Monthly Archives: September 2013

New Brand Day

I recently finished up my third month of busking in the SEPTA terminal. This month I got to play in my preferred location and time. I continue to learn what I’m doing down there (and how to do it better).

In addition to the actual music I play and how I play it, I’ve been looking for other ways to connect with the people in the station. By and large, everyone is in a pretty big hurry, so I only have a few moments to make an impact. One way for me to connect that I have been using is Twitterstalking afterwards to see if anyone mentioned me and introduce myself. It’s been great, but by the nature of it, I only get that connection after I’ve stopped playing. So I started playing with signs.

Since the beginning, I’ve been putting up a sign with my Twitter handle asking for requests. For the most part, it got a quick glance before people moved on. And I got zero requests for music, meaning it wasn’t having any impact. After viewing it from the audience perspective I realized why.

They were clearly wary that I was selling something (which I sort of am). I thought the novelty of a busker offering an online correspondence would be amusing enough that someone would try it, but apparently that’s a bigger hurdle to jump than I thought. It turned me into just another guy trying to sign people up for my mailing list.

So I opted for a much more innocuous sign to try to connect with people without their feeling like they were at risk of further contact with me. A simple sign with a singular message: “GOOD MORNING!”

Apparently it was too innocuous. Or perhaps to much of a commonly disingenuous statement that people make without thinking. In either case, I got barely a glance at it as the throngs passed by. I meant it sincerely, in a “hey, we’re all in this together kind of way,” but no one cared to infer that much sincerity. Which I completely get.

The next sign was a product of the whimsies of my mind. For example, when I see a jar of garlic, I immediately think “Jarlic.” So one night, I came up with a silly little riddle about public transportation, that looked something like this:

What do you call a 70 year old who rides the train in Philly?

This one got peoples’ attention. I saw a few double-takes as people walked by, and a few smirks. I posted it to Twitter and Instagram at the same time and got a bunch of peoples’ responses. And as I finished my final song that day, a man approached me and gave me the answer:

A SEPTA-genarian.

The next time I played, I didn’t have a sign, and I was playing sousaphone instead of accordion. In the Twitter comments that day, a few of them mentioned that I was playing a different instrument.

guy who has been playing an accordion 4 the last week @market east station now has a tuba some1 needs 2 teach this guy how to play guitar

(And by the way, I didn’t let that comment at the end slide. We ended up having a nice 140 character conversation about it.)

What this told me was that people were actually noticing that I was down there, even though it looked like they were rushing by and ignoring me. I was having some impact, because when I changed it up, they commented.  So for my final day, I printed this sign:

This is my last performance here this month.  I'll see you in October!  Keep in touch (take a card).

At the bottom, I included cards for people to take with my Neon and Shy info on it. In addition to making a more personal connection by acknowledging that the people in the station acknowledged me, I also had a small hope that this would earn that precious sympathy dollar.

Now, interestingly, I had offered cards for people to take from the first time I was down there playing, but no one would touch them. The sign and the connection gave people a bit more permission (and trust) however. Across the 2 hours I was down there, about 10 people took cards, which was huge as far as I was concerned.

Later that morning, I got a call from the owner of a few restaurants in Old City who asked if I would be interested in busking in front of his bar during happy hour. We ironed out the details, and suddenly I had my first gig from busking.

When I had first started playing in the station, I was not looking at it as a stepping stone to getting paid work. However, I knew it was a project that had many potential doors. It was incredibly exciting for me to open one of those doors, and reap the fruits of my labor.

Last Friday I played at the restaurant, and had a blast. The people there were incredibly friendly, the atmosphere at the bar was great, and the food was delicious. I took some time to talk with the owner before I played. We had an interesting conversation about live music in a restaurant setting (told as a dialogue for dramatic effect).

“Thing is,” he told me, “whenever we have a live music event here, we are guaranteed to lose money.”

