Busking. Talking to Strangers. Being Mansplained to. Getting Gigs.
I felt like I had to write this today because I had two very strange interactions with members of the public while busking today, and it’s not rare that I get people asking me questions or coming up to talk to me and I think it’s great that people are curious about my instrument and my work and want to know more! that’s great! what isn’t so great is having to deal with all the nonsense people feel they have to tell me.
Normally, if someone wants to talk to me for a gig, or about my harp and my work, they will wait for the end of a song or if they are in a rush apologise for having to interrupt while they grab a card (tip for buskers: leave your cards out so people can help themselves! You’ll be surprised how many people take one!). These interactions are usually quick, lasting up to 2 minutes, and both parties walk away from it with a clear and productive attitude. ‘How many Strings is that?’, ‘Is that a welsh harp?’, ‘Do you Do Weddings?!’ all of these are classic Frequently Asked Questions, and I’ve memorised a pretty comprehensive spiel for each one. I like getting asked these questions because they show that people see my work as work and as a performance, not as anything else. Just a woman with her harp and a song in her heart!
Less impressive questions sometimes arise ‘Are you A Student?’, ‘Are you at Royal Welsh?’ I’ve just started lying and nodding because at this point stopping to explain ‘Well I graduated around 3 years ago, I was the resident harpist at the Hilton Cardiff for two years and I’m still and currently working as a free-lance musician, this is my real job, thanks!’ is too long and just opens up more questions for people. I’ve just started smiling and nodding whenever people say things to me because, quite frankly, if someone has something good and important to say to me they will make sure I hear it… otherwise they will shout it from 5 metres away…. you get the response you deserve.
So in my work I have two main obstacles when members of the public approach me. Firstly, I wonder ‘Does this person want a card?’ and I constantly think this until they put some money, say ‘That’s lovely’ and wander off. Secondly, if they do come and talk to me I have to make an instant judgement ‘Is this person worth talking to?’. I know! It sounds horrible, and making assumptions about people on face value is a terrible thing to do. However, when you’re trying to work and someone is interrupting you they better have a good reason… (the reason is usually money… give me money! please! I work so hard!)
During my time I’ve had a lot of great interactions with people who love music and just want to tell me how much they enjoyed my playing… this is not about them. This is about the people who do not see what I’m doing as a legitimate musical expression in an unlikely venue… These are the people who think all singers are born from X Factor and all talent is found on Britain’s Got minimal Talent.
Making snap judgements about people is not an exact science but I think in my case it’s a very valid form of retaliation. For example, the first incident happened when I was just setting up, I had my harp out, my sign, my stool and my amp and I was getting ready to sit down and tune. This elderly couple had be standing in front of me since I’d gotten my harp out, watching and so as I sat down I said ‘Oh! I haven’t tuned yet sorry!’ and the “gentleman” replied with ‘Do you speak english.’…….
I was taken back for a moment and said ‘well what do you think I just spoke to you?’ and followed it up with ‘What kind of a question is that? of course I speak english I started speaking to you!’ It wasn’t a ‘Are you welsh?’ or a ‘siarad Cymraeg?’, which are both very good questions to someone playing the harp in the welsh capital… It was ‘Do you speak english?’ in an odd tone that had odd assumptions attached. But it’s not the first time that sort of question has ever come up.
I have a fairly interesting accent and back story, coming from London to Texas to London to Wales is pretty interesting if you also sing and play harp! The unfamiliar accent juxtaposed with the harp promotes this question a lot, almost on a weekly basis. I think half of it is people just being curious creatures, which by design, we are! But I also feel like they should just say ‘Oh! you aren’t from around here’, and just cut through all the nonsense and get to whatever they want to get out of asking a question.
I think it’s better to ask that than say ‘Oh where in America are you from?’ because if you ask that question I will lie to you and say ‘Oh no I’m Canadian’ because I like to play games too. This happened at the supermarket last week and I simply replied ‘No. I’m not’ and all polite conversation stopped. My new lie-response is going to be ‘No! I’ve immigrated and I’ve come to steel your jobs!!!! MOOO HA HA HA HA!!!!!’ Because, again, I like to play games too.
Anyway, this gentleman asked this question and I responded and once we had gotten passed whatever point his first question had, he told me the most tedious story about how his second-cousin’s sister’s wife’s dog’s grandmothers’ uncle’s niece rent’s out larger harps than the harp I was playing. To which I replied ‘well… good for you…’ BECAUSE I DON’T CARE!!!! Unless you have something genuinely interesting or cool to say like ‘I worked with Deborah Hensen-Conant’ or ‘would you like a bunch of money to do this gig in two weeks’, I don’t really care…. We’re in South Wales, everyone has seen, played, touched or looked at a harp. You don’t need to tell me about it, it won’t go anywhere.
