Buskers Need Feedback To Improve

A busker’s survival depends on their ability to keep people around and entertained. They have to make sure that the audience enjoys their act enough to watch it till the end and tip them generously.

The way they do it is by constantly gauging the audience’s reaction through body language, facial expressions and verbal cues. They then adjust their performance in real-time based on the feedback they are getting from the audience.

This leads them to two conclusions:

1) We need feedback from our audience to improve ourselves and our performances.

2) The quality of our performance will be directly proportional to the quality of feedback we get from our audience.

The good news is that both these conclusions are also true for singers.

I was watching a busker in Barcelona. He was playing the violin, but he wasn’t really very good. I thought about dropping some money into his hat, but decided not to. A few minutes later, a woman came up to him and said “That was amazing. I’ve never heard anyone play like that before.”

I felt bad for him. No one had told him what he really sounded like. His problem was that he had no way of knowing how good he was, and no way to improve.

How do you get better at something? Well, most things are like a sport or an instrument: you get better by doing it, and by getting feedback on what you’re doing right or wrong. But this is hard if you don’t have another person involved:

If you take up running, you can time yourself and try to improve your time. Eventually your times will plateau, because there’s only so fast you can run; but at least you’ll have some idea of how well you’re doing.

If you practice violin alone in your room, there’s no way to know if you’re improving, except by listening to recordings of yourself; but those will be biased in favor of whatever progress you’ve made since recording them so

Buskers are street performers who play music or perform other acts for money, typically in a public place like a subway station or on the sidewalk. They normally set out a hat to collect money from passersby who like their performance.

In the summer of 2011, I was walking around New York City with my friend David Grubbs and we stumbled on a fellow named Spencer playing guitar in Washington Square Park. Spencer was great, so we plopped down and listened for a while, then left a few bucks in his hat as we walked away.

I thought it was interesting that it would be hard for Spencer to know whether he was any good at entertaining people or not. It’s not like there are well-known benchmarks (like Billboard charts) for busker quality. Sure, the more money a busker collects in his hat at the end of the day, the better he did, but it’s possible that he had a bad day because he was sick rather than because he was bad at entertaining people.

So much of how good someone is at being an entertainer is subjective. If you’re writing software or building bridges, you know you’re good if you don’t ship defective products or if your bridges don’t fall down. But if you’re entertaining people

Singing for tips is a great way to practice your craft as a musician. If you sing well, people will drop more money in your hat than if you sing poorly. This is a great way to improve your singing; if you want more tips, it’s only a matter of practice and making adjustments based on the feedback you get.

You might think that this is not very surprising, but it is actually quite surprising. I recently told someone about singers getting better by busking, and they thought it was quite amazing and didn’t even believe me at first. In fact, busking is one of many examples of how feedback loops are underrated.

Anyone can see that the loop “work hard; get results; work harder” can lead to improvement in some cases. But we don’t often think about how this applies to things like music where we don’t have any specific goals. We don’t really know what we need to do to improve our singing or guitar playing. Although there are plenty of guides out there on what to practice, they often seem vague and unhelpful: “practice scales,” “practice sight-reading,” etc. What should you do if you have already spent time doing these things and still haven’t improved?

The key question here is

When I was a student in London, my flatmate and I were walking home one day when we heard singing coming from an alleyway. We went to investigate, and found a young man busking: that is, playing music on the street. We stopped to listen and throw a few coins into his guitar case.

After a minute or two, the singer paused and asked us what we thought of his performance. Surprised, we said we thought he had a very nice voice; but he wasn’t satisfied with such vague praise, so we also named a few things we thought he could work on. He thanked us for the advice and then continued singing.

I was amazed that the singer had asked for feedback. It seemed like an invitation to be rude. But in fact this was a good strategy for him to use. The only way for him to get better at playing music on the street was by getting realistic feedback from people who were listening to him. And if he didn’t ask them directly for it, they wouldn’t volunteer it (and probably wouldn’t even notice it themselves).

There is no point in asking people who are not paying customers for feedback about your product or service, because any advice they might give you is unlikely to increase your profits.

The busker says “If you like the song, please give me some money. If you don’t like the song, please tell me about it.”

The singer says “If you like the song, please give me some money. If you don’t like the song, please tell your friends.”

In the beginning of my career as a street performer I was only doing covers and it was very difficult to gauge how well I was doing.

But once I started writing my own music, things got easier.

In fact, the instant I was done playing a song I would get feedback in the form of money thrown into my guitar case.

All at once I knew if people liked my music or not.

If they did, they would throw money in. If they didn’t they would just walk off. This made it much easier to know which songs to keep working on and which ones to stop playing altogether.

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