those typical guitar players singing folksy tunes or maybe some classic rock. They always seem to have the most money in their buckets.

CONAN: Do you make a living Max Judelson? Could you augment your living significantly busking?

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. I manage to pay bills and groceries and things. Its, you know, I dont do it full-time. Especially during the winter I really cant play in the cold. But during the summer, Im out probably six hours a week or so. And it really helps make things come around.

CONAN: Well, Nick, thanks very much for your offering. We appreciate it.

NICK: No problem. Thank you.

CONAN: And Max Judelson, thank you for your time today.

Mr. JUDELSON: Yeah. Thank you very much for having me.

CONAN: Max Judelson performs in the subways of Boston, also plays in the band Our Illustrious Guests. Were hearing their song "Columbus Night." And he joined us today from member station BUR in Boston.

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