The Lost Art of Busking By Anthony R. Kolb

So what is Busking? Busking is performing in the street or other public place for gratuities. Typically there is monetary compensation, but gifts, food and other forms of gratuity may be acquired from time to time. The practice is as ancient as any performing arts, and is practiced all over the world by men, women and children in a variety of the performing arts. Anyone who practices this type of enterprise is called a street performer or busker. The Gypsy culture is largely based upon the concept of busking. Busking is typically associated with jugglers, magicians, mimes and musicians, but it can work for many performers regardless of their specific discipline. For the purposes of this article the performance of magic will be discussed.

Why would a performer want to busk? Primarily it is a good way to get out there. It can be done anywhere where a performer would find people. Airports, bars, bus stations, cafes, carnivals, concerts, festivals, libraries, malls, parks, plazas, pubs, rail stations, sporting events, subways, theaters, town centers and train stations are just a few examples of where to start busking. The place where one busks is typically called a pitch. It is important to select a good pitch. The nice thing is that if a particular pitch doesn’t seem to be working out, the performer simply can move to another pitch.

Why start busking? It affords the performer an opportunity to perform on very short notice and with a great degree of regularity. It is an ideal venue for performers to hone their skills, develop their personas and to easily access an audience. Busking allows the magician to develop their patter, their effects and to truly perfect their magic. It puts the magician in front of strangers; potentially lots of strangers. It is one thing to practice in front of family and friends or in front of a mirror. It is a whole new perspective to perform in front of total strangers.

One primary advantage to busking is the magician is working for tips. If things go badly, no one is hurt. In a normal booking situation there could potentially be a need to refund the customer if they aren’t happy with the performance. When busking the magician simply resets and if the audience isn’t impressed, they are not obligated to leave payment. This can be a win-win situation. Theoretically, as the performer’s skills increase, so will the income.

It is important that the performer check with local authorities and investigate what licenses that might apply. If choosing to busk on private or government property, malls and parks be sure to check with the management in advance. In ancient times some penalties were severe and in some cases even the death penalty if the busker insulted the government or it’s officials publicly. Today, it might result in a simple fine or perhaps even a night or two in jail.

Before you head out to start busking consider your appearance. Grooming standards must be maintained, no one wants to watch you do your favorite piece of magic with grudge fingernails, or dragon breath. What are you wearing, is it appropriate for the pitch you’ve chosen? Some performances are fine if you’re wearing a tee shirt and jeans while others may require a suit and tie. Perhaps your persona is that of a bum, hobo, gypsy or country lady or gentlemen. Whatever you decide make sure it is right for the audience you’re performing for. Will you wear jewelry, will it interfere with your effects? These are all considerations and might take some trial and error to get just right.

Maintain the three golden rules of magic. First, never reveal the secrets. People won’t like you any better if you tell them how it works. Fact is they’ll like you less. People expect you to fool them, they even enjoy it. Be sure you have prepared well in advance, you don’t want to inadvertently show them how it’s done by accidentally revealing it during the presentation. Second, never tell them what you’re going to do in advance. It just might give them a better chance of catching onto the mechanics of the effect you’re performing. If they don’t know what’s going to happen, it is easier to cover if something goes wrong. Everyone has that happen, even the most experienced magicians have things that go wrong. Lastly, never repeat an effect. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, but it is generally best not to repeat to the same audience in the same sitting. Some magic effects are meant to be repeated, some examples are sucker tricks. Some like “Deck-ography” are designed to be done several times. But generally speaking it just gives them more opportunity to either figure it out, or for something to go wrong.

The magic might seem spontaneous, but it has to be practiced, and practiced again and again. Timing, patter, and the mechanics of the effects have got to be practiced over and over. Then when you have it down, or think you do. Walk away, put it down. Tom Ogden suggests that after mastering an effect you do it only once from then on. His premise is that in the real world you don’t get to practice an effect before performing it in public. This is a very good suggestion. Remember, everyone needs somewhere to be bad before they are good at something. Once you have realized this it will make the initial mastering of an effect much easier. Not everything works for everyone. Some things just don’t fit into my routine, or just aren’t to my liking. Not every effect can be used in every situation, the squared circle, which is a classic effect can’t be done in an auditorium where the magician is on a lower level than the audience. Folks in the balcony will easily be able to see the loaded items from their vantage point. A dove pan can’t typically be used in the opposite situation, where the audience is much lower than the magician.

Remember, the hardest thing about busking is getting yourself out there. Have fun, go forth and prosper. Start out with smaller crowds if you have to, but go out and perform. Good luck!

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