Laura Osterlund’s music career has taken her from the concert hall to the street corner. This, however, does not necessarily represent a downward trajectory for the aficionado of medieval music. She observed that young musicians are playing some unconventional venues, due to the decline in concert gigs.
But “busking” (street performing) is not just a way of supplementing Osterlund’s income. She sees it as a public service.
“Music is essential for the health of society,” she said. “Skilled street musicians act as advocates for musical excellence. It’s a do-it-yourself concert performance that allows you to get in your audience’s face.”
She describes street music as “a life facilitated by the generosity of others and a viable way to get lunch.”
She was playing at Circle Avenue and Madison Street in Forest Park, when a man “decided to plant himself there. He said he was a blogger who was taken aback by the gumption of Americans and their entrepreneurial spirit.”
“When performing on the street, you reach a wider audience. A woman walks by with her child in a stroller and that child hears a classical work they might not have heard until a much older age. Some are genuinely pleased by what you offer. Some aren’t interested at all.”
Unlike the concert stage that creates a distance between the audience and performer, there’s no such separation for street performers. “People can pass within inches of you,” Osterlund noted. “Sometimes they’ll stop you mid-piece to ask questions. Sometimes they have headphones on, or are talking on a cellphone and can’t hear you at all. They aren’t prepared to listen the way formal concert attendees are, but occasionally they are taken by surprise and allow themselves to listen for a while.”
If it hadn’t been for a public performance, Osterlund might not even have a career. She was a teenager playing the recorder at a music festival in Whitewater, Wis., when a couple there liked what they heard. They anonymously funded her musical education, paying for music lessons as well as a four-year education at McGill University in Montreal.
“I sent them monthly reports through my music teacher,” she recalled. “I had to maintain a certain GPA and graduate on time.” She graduated in 2012 with degrees in Early Music Performance and Music History. “My dream job would be professor of musicology.”
An Oak Park native, Osterlund has been hooked on medieval music since she was 10 years old, inspired by her recorder-playing father and his collection of early music CDs.
“I had never heard anything like it. I learned a 14th-century movement on recorder.”
Besides becoming proficient on the recorder, she played string instruments at Oak Park and River Forest High School. Her current instrument of choice is the vielle, a forerunner of the violin. Osterlund plays it cello-style. It has an ethereal primordial sound and its own repertoire. She has serenaded Oak Parkers with it on Marion and Lake streets. She also obtained a street musician license in Chicago and has played at some noisy downtown locations.
Osterlund has also taken her act on the road, busking in New York, Boston, Toledo and Montreal. “My income really varies but I never average less than $10 per hour. This July, I busked over the long Canada Day weekend in Montreal. I whipped out my vielle and Canadian tire stool and dug through my mental repository of tunes, some of which I’d never played on my instrument before. By some divine providence, I made over $200. I will cherish that liberating experience for the rest of my life.”
For her East Coast tour, Osterlund forgot her stool but perched on her suitcase and competed with the roar of traffic in Times Square. She also took a trip to Boston to play some “conventional” concerts, busking at every Greyhound stop along the way.
Osterlund intends to continue her musical education by getting her master’s degree. She has her sights on a school in Switzerland, which is actually more affordable than universities in the United States. Europe is also Mecca for medieval music.
“I wanted to take a break before grad school, get a taste of real life,” she says. This includes writing for an Indiana University music magazine, as well as working four other jobs. She had to put her busking career on hold when the snow started flying but intends to continue in the future.
“I want to make music my life,” she says. “The early musicians were vagabonds. Today’s young musicians are more aware then ever of the implausibility of a musical career as a sustainable, lucrative vocation. Musical lives are pieced together from disparate opportunities.”
Those opportunities can be found both inside the concert hall and on the sidewalk outside.