During my summer holidays in 2018 I visited the beautiful state of Colorado. Needless to say, I took my violin with me and took to the streets to test how Americans would respond to a European violinist. I had been planning this trip for several months so by the time I arrived I was extremely curious how things would go. Life in the US and especially in Denver, the capital of Colorado, is expensive, so I was worried that I’d leave the US with my bank account completely sucked dry. I turned out to be very wrong.
I arrived on 27 August and took the first days off to explore the city and waited for the weekend to arrive to first start playing. However, my curiosity got the best of me, so I played for over an hour during lunch on a random Thursday just to see what playing would feel like. At first it was quite intimidating to play in a completely unknown environment but after the first session I felt more confident already. It had only provided me with 12$, but I knew I wouldn’t be tipped a great deal since it was on a Thursday and people were way too busy with work and rushing to lunch or back to the office to pay attention. The next day, on Friday, I went back, and that’s when the ball started rolling. I was surprised to learn that in two hours I made 66$. That’s an hourly rate of 33$: a high amount when you know it’s more than double the miminum wage.
It turned out that I was in luck: a food fest was coming to Denver that weekend, which coincided with Labour Day; a day off for American workers. I entered the festival terrain and it was packed with people. I wondered whether I would be allowed to play here without a permit, but I decided not to ask and simply see whether I’d get kicked out. The first day of the fest, Saturday was even better than the day before: 73$ during my first session (one session consisted of an hour and a half to two hours and a half of playing) and a surprising 121$ during my second session of that day. I was delighted by how generous, friendly and interested Americans were. The classical music scene isn’t as big in the US as it is in many European countries such as Italy, Germany, The Netherlands or the United Kingdom – although technically the UK isn’t part of Europe anymore, yet Americans are much more generous with tipping and I was able to make a whopping 783$ over the course of three days: that certainly paid for all my meals and museum tickets! The best part of it was that I only played for 13 hours in total during the festival, which means that I made over 60$ an hour. I never expected to be tipped to such an extent when I first arrived. I knew Americans to be friendly and generous, much more friendly and generous than most Europeans (since I had been to the US previously), but this definitely floored me. I figured I had gathered enough money to allow myself to travel around Colorado for a week, so I took the train – which I must say took an amazingly gorgeous route through the mountains and through many valleys/canyons – first to Glenwood Springs and then the bus to Aspen.
After having spent a week in these towns I took the train back and arrived in Denver once again. I liked spending my time doing fun things such as visiting museums (or cat cafés…), going on hikes, taking day trips to nearby towns such as Boulder, experiencing American cultural events such as ball games more than I liked playing the same repertoire over and over again. By now I had played the same pieces probably a hundred times and even though being a street musician makes for great and interesting conversation, I decided I had made enough money to spend the final five days of my vacation having actual vacation rather than playing at 33 degrees Celsius/91 degrees Fahrenheit. I only played one final time on 16th Mall Street the last Friday. Denver was great for playing, and there are lots of street artists downtown, which makes for a very vibrant and culturally active city, yet it also makes it competitive, much more competitive than Aspen. You can find street artists on nearly every corner of every block on 16th. Sadly, more than half of Denver’s street musicians are homeless. This saddened me deeply, because to those I talked, I found them all to be genuinely kind-hearted. None of the homeless musicians I spoke to deserved to be in the position that they’re in: making sometimes remarkably good music on that one crappy piano that’s not been tuned since it came out of the factory, let alone have any of the keys left. On top of the piano they’d have their small plastic cup for donations. Usually people put $1 bills in there or spare change (in the US, they quite literally give you back the exact amount, so change still exists there), so they definitely don’t walk away with much. Not much at all.
As I mentioned before, socially Colorado is a much warmer place than Europe and Americans were very interested in why I came to Colorado and what I thought of their state, country, people and culture. Most pedestrians asked why I was playing there, why I was visiting the States, how I was liking it, what the differences are between Europe and America, and so forth. Perhaps the grass is greener on the other side, but I found interest higher in the US than in the Netherlands. I’ll never forget the eccentric couple (they called themselves “very good friends”, with a hefty emphasis on “very”…) who gave me 200$. The lady, who turned out to be a pianist and was infatuated with Rachmaninov’s music, came up to me with a 100$ bill (85€) and complimented me while giving it to me. I was speechless and asked whether she had made a mistake, but she insisted I take it. We chatted for a while, I played some Rachmaninov fragments from piano music to the best of my ability (luckily I had played the first violin part of his second piano concerto when I was still in the orchestra so I was able to play some themes) and some other pieces afterwards. They were so pleased with it that the guy took out his wallet and gave me another 100$ bill. I realised that I had just made 170€ in just fifteen minutes, simply by playing some fragments and being a normal human being by talking to them, asking questions and answering theirs in response. They even thought of hiring me privately for one night and they promised to pay me double my rate. I had told them my rate was 50$-60$ (since that was what I could make in an hour on the festival terrain). Finally, before they walked away, they asked me for my card, I gave it to them with my eternal gratitude, and we parted ways. It’s an exchange I won’t forget and one that could not ever take place here in Europe I’m, convinced.
All in all, I had a great deal of fun playing in Denver and I felt financially secure. I was lucky to be in town for the food fest and Labour Weekend, but even without those events it still would have been very well worth the extra energy and money to travel with a violin. People are kind to street artists there, they appreciate what you do, and if you’re from another state or country they’ll often show genuine interest and will be happy to support you. I was even approached by the CEO of one of the sponsors of the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, whose favourite violin concerto was Tchaikovsky’s. Just a couple of minutes later, I exchanged cards with an event manager who maybe wanted to invite me to play at an event. Unfortunately, because I was only in Denver for a very limited amount of time, we ended up deciding against it, but the intention was there. Being a successful street musician depends on many factors, but most of all luck, patience and skill. I’ve had time spans of half an hour in which I was tipped 0$ and then all of a sudden, 7$ within just two minutes. Sometimes the right people run into you and sometimes you’re ridiculed for what you’re doing – especially young males seem to be into this type of behaviour when in groups… – or the worst of all: sometimes someone will film you for five minutes straight or take your picture (without permission) yet subsequently don’t have the decency to throw in just one buck. However, most of all it’s fun, an easy way of making tax-free money and in an environment that is friendly and generous. The ratio of young people, older people and people well into adulthood remained largely the same as it is in the Netherlands: most tips are received by people from the ages of 40 and up, although the amount that youngsters tip in Denver was above average. Amongst younger people there seemed to be a larger interest in comparison to the Netherlands, but only slightly. Of course the category of “parents with children” can’t be left out and this category too was one of the strongest supporters in Denver too. Everyone seemed to be tipping small amounts, no matter whether it was the businessman returning home from work, the elderly woman waiting for the shuttle, an adult couple passing by or some of my peers who simply became interested after hearing several bars. And as always: a universal truth seems to hold true in Denver too: children always stare.