It wasn’t what I wanted to hear, for sure, but it was something that rang true to me. It certainly explained why restaurants frequently balked at the prices I charge when trying to book Polkadelphia. I thought it was because restaurants don’t explicitly budget for music, but I never considered it was because it was an active loss. He continued.

“When we bring a band in, people are more interested in listening to the music than buying food and drinks. It hurts our sales and we end up with a lower than usual income that night.”

He went on to tell me that even so, he still has bands play from time to time. And clearly he was going against the grain by hiring me to play that night. So why does he do it?



“We don’t do music events for profit. We do it to build the brand. To build loyalty in our customers. So they know that when they come to our place, they just might see an accordion player singing Toxic strolling through the bar. That’s a draw.”

And suddenly everything seemed to fall into place for my experiment down in the train station. While making enough money to sustain myself by busking is a noble (and incredibly ambitious) goal, my real purpose down there is building my brand. I’m exposing myself to thousands of people each morning as a snapshot; a character; a brand. When I make a sign that connects with people, it’s further defining my brand and creating loyalty in my fan base.

Just because I don’t quite know what my brand is yet, it doesn’t necessarily detract from the building of it. The more I do know, the more I can focus, but at the moment, it’s once again just a bunch of doors waiting to be opened.

The bar owner’s comments also made me re-evaluate the way I approach restaurants when trying to book Polkadelphia. Unless it’s a special event that is advertised, a German restaurant is (probably) not going to make more money the night we play their restaurant. They might even make less. But they become known as the place where that awesome polka band that plays Radiohead performs, and that causes both buzz and customer loyalty. They build their brand.

I was struck today that playing in the train station has given me significantly more exposure than performing in established venues over the past year or two (even some big ones). I’ve also made more money in the station than I have as a solo artist playing bars and clubs. Whether this is an indictment of the music industry or my own personal loophole, I’m not sure; so much remains to be seen. But I can see the path unfolding around me, slowly coalescing into something awesome.

Time to stoke the fire, heat the metal, and see where the sweet sizzle of flesh takes me.

Practice: The Story So Far

One of my major goals in becoming self-employed was to rediscover practicing the tuba in a way that is meaningful to me.  I’ve talked about this in a few other posts, but the basic idea is that there’s a part of me that still practices the same way I did when I was 20.  However, a lot of my timing, technique, and interest has shifted since then, and so many of those old tools need to be re-evaluated.  Also some old habits need to be redirected.

One element I’m finding fundamentally important is the environment I practice in.  For example, let me show you my old practice space:

Music Room

There’s a nice clean space with the instruments and stand close at hand.  There is, however, one huge and fundamental flaw with this setup.  Can you spot it?

Here’s I’ll zoom in:

Music Room Zoomed

Still missing it?

Music Room Zoom Flume

Yup, this is also my work space with my computer.  Years ago I got into the habit of browsing the web while going through my tuba warmup.  And in my defense, a lot of my warmup is a physical activity just to get the blood flowing and to limber up.  I might as well be entertained while I’m doing it.

Recently after I took a lesson with my former teacher Jay Krush, I realized that this was causing a lot of bad habits to emerge.  If I were passively reading something, that’s one thing, but here I was using a mouse with one hand and playing the tuba with everything else.  Often I’d be leaning forward to reach the mouse.  I would also tilt my head to the side so I could get a better view of the screen.

But the larger issue is that I just wasn’t concentrating on what I was playing.  And if I wasn’t going to listen to what I was playing, there wasn’t much “practicing” going on.

A few weeks ago, I got rid of an old broken bed in my spare bedroom, and repurposed the space for playing.  Allow me to show you:

New Music Room

This room is pretty tiny, but it works great for what I need.  There’s a lot less in the room to distract me… well, unless you count the bookshelf and my complete collection of Magic the Gathering cards.  Fortunately, I’m faced away from everything.

