If you travel through the London Underground and hear harp music being played, consider yourself lucky, for you will want to stop and chat with the harpist and buy his CD. Why? He is one of the nicest guys you’ll ever meet. His story will inspire you.
Soprano and her guitarist accompanist play one more set for an eager listener in Utrecht — the secret garden near the Dome Tower.
On Friday 5th August 2011, I spotted two musicians cycling to work. Traffic was hectic on the cobbled stone streets of Utrecht, Netherlands.
“Where will you play next?” I asked the guitarist eagerly.
“I think we’re done for the day,” he turned to the singer.
“Oh! But I’ve been looking for you all afternoon. Can’t you do one more set for me?” I begged.
It’s unusual to hear opera arias outside of a concert hall or an opera production. It’s even more unusual to hear a soprano with a classical guitarist, amid the accordeonists that dominate the streets of this ancient Roman city.
“We’ve already done three sets,” said the singer. “We’re going for a beer now.”
“Look. I’ll buy you a beer. Please let me see you perform. I know a nice spot.”
I led them to a secret garden on the right side of the dome. I had visited there once during a walking tour.
Guitarist Robert Bekkers and soprano Mirella Reiche had obviously not seen this garden. They decided to try it. Soon the music drew people into the garden.
They were busking on this warm, sunny afternoon in Utrecht. The setting of the secret garden made it into an outdoor concert. The people who were already sitting on the benches refused to leave. Meanwhile, newcomers strolled into the garden to listen.
Robert Bekkers arranged the guitar part for this “Ach, Ich fuhl’s” aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute. The duo introduced this new programme this week.
Buskers and the charity mafia compete for public space and the attention of strangers for monetary donation. There are other limitations to busking besides adverse weather conditions.
“Do you always get the place you want?” I ask Robert as he prepares for today’s busking gig.
“No,” he replies. “There’s the charity mafia.”
The charity mafia refers to individuals who knock on your door and ask you to donate to a specific charity. They also operate out in the open, taking up public space, trying to get your attention and philanthropy. Apparently they get paid to ask for monetary donations.
“Why don’t you tell your listeners that you have a cause, too?” I suggest. “You are trying to finance your studies in Boston.”
Private education in America is known to be expensive. Some people spend their entire adulthood paying off college loans. Every penny counts. It’s a justifiable cause to ask people to give for education.
Besides the threat of the charity mafia, buskers are only allowed 15 minutes of play time per location. This means he would have to pack up his heavy concert guitar, guitar case, music stand, and sheet music every 15 minutes. Furthermore, the highly uncertain and changing weather conditions in Holland present clear and present danger to audience engagement.
“When will you be back?” I ask as he prepares to leave at 1:45 pm.
“Five or six.”
“That late? I need you to help me clear the attic. I can’t do it alone.”
Ironically, the more we clear the attic, the more we donate to charity.
Charity begins at home. Why is he seeking the attention of strangers?
Busking becomes an outdoor concert when sufficient information is dispersed to draw an interested audience to listen from the start to finish.
In my previous blog post, I mentioned busking as a barrier-free way to perform to an audience without the guarantee of payment. In Utrecht, Netherlands and the London Underground, a busking license is required. Aside from adverse weather conditions and the odd listener, busking has much lower transaction costs than a concert, which has to be organised, publicised, etc.
My harpist friend Peter Murphy uses busking as a shopfront for listeners to hear him play, chat with him, and book him for higher-revenue gigs of greater certainty, e.g. weddings. He became so successful in London that he appeared in a special documentary on UK television.
When does busking become a concert?
Dutch guitarist Robert Bekkers and the soprano Mirella Reiche had agreed in advance when, where, and what they would be playing. Yesterday, he gave me their set list for this afternoon’s performance outside the central library in Utrecht. He told me they would play at 2 pm.
I am now free to publicise it and draw an audience. I can even tell them to donate into his guitar case. I can tell this audience that his share of the donations goes towards his forthcoming studies with maestro Eliot Fisk in Boston where he is headed next. All this additional information dispersed in advance for publicity to draw an interested crowd on Market Day (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday in Utrecht) large enough to make an outdoor performance worthwhile is what turns busking into an outdoor concert.
