Lessons from a street musician

The street musician sings softly into the late afternoon wind. Eyes shaded, head down, mouth tight against the mic, he is lost to the music. Which is a good thing, because no one else is. Not a soul is around. Everyone has gone home. Only the musician remains, singing softly.


Except for me.

Because, of course, the music seems to have a life all its own. It is pulled by the wind across the concrete sidewalk, brushing up against the Rembrandts and Vermeers in the Rijksmuseum, pinging over to the painted irises in the Van Gogh Museum, then jumping a ride with a skateboarder weaving in and out of the benches on the Museumplein, until the music jumps off, bouncing lazily across the grass to land with a plop at my feet.

Of all things.

“She dare hold her dreams for too long, till all the present is gone, forgetting to see what is right at her feet.” Mark Wilkinson, Searching.

But I ignore the song, like we all frequently do, I have a tram to catch. I’ve had a long day walking the canals of Amsterdam. I’m tired, a little grumpy, and ready to go home.

“It was a Thursday night in June when he first came to you, with eyes that spoke of carnivals and streams.” Mark Wilkinson, Josephine.

Lord, but I do admire the courage of this guy. He couldn’t be more exposed, out there singing to no one. And, really, what can he say to explain the lack of an audience? “Oh, you wanted a clown act not a musician?” It doesn’t matter in any case. The world just walks past. No excuses even requested. Worse than rejection.

“I don’t know a victory from loss anymore.” Mark Wilkinson, All I want is a war.

But, my goodness, he’s good.

I stop, retrace my steps, and listen. He pulls me in with his heart-breaking chords. Then his soft voice lifts and dives and laments and exults. He plays as if hundreds are listening, when no one is listening. I watch in awe.


So I buy a CD from the guy and go home.

Later that night I’m thinking about the musician on the street corner playing to no one and decide to e-mail him.

I’ll be darned, he responds.

“These days my audience has grown a fair bit, so I don’t really need to keep playing on the street, but the truth is, it’s still a great way for me to get in front of a new audience and grow my fan base. Not only that, it’s a great way to practice, see how new songs go down and get a feel for how your material is received by an audience that generally doesn’t know you.”

“Fan base”? Please. I feel nothing but badly for this guy. NO ONE WAS LISTENING, BUDDY. I was there. You should have packed it up, gone home, called it a day, had a cold beer.

Mark Wilkinson, the musician, says more . . . .

“My songs come from different sources of inspiration. Some are deeply personal and drawn from life experience and some are more observational or fictional. I like lots of different styles of music but the stuff that hits me the hardest is music that carries emotional weight. I strive to write songs that mean something to me, songs that have a piece of my personality in there somewhere.”

Oh my lord, this guy is a true believer. He performs on a street corner to no audience because he loves to create music. How amazingly courageous and how sadly defeating. He reminds me of my oldest boy, Patrick, playing soccer when he was little. At his first game, he was so excited that he was dancing with joy out on the field, chasing the ball wherever it went, shrieking with delight. And then, miracles of miracles, he scored a goal. He ran over to me for a hug, laughing, thrilled, and amazed at his prowess. Then back out to the game he went.

Of course . . . the goal he scored was for the other side. See? Both amazing and sadly defeating.

I decide to go to one of Wilkinson’s shows in Amsterdam just so someone will be there for this poor guy.

I pull up his website.

Look at this, he has several shows around Holland, and then off to New York City and Nashville. I’d better get my ticket.


What? I must have the wrong guy.


Mark Wilkinson, the guy giving a performance for no one but me, has sold out shows across Amsterdam.

I’m flabbergasted. He had an audience already in the bag when I saw him. I was so wrong about what was going on. This WAS about singing aloud his emotional songs, regardless of an audience. This WAS about leaving pieces of his personality on the playing field, even though no one was watching. This WAS about joyfully creating. Pure and simple.

Or was it? This embrace of creative spirit just for joy’s sake could all be coincidental, a fluke, the gods fooling around. Okay, what if I choose clowns rather than a musician on that empty square in Amsterdam?

Well, here’s a whole group of clowns at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. With umbrellas.


Trust me, Parisians give them not a second look as the clowns prance and sing and march. Not an audience to be found except for a few curious tourists and the miscellaneous enraptured child. They are on their own.

But the faces of the clowns amidst all this rejection? Filled with joy.

There you go.






3 thoughts on “Lessons from a street musician

  1. I go out of my way to avoid the poet Mary Oliver. She has written just one too many perfect poems and then has the nerve to write books that teach others how to write poetry (some of which I have been assigned). You just wonder that she’ll do something like leave out the sage in the Thanksgiving stuffing recipe you asked for when she tells you how to line up your couplets. But something came across my screen this morning and it seems to be a worthy and appropriate comment. By Mary herself.

    “There is a notion that creative people are absentminded, reckless, heedless of social customs and obligations. It is, hopefully, true.”

    This applies to your reckless boy in the wind, obligation free. It also gave me license to spend an hour on a birthday card embellishment, listening to Prokofiev’s Cinderella, and doodling around at my desk, looking for the surface. You may have had that beer that Mark could have had while you were writing this column, emailing away, being your creative self. And how about permission to ignore social customs because you fancy yourself creative? Wheeee.

    Mary’s okay. As long as she isn’t writing an actual poem. But now I’m worried that it was a poem. It had different line breaks, centering, things that I can’t do in this response. Dang. She got me again.

  2. This reminds me of Pat telling about going to a bar late one night with his friend, Jack Curley, in New York, and they were the only ones there listening to Ella Fitzgerald. No further comment needed!!

  3. Gosh – I’ve been writing for no audience for so many years, but I have to admit, I’m struggling to find joy in it any more. Still . . . I continue. I can only get better. Right???

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