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Spotlight on the arts: Busking

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By John Zirkle Warren Miller Performing Arts Center

In spring of 2007, Joshua Bell, considered by many to be one of the greatest violinists in the world, stood at the entrance of a metro station in D.C. and played for 45 minutes to passersby on their way to work. The performance was part of an experiment thought up by Gene Weingarten at the Washington Post to see how Americans respond to great artistry in unexpected venues.

A few weeks earlier, Bell played to sold-out crowds in Boston with a minimum ticket price of $100. After his performance in the metro station, Bell accumulated a whopping $32.17 in the case of his $3.5 million dollar Stradivarius violin, and out of the thousands of people that passed by that day, only a handful stopped to listen.

As it turns out, thousands of performers around the world make a living by doing exactly this. It’s called busking. There are countless ways to busk; all you need is a performance medium and a public space to perform. A percussionist can pay the rent by beating on empty buckets outside of Cubs games in Chicago. Mimes collect euros by posing as living statues on the central walking avenues in Europe, and snake charmers try to fill their baskets with rupees on the Ghats of India.

When I was living in Croatia last year, I befriended a busker who played guitar on a street corner for a couple hours each day near the main square in Zagreb. As I got to know him, I realized we were very similar in our approaches to art and performance. The only difference was that I was accustomed to performing on a stage with a paying audience, while Kris, the guitarist, sat on the ground and played for preoccupied pedestrians.

This comparison begs the question: What role does venue play in a performance? What happens when a Satanist metal band rocks out at an elementary Christian school assembly? What about a solo classical flautist playing a Bach Concerto at an L.A. Nightclub on a Friday night? Surely context matters.

There is something liberating about busking. It’s one thing to walk out on stage to an adoring audience, but it’s entirely different to put yourself out there on the street in front of a crowd who may not want to hear what you have to say, even if you are in fact the world’s greatest violinist.

Spotlight on the Arts is a reflection on the world of performing arts in both historic and contemporary contexts. To find examples of busking, keep an ear out next time you’re walking around a public place. To read the full Washington Post story on Joshua Bell, go to and search “Pearls Before Breakfast.”

The Warren Miller Performing Arts Center is scheduled to be completed by December of this year, and will feature many acts that challenge the way we see and think about performance.

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