The mirror has been great.  For one thing, I can check on my posture and embouchure (mouth shape) while I’m playing.  A small but important side effect is that I have a hard time doing anything except concentrating on playing and the sound while I’m watching myself.  The stand in the picture is usually behind me during the warm up part of my routine, so I can’t get distracted by what’s on the page.  Even the open window makes it a nicer space.

I already can feel a huge difference by staying in the moment while I’m playing.  I have started to check in while I’m performing by thinking back to how I am seated, how I am breathing, and how I am playing while in my practice space.  It’s interesting to be in the middle of a dimly lit bar and all of a sudden thinking about relaxing while breathing, and maintaining my playing posture.  I don’t know if this is something obvious for most brass players, but it came as a pleasant surprise to me.

It’s almost as if we practice to prepare ourselves for performing.

Not all is well in practice-land though.  While creating and using this new space in the last 2 or 3 weeks has been great, I still have some issues to overcome.


I purchased my first smart phone 2 months ago since I knew I would not be as connected to a computer as I was with a full time job.  It has been an invaluable tool for both my personal and professional life, allowing me to respond to gig requests quickly, making navigation so much simpler, and even pulling up charts and set lists when I need them.  The downside is that I find it difficult to disengage from the phone sometimes, and one of those times is while practicing.  Sometimes I’ll get a gig to bid on right in the middle of my lip slurs, and I’ll take a look at my phone to see if I need to respond immediately.  And I’ll be honest, sometimes it’s just a friend chatting with me, and I’ll want to engage with them.

In either case, it clearly takes away from my practice time and quality.  I’ve broken my practice session down at this point to play in small intervals, maybe 10-30 minutes at a time.  I find it disingenuous to my commitment to music to allow myself to be so easily distracted.  Yes, there are emergencies, yes there are times where it’s great to be the first to respond.  However, I think I can afford to donate a solid 30 minute block to my craft without allowing for distractions.

Reps But Not Sets

So far I’ve been pretty good about getting my warmup/daily routine in every morning.  Where I’ve been lacking is in following up with more practice later in the day.  If I have a gig at night, I tend to only do my basic routine to keep fresh for the evening.  How do gigging brass musicians manage practicing and improving without overdoing it?  Is it as delicate a balance as it seems for me?

For instance, last weekend I had a lot of endurance playing to do, to the extent that I overdid it a bit.  I’m taking today as a no play day to recover so I can start to focus again on the finer points of my playing.  Maybe there’s some playing I can do across the day that keeps me improving while not straining.  Again, I’m still working on this.

Where Are We Headed?

I have a few specific things that I’m working on, but not a whole lot of direction.  I have a book of mixed meter etudes I’ve been going through to improve my sightreading, and I have a piece or two that I’m trying to get up to speed.  Without scheduling a recital, I don’t know what to do to find a more specific motivation.  Maybe I can arbitrarily choose a project (learn the complete works of TMBG on the tuba), but I have a hunch that will feel empty as well.

Many of my brass idols (Buddy Baker, Douglas Yeo, Philip Farkas) write that without a set of short, medium, and long term goals, you won’t get anywhere.  But doesn’t that take practice to a whole other meta-world, in which I’m spending hours poring through material, choosing music to play, and then repeating the process daily, weekly, and monthly.  Again, has anyone found a way to make that work.


Then there’s also that I want to improve my trombone and baritone horn skills, learn the electric bass, play polkas on the accordion, write new music to sing, arrange new music for Polkadelphia, cultivate a private studio, and do web design on the side.  I’m still figuring out if that’s realistic.

I have to keep remembering what someone told me recently about striving to be the best I can be.  It’s ok for me to keep looking ahead up the mountain at all the things I have yet to accomplish and all the work I have to do in order to accomplish it.  But it’s also important to turn around occasionally and look back down the path I’ve already traveled through.  Certainly I can beat myself up about everything I haven’t accomplished yet, but I can also temper it with how far I’ve come.  If I’m to keep growing, I’ll always be a work in progress, and that’s ok.  The story continues… and it’s been quite a page-turner so far.

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