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Busking in Sydney - Circular Quay and General Observations


I left early and walked into town after a morning coffee at my usual place on Glebe Point Road. I spent $3.50 on a big latte, sat and read the “review” section of the Sydney Morning Herald, which was really nice with the sun coming in through the window.

As I made my way towards the Quay via The Rocks, , I noticed a lady selling "The Big Issue". I now know that it is sometimes difficult when your subsistence is subject to public whim and fancy, so I spent 5 of my last $6.50 on buying a copy of the magazine. It was a pinch. I didn’t have enough money to buy a bottle of water to wet my throat during my set, so the pressure was on to find a good spot and play well over the coming hours.

I had been told that the market by the Rocks was a good spot, but there didn’t seem to be much going on when I walked past, so I kept on and headed towards the Circular Quay. Checking out the environment, I passed the didgeridoo dance posse and continued to walk all the way around the Quay until I reached the Opera house.

As usual, my palms began to sweat at the prospect of having to screw up my courage and put myself and my musical ability at the mercy of the general public. In a fit of procrastination, I visited the toilets underneath the Opera House, to rid myself of any possible sources of distraction and then steeled myself for the performance. The spot I had originally picked out turned out to be somewhat unsuitable because what had initially looked like a small corner where a rail turned out to be the concrete access ramp for wheelchair users, hidden by my original vantage point.
There were tables of people drinking coffee, sunglasses perched atop their heads, mouths full and seemingly at peace. I stalked past, mouth dry, squinting in the bright sunlight, belly empty and wracked by nerves.

The spot I picked was a corner where the Quay curved towards the Opera House. There were cafes on either side of me, benches in front and good foot traffic. I bent down, opened up my case and popped my reed in my mouth. I have now developed a preparatory ritual for busking:

Put a reed in my mouth. Apply cork grease to the neck. Put on the mouthpiece and cap. Replace neck in the case. Put on neck strap, put together saxophone. Clip saxophone to neck strap and push open case out in front of me. There is comfort in routine as part of my preparations. Today I donned sunglasses, partially to offset the brightness of the day, partially to protect myself from the gaze of the crowd. This perhaps needs some explanation.

When you stand up and offer something of yourself to the public, whether it be your words, voice, story or song, you open yourself to an interaction with the audience. Many performers talk of the buzz from the audience and the audience response driving them to greater heights. I have found this exchange works in many ways.

To give an honest performance, you shouldn’t fake it. You have to put a lot of yourself in through your artistic medium. Through that channel, you can receive from the crowd when they respond. However, this channel is open for communication in two directions. And it goes from the outside world to your inner sanctum from where you derive the joy of playing. And as you stand there, the audience look at you and their looks carry meaning, weight and leaves traces on you.

There are those who simply do not see you. Their eyes simply slide off and past you, your existence non-registered.

There are the failed-ninja photographers. They attempt to surreptitiously take snaps of you, hoping to catch you unawares. This is not as easy as one would think. The longer you have been standing there, the more familiar you are with the flow of the crowd. People who suddenly stop and break the pattern are quite obvious, even with peripheral vision. They try to catch photographs of you being “natural” while not being seen themselves, taking refuge behind a telephoto lenses which is a poor substitute for engaging with your photographic subject.

They avoid your eyes and as soon as they have their shot, they scurry off as if they fear retribution for taking pictures. I personally don’t mind being photographed. You can come close. Smile and take your shot. No need to be furtive. I’m not suddenly going to whip out a bowler hat, spats and a dancing monkey if you let it be known that you want to take a picture or two. The courage to engage is what differentiates really good photographs of performers from the mediocre. Perhaps this may lie at the root of some cultures' fearing that their souls were being stolen by photographers who skulk around, take snapshots everything and pretend that they just happened to be there, looking around. People will definitely act unnaturally when they notice you lurking, obviously wanting something but not declaring your intentions. But by and large, photographers are a harmless bunch and can be really nice.

An elegant older lady dropped a note into my case. I could see from its colour that it wasn’t a $5. I thanked her. She responded that the music was the best thing she’d heard all week and walked off as I grinned around my mouthpiece. I bent down to pocket the note and prevent it from blowing away and realised that she had given me $50. This was my first experience with random acts of largesse from the well heeled and appreciative, rolled into one swift moving, elegant and silver haired package.

There are, however, less pleasant types of spectator. There are those who think it is funny to mock you, dancing for the amusement of the inevitable group of friends walking along in identikit teenage outfits which proclaim them to be rebellious and individual but only within the specified tolerances of the pack they run with. They make stupid faces. They do stupid dances. They never meet your eye for more than a fraction of a second. And they always keep a close eye on the peer-group reaction to see how many cool points they have clocked up, attempting to out-funny each other. This doesn’t take courage. To them I would say – if you have nothing nice to say, walk on. To go out of your way to mock someone who is busking is not infantile, because that implies not knowing any better. These ones know exactly what they’re doing and are mean-spirited.

