Patrick Belaga On How to Play the Cello for Strangers on the Street
Patrick Belaga is a classically trained cellist with a reputation for ignoring classical music conventions. Whether he is collaborating with the performance artists Wu Tsang and Boychild or scoring Lady Gaga’s Netflix documentary, Gaga: Five Foot Two, the Los Angeles–based performer and part-time model relies on invention and improvisation as the bedrock of his compositions. But when it comes to busking on the street, as he did for several years, sometimes you just have to shut up and play the hits.
Step 1: Pick an instrument. The smaller the better, because you’re going to be lugging it around for the rest of your life.
Step 2: Learn the instrument. Playing cello is low-key easy. A few YouTube tutorials and you’re basically a professional. My 24 years of training was a scam.
Step 3: Choose your fighter. Are you the pauper trying to make a few bucks to buy a simple meal? Are you the child prodigy waiting to be discovered? Are you the pretty young thing looking for a bread winner? Pick out a personal narrative for the passersby who stop and chat while you’re busking.
Step 4: Know your audience. Every city has a different character with a wide range of demographics. Depending on your style of music, you’ll need to assess what areas work best. Are you playing for Bushwick hipsters? Georgetown yuppies? Venice Beach skaters? Whoever it is, learn their tastes. Your wallet will thank you.
Step 5: Play the hits. For the cello, that includes Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 1,” Elgar’s “Cello Concerto,” “The Swan” by Saint-Saens, Haydn’s “Cello Concerto No. 1,” and even Lalo’s “Cello Concerto.” People want to be able to recognize the music and, more importantly, brag to whomever they are with that they recognize it.
Step 6: Choose the right time and place. You can’t go wrong with the entrance to a busy subway station during the lunch rush, Washington Square Park on a sunny day, or a college campus (preferably a private school) between classes.
Step 7: Know when to quit. The longer you play, the sloppier you’ll get. Mark the moment of diminishing financial returns. As your donations dwindle and your fingers tire, accept your limitations. Pack it up, go home, and get some rest. You have another long day of street performing ahead of you.
This article appears in the fall 2019 50th anniversary issue of Interview magazine. Subscribe here.
Assistant: Dustin Connor Ellis