THE GIG: I've been a street musician on and off for about two years, full time since November. I play jazz guitar. But I've played music my whole life -- guitar for 14 years, piano since I was 5; I went to music school for almost a year. So after two months at my last coffee-shop job, I decided to live my dream. I just thought I'd rather die than serve lattes another day. I'd played on the street before and knew I could make more than minimum wage at it. Now, I live hand-to-mouth, but I'm surviving: I pay rent on time and have a cell phone and computer. And I'm achieving one of my lifetime goals -- to be a full-time musician.
IN ROTATION: I probably know about 20 street musicians in the District, maybe 10 who do it full time. It can be hard to find a particular person -- we're spontaneous and we're asked to move along a lot. But this weekend we'll be playing all over town for the Sidewalk Musicians Slam Competition, part of the Fete de la Musique [sponsored by the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, www.dcarts.dc.gov/dcarts/site/default.asp]. People can vote online for their favorite. Some cats play classical music, there's a banjo player who plays bluegrass, there are some folk and jazz musicians, and a whole scene where guys play buckets. There's always people at Dupont Circle, Eastern Market and other busy Metro stations, except when we get kicked out. Metro doesn't let us play even though it's legal in D.C. to play music on public property. They always use the excuse that someone complained. Some people have a vendetta against street musicians, but for all the hate, we get 99 percent love.
PITCH PERFECT: There's definitely an approach, a presentation. You want to be at the busy Metro stops before anyone else, dressed nicely -- people tend to give to those who have. The first tip is always the hardest. Then the more the money stacks up, the more people give. But we're not beggars: We play free music and get donations, and a lot of people want us there. If you have a complaint, don't call the cops or the Metro police; talk to us first and tell us what the problem is. And if you just don't like the music, keep walking.
HIGH NOTE: Playing on the street is a positive experience. I've gotten gigs from it. I've given lessons. Music is just love. Plato says it softens people's souls. With everything that's happening in the world, I definitely feel like I'm doing the right thing, spending my time giving free music to people.
As told to Karen Lee Ryan