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(Editor’s note: Guo Tong is a 33-year-old Singaporean who has been busking part time for the past five years. This is her story, as told to John)
For all the attention it has received recently, the reality of busking in Singapore hits a little different.
It’s 3pm on a Saturday. I’m meeting some other singers from my music studio for a gig we are doing tomorrow.
We are practising in a small bedroom. In the corner, there’s an amplifier. Near the front, a keyboard with a mic stand.
We’ve pushed the wall bed up. It’s where my music teacher sleeps at night after putting away the equipment when we leave.
This is the home of my music teacher, who generously lends us his bedroom/studio for practice.
We plug in the microphones and instruments, and suffer through the usual electronic squeals as we tune up and get ready to rehearse.
It was the day before our gig last Sunday at Rivervale Community Centre. Most times, I busk with a partner; other times, like now, I team up with other singer friends to perform at paid gigs.
I’m not a full-time busker. I’ve a day job in the allied health industry. But I tend to spend most weekends (and sometimes weeknights) running between gigs and busking, to stay connected with my musical side.
Why do I do it?
That’s a good question.
I remember when I started in 2017. As there was no booking system then, buskers were only approved to perform at five locations around Singapore.
(Today, there are a host of locations all over the country where buskers can apply to perform.)
Back then, it was a first-come, first-served basis. So, if there were other buskers there already, my friends and I had to negotiate with them when they would end, or go somewhere else.
I remember once, when we got to one of the approved spots, there was another busker already there. He was visually impaired. We were just going to ask him when he was going to end (with no intention of chasing him away) when someone saw us standing there awkwardly with our instruments and offered to talk to him for us. Ignoring our paiseh protestations, he went to talk to the busker, who kindly gave up his spot.
Happy ending? I thought so too.
Except that it later turned out that another member of the public called the police to report us for begging.
This is just one incident, out of the many I’ve experienced as a busker over the years.
I have also met drunk people who would sing along with us at the top of their voices. Sometimes, they become disruptive and knock over our boxes, albeit unintentionally!
And it’s not just people challenges either. Some busking locations are not sheltered. So after carrying our amplifiers, guitars, and keyboards to the location and painstakingly setting it up, we would meet our dear friend — rain.
Talk about a washout.
What keeps me going, you ask?
I’ve thought long and hard about that question. I don’t do this for the money, for sure. It’s hard to envision doing this as a full-time job.
Music brings people together
But in the end, I keep coming back to it because of how I see music bringing cheer to the community.
We’ve gone through a lot as a people over the past two pandemic years. And sometimes, when you go into the heartlands to sing, simple things melt your heart.
Like how someone might come up to give us a drink, or some dessert, after watching us perform for a few hours. It warms my heart, and reminds me of the kampung spirit.
Or how people would even give us the greatest gift — of their time, sitting to listen to our whole performance — which can go on for a few hours.
One thing that touches me the most might surprise you.
It’s when people come up to ask us for a dedication, to a loved one, or just because it’s something that resonates deeply with them.
Think back to the last time you heard something that moved you. People ask for music that connects with them.
I remember once, when the crowd seemed flat, quiet, and not very engaged. Despite trying our best to engage them, things just didn’t seem to work.
Then, a five-year-old (probably instigated by their parents!) toddled up to dedicate a song. It was a song called 青春修炼手册 (by popular Chinese idol group TFBOYS) Luckily I knew the song!
The crowd suddenly roared to life.
Perhaps that’s the power of music. To bring people together, and to make people come alive.
How did it start?
I was (and probably still am!) a shy person by nature. Ten years ago, I couldn’t have imagined myself singing in front of strangers.
But in secondary school, my friend encouraged me to join a music class. My parents didn’t agree because they thought it was a waste of money.
Being a bit of a rebel, I saved my own pocket money to go for class.
Eventually, in 2014, I joined a music studio, ETC Music. That same year my teacher gave us the chance to perform at bars as a student band.
The first time, I was so scared that I kept going to the toilet. I didn’t dare to look at the crowd. It was so awkward to hear my voice shyly coming out from the amplifiers!
My only thought? “Just play. Just play. Just play. So that I can get off the stage.”
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But as I’ve done it more and more, performing has become more comfortable.
On some occasions though, I still get butterflies, like when performing at new locations or larger events.
My family has also eased into the fact that I perform regularly, and support me. Just last Sunday, I realised that we were short of an amplifier for a rehearsal. My brother responded to my SOS and helped deliver it to the venue, a 30-minute drive away.
Only my close friends know that I am a busker because I don’t generally volunteer this information. I’m also not great at social media but these days, I do try to publicise my performance schedules.
Some have asked if I get any additional unwanted attention for being a female performer, especially during performances but thankfully, I haven’t encountered any real trouble!
Don’t do it for the glamour
If you want to be a musician, an artist, or anyone in the creative scene, busking can be a good platform to start. It forces you to perform, and to be comfortable putting your performance in front of others.
Performance is not just for yourself. It’s for others. It’s to engage with the audience.
Ultimately, you need to ask yourself what you’re after, if you want to start a life like this.
It will take time and commitment to support yourself.
There are days, when after three hours of busking, we might get less than $100. Split three ways, it comes out to about $10 an hour.
There are other times though, when we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the generosity of tips. Especially when busking in Singapore was allowed again after Mar 29, we were surprised at how generously people gave to show their appreciation. There were some nights that we got more than $500!
But busking is hard.
Weekends are often burnt. I perform six to eight times a month at various gigs and performances. It means two to three hours of standing with my guitar each time, quite a feat during the daytime in hot, humid Singapore!
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To make a performance work, there are many other things that need to happen.
Booking a busking venue is one: It’s fastest fingers first, like booking a badminton court. I often end up “camping” online on the National Arts Council website, waiting for busking slots to be released — to be honest, it sometimes feels a tad too competitive.
There are popular places, and then there are less popular ones, especially those with low footfall that may end up with you singing to the crickets. For example, I could get a slot at a park easily, but beyond the occasional jogger, I would end up singing mostly to the mosquitoes that may be more interested in serenading me!
Practical issues matter as much as the performance. Questions like, how do you get the equipment? Where can you practise? When should you perform?
When you get on location, you might meet people who aren’t happy to see you. Contrary to what you may see on social media, busking isn’t always glamorous. I’ve heard of tissue-paper sellers who have scolded buskers for ‘stealing their business’!
There have been times we were unsure of where to set up, and then had to carry our 15-kg equipment further away from the MRT station, on instruction of MRT staff — in the middle of a set!
If you ask me, aren’t there easier things to do?
I’m sure there are.
But what keeps me going, is knowing that somewhere, somehow, someone is being touched by a song we sing. Music hits us in a deeper place — we sometimes forget this in the hustle and bustle of busyness.
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Sometimes it reminds us that life doesn’t need to be so serious.
And that we can live a little.
And maybe sing a little more.
Guo Tong’s next performance is on Sunday (Sept 4), from 9.30am to 12.30pm at the open carpark next to KFC Kallang at Stadium Boulevard.