The least pleasant spectators are those who silently scorn and condemn you for existing. They walk by, perhaps pausing just long enough for a lip to curl or to cast a contemptuous look your way. As if it is a personal affront that you are performing in public within their line of sight or earshot. They stand in groups, noses slightly tilted, affecting expression of boredom and being above it all.

Going back to the theory of two-way communication from your innermost, to the audience and back, this group sample the freshest outpourings of your soul, swill it around with a sour expression as if offended by the taste and spit it back at you through their eyes. On days when I feel fragile or in need of some good vibrations to buoy me up, their attentions sting like jellyfish tentacles on bruised flesh. Caustic and corrosive.

On a more positive note, there are two groups who have brought me much joy: children and the slightly-unhinged.

Children are delightful. They come right up to you and stare at you as if you are the most interesting thing they have ever seen. They come back and shyly put money from their parents into your case. If you play a song they know, they sit cross-legged in front of you or even dance, beaming from ear to ear. They are a joy to behold and it makes you want to learn more songs just to be rewarded with the pure smiles that only the innocent can bestow.

A friend of mine once hit me with a Groucho Marx quote which stuck. “Blessed are the cracked, for they shall let in the light”. While busking, I have met one or two people who seemed to have a slightly tenuous grip on the reality you and I take for granted. Those I have met have come up and said hello, stopped to actually talk. Danced. Smiled. Listened to your answers and radiated with urgency at what they want to say next. They have beamed when you gave them the time of day and then leave you on some surprising conversational tangents. They do not invite pity or sympathy. They are just taking a little time to shine a light which has been refracted through a different prism, casting vivid and unexpected hues for anyone who cares to stop and see.

Next time you see a musician or performer wearing sunglasses; it might be to cover up the bloodshot evidence of a night of excess. Or because they really do fancy themselves as cool cats.

However, there might be those who don shades as a way of protecting the vulnerability they are about to put on display for you – the public. So be kind to buskers. They feel as keenly as anyone else and sometimes more.

Total takings from 1.5 hours’ work: $90.10


Formerly known as "nachoman"
I've just got to say- as a piece of journalism, this is great. Sir, you are a damn fine writer.
Thinking of the slightly unhinged- have you encountered the busking phenomenon of ravers who are still, er.... up, mid-mornnig, way after the clubs have shut and want to dance to anything. My old band used to busk a lot in Belguim and on several occasssions we picked up groups of slightly "chemically enhanced" sailors on shore leave who seemed determined to squeeze every drop of fun out of their limited time. A right laugh was had by all....


Busking Oracle
Superbly written. I have busked quite a few times now and each experience is totally individual. Like you say, from the mocking of the uninitiated to the gaze of the innocents of youth or the trials of the "slightly unhinged" as you refer to them, busking is something that should be experienced by all.
Well done.:welldone


Thanks folks

Thank you all for the positive comments. I always find it interesting to try and catch my mood after something challenging and then go back to it. It's surprising what you forget and what fades.

As for the chemically enhanced, I too have seen them wandering around after a night out. Once, I couldn't sleep and went to have a little blow in the park at around 6am on a Sunday. I met some seriously interesting forms of local wildlife wandering around. Most amusing.


Formerly known as "nachoman"
Here's a good busking one. My old crew, Swamp Things, were pretty unflappable but were once stopped in our tracks by a superbly thought provoking heckle. In the midst of one of our trade mark skiffle tracks- think it was a particualrly bouncy Fulsome Prison Blues- a well appointed old dear stepped out of the crowd with a slightly irritated look and damanded to know- "Young men, why don't you play English music?".... a heckle that was so (a) baffling and (b) thought provoking it stopped us in our tracks.
None of us thought to adopt an American accent at the time, which would have stopped the issue immeditately....


Senior Member
Good one Tengu01

Fair turn of phrase, your great with the words, next (if you haven't developed it already) is to throw the one liner at the end of a phrase while playing and continue on, I find it really fun and can lift the buskers energy if things are flagging. If your obviously having fun, the money will flow and even if it doesn't your mood will be such that it don't matter anyway.
I have been known to throw me empty saxcase across me shoulder and walk down the street playing, this usually raises quite a few smiles, I just gotta figure out how to get a hat out on the move......

Keep em commin:welldone

cheers & ciao


Pee Dee

been enjoying your busking memoirs. Ever think of putting them into a book, should sell.
A question, do you take music with you, or are your tunes in your head, and you can play by ear? I been considering the busking experience myself, but I would have to take a stand and music with me, as unable to play much by ear yet. I think having a music stand in front of you spoils the image somewhat?:confused:


Where's the music kept

Hi there,

I play my tunes by memory and the first time I busked, I remember realising that I just simply didn't know enough tunes, so I started learning tunes by ear and for me, there seems to be nothing better for cementing a song in your head than having to work it out or start with the score but work up to learning it, so you aren't bound to a sheet of paper.



ex Landrover Nut
Really Enjoying these

Thanks, am really enjoying your articles. Agree on the book!
Saxholder Pro

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