If you’ve ever spent time walking through Toronto’s downtown or subway stations, then you’ve likely encountered musicians and artists exhibiting their craft and filling the city with sweet tunes and energy. These performers come from all walks of life, collectively brightening Toronto’s street corners with their passion for performance.
Many of the best and brightest street performers in Toronto are either current or former music students who have taken their passions beyond the classroom. These are accomplished musicians who have, for one reason or another, decided to busk among busy Toronto residents and commuters.
I recently sat down with two of Toronto’s most prominent busking bands, The Sidewalk Crusaders and Eighth Street Orchestra, both of which include former and current U of T students. Together, we unpacked the public’s perception of street performing, spoke about their experiences, and discussed how the streets of Toronto have changed the performers they attract.
Peter Cavanagh from The Sidewalk Crusaders started busking because he was curious about it and wanted to gain exposure. The energy of performing outdoors, which differentiates busking from performing in regular venues, drew him in.
“It helped me be more comfortable and confident performing. When you’re only a few feet away from the audience on the street you feel so much more open and alive,” said Cavanagh.
The Sidewalk Crusaders can often be heard playing pop, swing, funk, and jazz music at major Toronto intersections.
Busking is a unique experience for many performers, and Cavanagh views himself as the potential difference between a normal day and good day for pedestrians. “Usually, in Toronto people are just busy with their day and they’re trying to get from point A to point B. I feel like when they hear music, it brightens their day,” he said.
Alex Redman, another member of The Sidewalk Crusaders, believes that “you get to glimpse into people’s souls a bit. There’s many different characters and types of people.” Redman added that being out in public can enhance the performance experience.
Busking often generates a perception that obscures the art of street performance. Performing on the street may seem desperate to some, and it could be argued that the time of talented musicians is worth more than mere handfuls of change.
While the reality of street performance can be quite different, it doesn’t mean that these performers have been immune to these attitudes. Often, musicians are forced to busk because, despite the number of musicians in Toronto having increased, the number of available music venues around the city has remained the same.
Patrick Smith of Eighth Street Orchestra, a group composed of current U of T music students and recent graduates, has seen firsthand how street performing can sometimes be looked down upon as a last resort for talented musicians.
Smith responded to this line of thinking during our interview. “Sorry if you’re old and don’t get it, but we’re trying to build something here,” he said.
That ‘something’ is a music career, and busking has definitely helped these musicians in many different ways. Cavanagh related one such instance. “On Bay and Bloor you’ll run into a lot of people who are well off, like this one time this guy saw us and asked us to play at his son’s pool party the next day in Vaughan,” he said. “He had so much money — it was a crazy gig.”
Beyond the search for money and exposure, the performers share a passion for music and musical expression.
Nolan Murphy, the brightly dressed leader of Eighth Street Orchestra and a U of T music student, sees value in bringing music to all the different corners of Toronto. Alongside his brother Kaelin Murphy, Nolan has built a community around the band by enlisting accomplished musicians and organizing shows.
Leighton Harrell, a fellow member of Eighth Street Orchestra, told me that Nolan’s work to network students and musicians has helped expose him to many musical experiences not typical of the average student musician. The culture shock of busking was a recurring theme among many of the performers’ experiences.
“It’s a really different environment,” said Redman. “I studied classical music when I did music at U of T, and especially with the trombone, I would just sit for hours and get everything perfect.”
“When I started playing on the street, I started memorizing music which I wasn’t used to and started developing this ability to just stop giving a shit,” he said.
“What the hell do I do with a music degree?” asked Smith. “I was playing in a couple bands, but what street performing offers to students, in contrast to U of T music, is that you learn a lot of things about performance that you will never ever learn in a classroom.”
Some aspects of street performing, however, make it at times perilous and daunting. The Sidewalk Crusaders have had a few such experiences. “You run into a lot of really weird stuff,” said Cavanagh, relating an anecdote about a man with a knife rushing the band while they performed at Yonge Street and Gerrard Street before police showed up.
Above all, these musicians are resilient. Kyle Windjack and David Riddel, both accomplished musicians and members of Eighth Street Orchestra, have had to wear many different hats to pursue their music careers — literally. “I dressed up as a Minion,” recalled Windjack.
Performing in costume, on cruise ships, or busking may not be the life that a young musician dreams of when they think about their ideal musical career, but that can be what it takes to find your professional path. “Busking challenges us to be forward thinking,” said Smith.
The performers’ love of music remains pure. It is that same love that has allowed them to venture onto the streets of Toronto and experience completely new aspects of performance and music that other musicians may never encounter. They credit busking with helping them mature and develop a knack for showmanship.
The Sidewalk Crusaders will be performing at the Beaches International Jazz Festival in July, and Eighth Street Orchestra have an album on the way. They are both, ultimately, on an exciting journey of learning and honing their craft.
“Us as a band, we’re just trying to figure it all out together,” said Smith. “We’re really trying to change the game as to how you can become a musician. It’s more than just go to school, make a record, and make money. You need to think outside the box.”