Similarly, I hate it when I bring up that I’m a harpist and someone tells me about a harpist they had at their wedding. I will immediately ask you how much that person charged. Because that is the only useful part of your boring story! Also, it’ll never lead anywhere! If I have to have a 5 minute conversation with you and you start with ‘oh I like the harp, my sister had a harpist at her wedding’ There is NO WHERE to go from there! NO WHERE!!!! You’ve basically set it up that I have to talk about your sister’s wedding harpist, which is not an interesting topic of conversation because, guess what, You can’t remember any of the details about it!!!! If you bring up a topic with a stranger, you better know more than ‘I was physically there and there was this’ because otherwise there is no conversation to be had!
But enough about me getting annoyed at networking events and people having boring things to say to me. Today, I got mansplained to… about my own work… from a man who had seen me before. This man came up to me and said ‘Oh I’ve seen you before, in the hayes, you’re very good’. I said ‘Thank you’ like a normal person. He continued ‘Do you have any CD’s’ I replied ‘No, I’m all out sorry’, he said ‘Oh I would’ve given you more money if you had CD’s on you’, which is understandable… duh of course you would I am giving you a CD… He continued ‘You know, you should get on Wizz.com’… ‘they let you share your music and people will give you money for it’, I replied ‘Oh like Itunes, Amazon Music, Spotify and my online store on my website ‘CardiffWeddingharpist.com’ ?’ (I gestured to my sign with all my social media things on it). He continued for around 2 minutes on this website that is basically bandcamp… he added ‘They will also help you set up a website’… ‘I have a website…’ I again, gestured to my damn sign!
‘Anyway, you must not earn a lot from this’,
I replied ‘No, I earn a really decent amount’.
Him, ‘No, but you must not make enough’
‘I make around £20-£50 an hour… it’s pretty good and I get a lot of private work from doing this.’
‘Yeah but you must not make that much to live off’
‘ummm. No I’m doing fine thank you’
‘yeah but you must be putting it all on the credit cards by the end of the month’
‘No, I don’t have credit Cards and I’m very financially stable, I own a home’
‘Yeah but You could be earning more’
‘I’m aiming to make £20k this year, and this is only my third year of doing it full time’
‘Yeah, but you could be making more’.
By This time I was playing so loudly that he was having to shout. Because when someone starts talking to me for too long and are just wasting my time I do what the Oscars does and ‘Play them off’, start quiet so they think ‘Oh they are just noodling away’ and then at the 3 minute mark, slowly crescendo until the point where you can’t hear them and they have to shout over your harp to be heard. Usually they get that you want to get back to work because there is not going to be any tangible outcome of this interaction and you’d rather be working than having to have a pointless conversation.
In his closing 2 minute remarks, he reiterated his belief that I am a poor struggling girl in massive debit (which… honestly… what?.. GIANT LEAPS from this guy), reprised his nonsense about this site that would cure cancer or whatever he thought it does. And then finally left. HE DIDN’T GIVE ME A PENNY!!!!!!!!!!! He took 5 minutes from me and didn’t give me a damn penny! I’m pissed about it even two weeks later!
So, there you have it, two strange interactions with strangers making weird assumptions about a nice middle-class white lady playing harp in the street…. honestly, I have more questions about this but I know they will never be answered.
These sorts of interactions are very rare thankfully, and I know this is me coming with privilege to complain about something so minimal when there are real issues in the world! But I had to put out a blog post this month and NOTHING INTERESTING HAS HAPPENED TO ME!!!!!! So this is me whining for 1800 words! (sorry).
I love having good interactions and conversations with strangers on the street. I like when people come up to me with cool projects or interesting events they would like me to get involved with! Love it! But sometimes I just want to sit down and do my work… I think I’m at the point where busking is just another day at the office. I enjoy the work and I am thankful for it everyday, but it’s not a crime to want more and better.
So, Here is a checklist of things that I will happily talk to you about and/or you should approach buskers with:
- ‘Wow! You’re really great! Ok, bye now!’ (Keep it sort and sweet!)
- ‘Do you have a Card?’ (Look around the busker for this.. because they will probably have them out for you to take one! easy!)
- ‘Can I take a photo of you?’ (Asking to take pictures of strangers is the right thing to do)
- ‘Can I take a photo of your sign?’ (Why not take a card new friend? here ya go!)
- ‘Do You do weddings? (Says so on my sign!)
- ‘I see you do weddings, How much do you normally charge for a ceremony?’ (Good question)
- ‘I see you do weddings, I’ve taken a card, How much do you normally charge for a Ceremony on a Saturday in August?’ (I’m not a calendar… I don’t know dates off the top of my head… I’m not science! just say the day and the month, please!)
- ‘Will you play at my chairty event for free?’ (Simple Answer, ‘NO!’ Complex HERE And HERE )
- Be clear and to the point please. Just because I didn’t come out to talk to you I came to play my little awkward songs and make some money and get some giiiiigs!