What Musicians Can Learn From Subway Performers

As you ride the subways in New York, it’s very common for people to step forward and ask for something from the other passengers. This is often a presumably homeless person asking for money, an ill person asking for donations, or, sometimes, a teenager who whips out a boombox and starts breakdancing.3

The other day a friend and I realized that, because these breakdancers use the handrails as part of their performance, the only way they can truly craft their show is by practicing, failing, and adjusting repeatedly, always in front of the other train passengers. Any musician can tell you that, from a performance standpoint, that’s a terrifying thought.

Last night, on my way home from work, one of the breakdancers happened to be standing next to me before his performance began. As I witnessed the whole performance, I realized that the three key steps involved were things that artists could learn a tremendous amount from.

1. THE DEEP BREATH

Just before stepping out from the crowd and pulling out his boombox, I saw him take a very deep breath and a long gulp went down his throat. It didn’t seem as easy for him as everyone thought it was, but he knew he had to put himself out there and go for it because it was the only way to improve his work.

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2. VULNERABILITY

Stepping infront of 75 people who are predisposed to be annoyed by you is tough. He must have known that only a handful of people in the train would appreciate what he was doing, but, regardless, he stepped forward and performed as confidently as I’d ever seen anyone perform before.

3. IGNORING THE MASSES TO FOCUS ON A NICHE

When the show began, the vast majority of passengers were annoyed, sighing, taking deep breaths, and looking at their phones or talking to a friend. However, as the show continued, you could see a handful of people host a grin on their face, look up from their phones, and, eventually, watch the performer closely, captivated with awe.

The second the performance ended, the breakdancer approached those who had been smiling, and no one else. He had the maturity to understand that his work was not for everyone, and, rather than trying to convince everyone, focused solely on the small few who cared.

Every single one of the people he approached paid him.

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3 thoughts on “What Musicians Can Learn From Subway Performers

  1. brilliant observations, Ethan. sadly, we ignore many of them just because they are subway performers. i’m not so sure an “above ground” professional would gain any more attention down there … we’re simply trained (!) to keep moving and not listen. tony

    • thanks Tony. Important to learn from them regardless. They’re put in a position where they have to continually grow and put themselves out there; not many artists can say they do the same.

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