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Thursday, July 7, 2011

BART Musician Adam Young Shares Tips on Busking for a Living

Posted By on Thu, Jul 7, 2011 at 11:46 AM

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Adam Young was playing in the Powell BART station yesterday. But it wasn't the Owl City lead singer Adam Young. The Bay Area's own Adam Young is a cellist who has just started his first year at the S.F. Conservatory of Music. During the summer months, he busks in BART stations to earn his living.

When Young plays, he is serene -- his eyes half-closed, he cradles his cello as his bow weaves back and forth. Yesterday, in his black-and-white outfit, he matched the monochrome floors and walls of the Powell BART station so that he seemed more like an art installation made for the space than a street musician.

As a BART regular, Young has a small local following. As I watched him play, a little old lady stopped to listen and began rummaging through her handbag. After dropping a donation in his cello case, she shuffled up to me and whispered, "Look how hot he is!"

But there aren't always adoring fans, and there are bad days as well as good ones. Young tells SF Weekly that it's important to have a cheerful attitude when busking.

When did you start playing the cello?

I began playing cello when I was 10 years old in the Davis Joint Unified School. As soon as I started playing, it was like learning a foreign language, a secret language. I was really into it, I loved it. My parents had to get me to stop practicing and go outside to play with friends or to eat dinner.

What do you like about playing in the Bay Area?

I've been in the Bay Area for about three years, two of which I took off from school to be part of the classical music industry here in the Bay Area. I moved from Portland, where I was studying cello, but the competition wasn't fierce enough. Since I've been at conservatory, every subject has improved tremendously. Also, my interests have been further developed, and I'm exploring new territories, new crafts.

Such as ... ?

I recently started taking ballet, which is something I've always wanted to do, and that's something that's really wonderful about being in the city -- you can find these amazing opportunities. I've also been doing some sewing, my own clothes and stuff, a lot of sweaters, jackets, shirts ... no pants yet.

Do you still want to be a professional cellist?

You know, it always has been [my goal to be a professional cellist] and one thing that I envy about people who haven't had something that they've wanted to do their whole life is that they have so many things to explore.

Now I'm starting to be more interested in other tracks; I really like sculpture and building and sewing and origami and drawing. Cello as a profession isn't really lucrative -- you never really know where your next gig is going to come from, or [if] you're going to make that audition or when auditions are going to be available. So I've been thinking about maybe going into architecture.

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How long have you been playing in the BART?

I've been playing in the BART since high school, and I've been busking since I can remember. I just remember being in a park with my parents as a little kid, and taking my cello out to play.

What have you learned from playing here?

Playing in public has affected two major things. My performance anxiety, because I'm just playing for hundreds of people a day. The other thing is my sound production. See that wall over there? [gesturing to the back of the BART station] It's way farther than the back of a concert hall. And so I'm sitting here trying to get my sound to ping off the back wall so a person over there can get a chance to listen to it and potentially tip me.

How much do you make on an average day?

Oh my goodness, it's so different, always. It's good enough that I don't have to flip burgers -- it's more than minimum wage. But it's hit or miss. Weekends are usually good, and days after festivals. The day after Pride was one of my best days all year.

Sometimes you get people that give you only change, and sometimes you get people who give you fives or tens or twenties. I've even gotten a $50 once before. And so you just never know. Yesterday I played for two hours and only made $10, but today I played for about two hours and I probably made over $60.

What advice would you have for a musician who's just started busking?

Don't let the hard times get to you! You can sit out here and be ignored by the people who are walking by. They aren't obligated to pay attention to you, and that can be really disconcerting. You're out here really trying to work hard and really putting your emotions into it and they can pick up on that. So if you're happy, they can feel it, and they can feel when you're angry too.

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Caroline Chen

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