As with all outdoor performances, good weather is key to entice people to come and stay. Unfortunately summer in Utrecht, Netherlands is not winter in Tucson, Arizona.
Consider a pre-notified and publicised event: an outdoor concert outside a restaurant in Tucson in February 2011. That was not busking — but where was the audience?
Performers need to perform to an audience. Busking is a way to play outdoors to an audience though payment is not guaranteed.
My instinctive reaction to Bekkers’ declaration “I’m going into town to play on the streets” was multi-fold.
- Don’t you have something better to do? Your list of joys is long and winding. We have so much to do before we travel again. Shouldn’t be rehearsing our new repertoire? Can you really afford the time to go busking?
- Does it make economic sense? There’s no certainty how much you will make, why risk it?
- Are you hoping someone important and influential will discover you and make you famous? What are the chances of someone like that being there just when you are playing?
- Outdoors in town is noisy and not an ideal environment for the classical guitar. Will you play at your optimal? Will people be able to hear you?
- Surely you should be playing in a concert, on a stage — inflated value of scarcity — and not out in the open where anyone can hear you and not pay for it.
Maybe I am just jealous that he can take his guitar anywhere he wants and play it. I need a piano which I cannot carry. When I stayed in hotels, I played on the pianos available but I didn’t expect to be paid. Before I bought my Steinway, every time I spotted a grand piano I’d want to try it. But that was not busking.
Bekkers sensed my reservations.
“I’m a musician,” he said. “I have to perform even when there are no concerts booked. I would rather be outside playing than indoors studying. You know it’s different playing to an audience than to yourself.”
Soon after he arrived on the island of Maui in late 2010, Bekkers practised his daily scales and exercises outdoors in the nearby park. Later he took the guitar to the beach. That was not busking. That was outdoor study. How is busking different? [See next post.]
Robert Bekkers arranges music from the great opera arias for classical guitar to accompany Dutch soprano Mirella Reiche for outdoor performance in central Utrecht, The Netherlands. It is preparation for his upcoming solo guitar concert in the Hague.
“I am going to play on the streets of Utrecht,” Bekkers the Busker declared.
It’s not about how many coins he will collect in his guitar case.
It’s not what people think.
I recall reading articles on the economics of busking in an academic journal. After all the transaction costs of concertising in established concert venues, busking works out just as well. An economist worked out the economics of busking in London. Here’s another one about busking in New York City. I remain skeptical how much money you can make from busking. But then, you don’t need to book a venue, do publicity, etc.
“I’m going to accompany Mirella Reiche. She has a license,” he added. Apparently you need a license to play in the streets of Utrecht, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands. “She will sing highlights from opera.”
Bekkers discovered that it was easier to arrange the guitar parts than to look for sheet music. “Most guitar arrangements,” he explained, “are written for guitar solo. I don’t have time to visit book stores or order online, if there are any at all. It’s faster for me to look at a piano accompaniment and arrange it for guitar.”
I have seen Mirella Reiche perform live on several occasions. She is very expressive when she sings. I can imagine her leading the crowd from joy to sorrow, from love to rage — all the emotions the great divas have expressed through the timeless arias of famous operas of Mozart, Puccini, and others.
Each day Robert Bekkers puts on his crisp white shirt and dark trousers and announces,”I’m going to town. I’ll be back in a few hours.” When he returns, he brings back coins which he throws into a big pickle jar. “By the end of the month,” he declares, “this jar will be full.”
Over coffee today I told a friend about Bekkers’ busking activities. “I think I heard someone sing yesterday. I was at the central library.” That’s where they were.
Tomorrow 3rd August 2011 at 2 pm Stadhuisbrug Utrecht (opposite the central public library) Robert Bekkers and soprano Mirella Reiche will perform the following opera arias:
Ach, Ich fühl’s
Meine lippen sie kussen so heiss
Mein Herr Marquis
Quando me vo
Mio Babbino Caro
Dolente Imagine di fille mia (Bellini)
Tuute le Feste
Voi, Che Sapete
Deh, Vieni, Non Tardar
In Uomini, in Soldati
Je Veux Vivre
It’s the best training for a live performance, because it is a live performance in front of listeners who are free to come and go as they please and donate as they wish. In other words, a live performance is the best preparation for the next performance.