Why do professional musicians play for free on the street? We asked one to find out

The Violin Femmes: Suzanne Davenport (l to r) with Elaine Yau, Anya Szykitka and Donna Gail Horton.  Via FB.
The Violin Femmes: Suzanne Davenport (l to r) with Elaine Yau, Anya Szykitka and Donna Gail Horton. Via FB.

The Violin Femmes (get it??) are one of those street musician acts you see hitting the strings in subway tunnels, wearing funny clothes, in both the heat of summer and the dead of winter. But they’re not your average amateur buskers — they’re all serious adult music students led by an established professional. They just happen to prioritize the joy of playing and performing over making dough.

The group of four-ish, 40-plus women were brought together by pro violin player Suzanne Davenport, who moved to NYC from Germany in 2002. Why, in a city rife with musicians struggling to make ends meet by stacking up whatever meager door fees they can wrest from obscure venues, would her group be happy to take time out of their working lives to give away the priceless gift of music for a song? We asked her for some insight into the life of the playing-for-free musician:

You’re a professional musician. Why does your band play for free?
That’s pretty much my agenda for this group. Most adults don’t have the time to become professionally-good at an instrument, but they still want to enjoy playing and performing. If you’re not really good, it can be hard to find a band. But if you come in [to the Femmes], I’ll arrange a tune for you, whatever your level, so you can play a part. If you want to play in our band, I’ll make sure you can do that. That’s my goal here.

The way this group came together was that I was teaching all the members music — I still am — and I wanted to give them an opportunity to play together. More than 10 years in, that’s still what it is. At first, they didn’t feel confident enough to play out. But the way we do it — mostly playing in the subway, or on street corners — it’s a low-pressure opportunity for adult players to just get out and get some experience. And newcomers are always welcome! Just remember: there are strings attached.

That explains what your student-bandmates get out of it. How about you?
Just when somebody listens, I’m happy. And when people throw a little money into the hat and we have enough to put toward our next costumes or a round at the bar—or often we play for charity and then all the earnings go to that—that’s even better. It’s usually not more than a hundred bucks or so in total, but it’s something. Recently we did World Tapir Day, and we’ve done sea turtles, Sandy.

But for me, I just really love to give these guys this opportunity to play music with each other. It’s a very democratic band, it’s not “my band;” everybody has the same say in what we do. But on a very small level, I feel that starting and maintaining it has been my contribution to adult music education. It gives me an enormous amount of satisfaction. It’s my favorite thing I do musically.

How do you support yourselves outside the band?
I’m a full-time music teacher, of violin and piano. Donna is a nurse. Anya is a nonprofit web editor and Elaine is an architect.

Do you feel weird about being a professional and playing for free?
Ha! Hmm. That’s a very good question. If I get to play, I’m gonna play. Don’t get me wrong — if someone offers me a bunch of money, I’ll take it! But I think music is just so much about playing together and having fun. I’ve never felt like, I don’t know, Sting or Bobby McFerrin — someone with an insuppressible musical genius to share. This isn’t about that, exactly; it’s about how people do music, especially here. In Germany, I was performing a lot and making good money, but here, I got more into teaching and started to feel like I was slipping; I couldn’t play at my level anymore.

Now I’m taking lessons and really practicing again, but there are many ways to be involved with music, many aspects to it. And then there’s the money side! So, it’s complex. But overall, no, I guess it doesn’t feel weird. It’s just part of the scenario.

What are some of the cooler things you’ve seen or learned from playing for free in all these public places?

Oh, there have been so many! Normally, if we play in a subway tunnel, people mostly walk by, though of course sometimes they stop and listen. On street corners, they’re more likely to stop and take photos. Most often we’re wearing costumes, so people will notice us on a visual level sometimes before they register the music. We get dancers, people who want to sing along, or just hang out. One great show for that was a summertime gig in Carroll Park where people were just lounging around, lunching.

But one of my very favorites was when we were playing in front of the 24-hour post office on 32nd Street on tax day and we just played “Taxman” by The Beatles over and over; people were waiting in line with nothing to do but listen. Then this guy comes over and totally takes over the singing part, and tries to get everybody else in line to sing! He’s calling out the parts: “Okay, here comes the guitar solo!” But we didn’t have a guitar solo prepared. Anyway, all of us in the band are pretty left-leaning, but it turned out this guy was a Tea Partier! And we had a great time together. If we’d met in a bar, instead of over free music in public, we wouldn’t have connected like that.

The Violin Femmes in Halloween garb this year
The Violin Femmes in Halloween garb this year

The Violin Femmes are playing a rare indoor, ticketed performance tonight The Bitter End in the Village tonight. Otherwise, catch them in the 14th Street subway tunnel another time soon, or on Facebook.

Find April Tweeting for free: @aprilweiz.

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