NOLA: An Interactive Street Performing Experience

This summer I'm setting off on a Busk Across America trip. Follow along here.

Before embarking on my street performing tour of the U.S., one aspect I said I would investigate on the road was how influential setting is for creating music.

Admittedly, this question was buried under piles of other questions that surfaced during my earlier stops, D.C., Nashville, Asheville and Atlanta. But that changed once I arrived in New Orleans.

Music and culture -- especially along Royal Street -- ooze from NOLA's pores, pumping through its streets as if the heart of all music can be found somewhere within the veins of the French Quarter. It is New Orleans, after all, that mothered music greats ranging from Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino to Lil Wayne. And that variety is not accidental -- it's part of NOLA's appeal.

On one street you may walk into an impromptu jazz ensemble performance, complete with an upright bass, saxophone player and a singer throwing out some hot scats. Five blocks down, you could stumble upon a high-energy brass group filled with trumpets, trombones and a tuba. Not to mention the multiple solo acts scattered throughout NOLA's streets at all hours of the day and night.

One factor that makes NOLA an ideal street performing city is the layout. The Quarter's tight streets, filled with sheltered sidewalks due to the vast amounts of layered decks, create a rich acoustic experience for buskers. The sound stays contained from having a ceiling of sorts, which then bounces off the parallel building in full circle.

Shown is Grandpa Elliot, legendary street performer in New Orleans.

I could swoon over New Orleans all day, but I would be distracting from the point. In contrast to my previous stops, this city was marked more-so by my observations rather than my interactions and own performances. While I did spend a good amount of time busking, what I remember most is my experience as a listener -- an experience that wasn't contained to only my ears.

One brass group I returned to frequently attracted large crowds, who, instead of just sitting and staring, would bob their heads, snap their fingers, sing along and dance. It was not your typical passive listening experience. The music that this group made encouraged an interactive audience, whereas many busking acts barely elicit one lone clap.

What I saw in NOLA were musicians who -- despite the heat, mosquitoes and, at times, low foot-traffic -- were genuinely enjoying themselves while playing, a natural technique that affected their music through and through.

Walking down the streets of New Orleans challenged me to push myself to be more of an interactive performer -- to take the music seriously, but not myself.

As I headed to my next destination, Austin, I'll admit that my mind stayed on Royal Street, even throughout my entire stay in Texas.

Regarding the importance of setting with creating music, I don't know what New Orleans did more of: answering my questions or creating new ones. But NOLA did remind me of why I set off on this trip in the first place: to challenge everything I thought I knew about music and to keep my toes tapping, one street performance at a time.

Photo and video by Meghan McDonald