Is Joshua Bell a good busker?

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April 7, 2007
By Posted in busking | 11 Comments »

The Washington Post published an article about an experiment they did: they got Joshua Bell, one of the best violinists in the world, to play incognito in a subway station. They wanted to see if without the PR he usually gets for his stage performances anybody would stop to listen.
The result was – hardly anybody stoped to listen.
The Washington Post analized it as if it were the fault of the audience, the passers by, for not recognizing such a great musician. I say – it wasn’t the fault of the passers by at all.

The thing is Joshua Bell is a great violinist but he doesn’t know how to busk. There are violinists who are not even close to being as good as he is (such as Jim Grasec or Lorenzo LaRock), yet they get crowds to stop and listen to them. It’s because when you play on the street you can’t approach it as if you are playing on a stage. Busking is an art form of its own. You need to be as good a musician as to audition for any stage gig (the competition over permits is fierce) but in addition to that you have to relate to the audience and be a real people’s person. You can’t hide behind your instrument and just play, with an invisible wall between you and the audience, the way a stage performance is conducted. In busking you use the passers by as if they were paint and your music is the paint brush – your goal is to create a collective work of art with the people, in the space, in the moment with you and the music.
A busker is someone who can turn any place into a stage. Obviously, Joshua Bell needs an actual stage. As a busker one needs to interact with those around, break walls of personal space, and lure people into a collective and spontaneous group experience on the street, in the moment, with you. A bad busking act is when the performer doesn’t make an effort to connect with the audience. Like musicians who play for themselves, not acknowledging the audience, just burying their heads in their instruments.
IMHO that is why Joshua Bell didn’t get lots of people to stop and listen.

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11 Responses to Is Joshua Bell a good busker?

  1. » Framing is vital « Later On-VeryAngel on July 20, 2007 at 2:07 pm

    […] Saw Lady explains exactly why – no framing! […]

  2. Moldau on November 25, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    That’s actually a very good point. I had seen the videos and had pegged our society as hopeless and musically uncultured, but you are correct-busking is completely different from performing on a stage.

  3. […] Re: Busking – playing for tips on street etc Eeviac, Being an excellent musician doesn’t guarentee you’ll make money busking. Famous violinist, Joshua Bell didn’t do to well in New York subway. Check out sawlady’s blog. she sums it up pretty well. There is also some footage of Josh being ignored. Is Joshua Bell a good busker? : SawLady’s Blog […]

  4. » The art of the street musician on February 3, 2008 at 3:49 pm

    […] a good read, but it does deserve some critical analysis as well. Sawlady is a perceptive one from an experienced street musician, with whom I agree that busking itself is […]

  5. nick on October 25, 2008 at 4:38 am

    I busked in the hamptons this summer, for a crowd that has a reputation for being gaudy, neauveau riche, and uncultured. I found that playing the Bach cello suites from memory, I was apprecaiated and well payed. In my best hour of the summer, I made over $60.
    I made a tremendous effort to connect with the audience while I played. I’ve been playing cello on and off for the past 17 years on and off, but am by no means a performer of joshua bell’s caliber. I’d say I’m about five leagues below him.
    I’m about to try busking in NYC tommorow. I sincerely hope I do better than him, cause I could certainly use the money.

  6. nick on October 25, 2008 at 4:39 am

    Also, he played for the morning commute. People don’t have time to listen then. He’d have had much better luck in the evening.

  7. Karen on January 14, 2009 at 3:57 am

    Buskers may have talent for connecting with people but I disagree with SawLady’s critique. I have stopped to listen to musicians on the street and in subways in London, NY and elsewhere. If I hear good music, I stop to appreciate it. I photographed many street musicians in the London Tube, playing guitar, saxophone, electric piano, you name it. None of them were “busking.” They were playing for a living and none of them made eye contact with me. But I gave them money and stopped and listened. We live in a crazy world and putting down another musician doesn’t make the place any better. Bell is world class.

  8. Jeff on January 22, 2009 at 2:26 am

    Not quite – if you watch all the videos of Bell’s performance you see that at the very end of the hour he’s drawn a small crowd of people just stopping to watch. Very unusual for any busker during morning rush.

  9. adi on January 26, 2009 at 10:08 am

    the goal of the experiment wasn’t to determine Joshua Bell’s busking capabilities.
    I see it much rather a way to show how most people can not “value” the form of art itself, but rather the PR around it.

  10. Andrew on September 5, 2010 at 3:47 pm

    It may have been Joshua Bell and it may have been a Strad, but I do think that the good people of Washington were displaying their good musical taste by not stopping to listen.
    Mr Bell plays quite harshly and dare I say it, a little rushed on Bach.
    I listened again today to make sure that I do give the correct opinion and , yes, I can truthfully say that I do not like the violin of Joshua Bell and would not have stopped myself.
    He does not have the warmth of the old masters and there are many music students here in London who play on the “tube” and other places who make the same sort of strident harsh sound and you think, yes they are good and will make a career of it, but they don’t really appeal to me here on my journey to work…

    Sorry, Josh, but it just doesn’t float my boat… I think Perlman would be a hit with his warm sound and anyone else who knows that a violin has a heart and should be played with warmth..

  11. bluegreenguitar on February 24, 2016 at 12:10 am

    Finding the correct spot to setup is a huge part of the busking skill set.

    Bell would have been better received in terms of money, acoustics and crowds by setting up by the wall located next to the top of the escalator.

    Also, certain songs will be much better received than others. It depends on the individual musician and vibe of the crowd in that particular moment.

    Commuters in that location can be generous. On occasion, buskers make $100-200+ for a morning rush.

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