What to Wear
It’s winter time now and that means layers. When you are carting your equipment around town, it’s easy to break a sweat trying to find a pitch. Layers come in handy because you can take some off while setting up, or add layers when you’re standing for a long period of time. If it’s really cold I wear long johns with jeans as well as a base layer, thermal jumper, and a warm jacket or two. But sometimes that’s still not enough! It’s all well and good keeping your body warm, but the real problem comes when you try to play the violin with frozen fingers. You can’t wear gloves on the left hand, only the right hand (some would argue you shouldn’t even be doing that). So I have silk glove liners which I just wear on the right hand. I’d like to hear from any violinists that have successfully played with fingerless gloves on the left hand. How do you manage it? Let me know in the comments below!
Protecting Your Instrument
Taking a wooden instrument out in the extreme cold probably isn’t the best idea ever. Instruments are meant to be kept within certain temperatures to prevent damage. Wood can expand and contract with moisture as well. My electric violin is better able to cope with being out in the cold compared with my acoustic violin. It’s still not good for the instrument for it to be out in near freezing temperatures every day. I try to minimize my violin’s exposure to the elements as much as I can. Sometimes that means not going out at all to busk if I think it’s too cold.
...it turns out I don’t play as well when I’m shivering...
I realise I could bring a thermal flask with a hot drink or pocket warmers to keep my hands warm, but that takes more preparation, so I usually skip this step as it delays me actually going out and busking. I usually regret not having that extra bit of warmth though. Occasionally someone takes pity on me and buys me a hot drink which I’m very grateful for when it happens. It’s a very rare occurrence though.
So, even with all these preparations I’m still shivering while I play on the street. It’s hard work when you are exposed to the elements. I usually check the weather online and decide if I want to make an attempt at busking that day. When I looked at the weather before going to Newark on that fateful day it seemed alright, however I didn’t factor in the wind chill. Now I know!
Is it worth it?
Another thing is when it’s January and February, not as many people are out shopping. If they are, most people just want to quickly get into a warm building. It’s harder for buskers to earn decent money during this time because people aren’t likely to want to stop and pull out some change from their pockets when it’s cold. Plus people are trying to pay off their Christmas shopping debt.
Hey, I just had an idea! If the busker had some type of outdoor heater near them while busking, it might encourage people to stand near them for the warmth. It would also make it easier for the audience to drop a few coins. How difficult would that be to drag around town though? Ha, maybe not.
Getting back on topic, I know of some other buskers that will stand out and play all day when I only last just over an hour. For me to give a good performance, I need to put a lot of effort into my playing. That takes a toll on my body. Also, as it turns out I don’t play as well when I’m shivering, no matter how much effort I put in which can also be a bit discouraging. But I’ve found that there are some other perks to having a go even when it doesn’t seem like a good idea.
Busking isn’t just about earning money. The last few times I’ve gone out I managed to make a few new contacts that are sure to help me in the future. As a musician I feel it’s important to stay relevant and get as much exposure as possible.
So…busking all year round in Britain is a difficult task. You can wrap up as much as is humanly possible, but you still have to consider whether you’re damaging your instrument and what you will get back in return. I choose to go out sparingly at this time, because I know it will be so much more enjoyable when I can enjoy the warmth of the sun. (Plus I will soon be busking in the London Undergroud, WooHoo!)
In the future I will write more about busking in other seasons. Did you enjoy reading this post? Tell me about it in the comments below!
Serena Smith is an American British violinist and fiddle player. I play full time as a street musician in addition to the live gigs I perform with several bands.