When the traffic light changes and shoppers stream across Naito Parkway at the Portland Saturday Market, 14-year-old Byron Fulop Laing clamps his violin under his chin and begins playing a classical tune. Crowds gather, and his glass jar quickly fills with dollar bills and coins.
That’s how Byron got to Europe.
For the past two years, Byron has positioned himself next to the flowing crowds to raise money for his summer music education. When he decided to help pay for his summer programs by busking — street performing for money — he started off small, playing outside Ben & Jerry’s on Hawthorne Boulevard.
“I was a little scared,” says Byron, who was actually so nervous that it took somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes for him to play the first note, according to his mother, Jessyca Laing.
Two years later, he’s over it. He now busks nearly every Sunday at the Portland Saturday Market, playing for about three hours in the middle of crowds browsing tie-dye clothing, munching on elephant ears or admiring the work of local photographers.
Since Byron began busking in the summer of 2009, he has raised money for two weeks that summer and in 2010 of Portland Summer Ensembles, an intensive program for string players and pianists. This summer, he has a loftier goal: $5,000 for one week of Portland Summer Ensembles and a two-week European trip with Portland’s Metropolitan Youth Symphony. So far, his mother says, he has raised between $2,500 and $3,300 and plans to continue busking when he arrives home from Europe to repay his family for their help with the trip. Now, Byron says, busking is familiar.
“I’ve done it a lot, and so it’s easier.”
Some visitors to the Portland Saturday Market casually walk past Byron’s post, while others stop to watch him perform for a few minutes, dropping a dollar or two in the jar at his feet or clapping after he finishes a piece.
But very few pass without at least taking a glance. Perhaps bystanders are surprised he’s so young (he’s only 14). Or that he seems to have flawless violin technique. Or that he has the concentration of a meditating Buddhist monk.
“That’s courageous for him to be out there,” says Angela Elsen, a Southeast Portland resident who has stopped to watch him. “That shows awesome commitment.”
Passers-by would never know how reserved Byron is, despite the fact that he performs weekly in front of hundreds of people.
“He’s pretty shy,” says David Kerr, owner of David Kerr Violin Shop and instructor of Byron’s Baroque quartet. “He’s extremely quiet and, I think, very thoughtful.”‘
Byron didn’t begin playing violin by choice — it was a requirement in his third-grade class at the Portland Waldorf School, a private school in Milwaukie. However, he soon developed a passion for the instrument and continued playing it instead of switching to viola or cello as some of his classmates did.
“I just really liked it, so I didn’t consider anything else,” he says.
But his hobby has never been cheap. His parents pay for his violin, repairs and private lessons, among other fees. But Byron takes his music up a notch by earning his own money through busking. Unlike other kids his age, he doesn’t use his cash to buy candy, video games or electronics. The money goes only toward musical opportunities, such as the trip to Europe, almost all of which he pays for with his busking money.
“I wish our resources were unlimited, but as they are not, like many families, we do the best we can,” his mother says. “More than anything it’s wonderful to see that Byron is finding resources within himself. What more could a parent wish for their child?”
Through busking this past year and this summer, Byron will meet his goal of $5,000, which pays his way on an educational and performance-based trip to Vienna, Poland and the Czech Republic. He left Thursday.
“If I want to be a professional, I need a lot more education and learning to prepare for it,” Byron says. He doesn’t need to brag about how hard he works. The bruise on the left side of his neck says it all.
“You get talented kids, but you don’t always get kids who have the drive, the need,” she says. “And he has this desire in his belly.”
When Byron proposed to his parents that he begin busking — an idea he got from a friend — his father wasn’t keen on it because of the stereotypes associated with buskers.
“My impression was that it was sort of that borderline of panhandling,” Mark Fulop says.
But now, his father fully supports his busking — in more ways than one. He takes Byron to the Saturday Market every week and helped him create his own website.
“Watching and seeing how well it’s received helped me change my perception of what busking really is,” Fulop says. “It’s about folks who have a need to express their creativity to have a venue to basically give a gift back to the public.”
But that doesn’t mean people aren’t judgmental. Once, while Byron was busking outside Jeld-Wen Field after a Beavers game, a man on the street asked if he was homeless. In fact, he and his family live in a cozy two-story house in Northeast Portland.
Without a stage, there is no barrier between the audience and Byron when he’s busking. He says he’s had some funny interactions with his listeners.
“One time, someone came up and he said, ‘You know how you get to Carnegie Hall?'” says Byron in his best old-man imitation. “‘You practice, you practice and you practice some more!'”
Byron follows the old man’s advice, since his dream is to play at Carnegie Hall as a professional solo violinist someday. During the school year, Byron spends about four hours a day practicing the violin and sometimes willingly sacrifices social functions.
“As parents, we would try to encourage him to keep a balance,” Laing said. “He would attend parties but not quite as often as the other kids.”
But Byron doesn’t seem to mind missing out if that means he gets the chance to do what he loves most. And his classmates, who admiringly nicknamed him “most honored concert master,” accept that, according to his mother.
“I think the teacher at one point said to me, ‘The kids just really sort of understand Byron. They just sort of think of him as their Beethoven,'” Laing says.