Heard on the street: The brooding tones of the viola come from the cheerful Adam Sterr, who has taken up music after ‘retiring’ from ballet.
Heard on the street: The brooding tones of the viola come from the cheerful Adam Sterr, who has taken up music after ‘retiring’ from ballet.

‘The best request I’ve ever gotten was from a small child,” says Adam Sterr, the 30-something busker who has quickly established himself as part of the Nassau Street scene.

The actual song requested gives a sense of a street musician’s unpredictable life: “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”

Part of Sterr’s appeal is his instrument. “I am what is considered a viola ‘purist,’ he says. “I began my studies on a viola, rather than start on the violin. I enjoy the deeper register while still playing an instrument held under chin. It’s much more brooding than the violin. I also like the tonal quirkiness of the instrument.”

Sterr arrived on the Princeton scene this past summer when his partner took a job as a costume designer and fabricator with American Repertory Ballet.

Sterr also has a background in professional ballet, as a dancer for the Richmond and Milwaukee ballet companies, a freelance dancer and choreographer, and a member of the artistic staff of the Portland Ballet.

It was during his time in Milwaukee that he says he began to study viola at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music.

And the busking? That, he says, started in Portland as a way “to try out new material in front of a wide variety of people and see what people respond to most. Other benefits are that it helps me work on stage fright. I used to get extremely nervous when I had to play in front of people. It also helps greatly with concentration and trouble shooting on the spot.”

Currently a freelance dance instructor, choreographer, and dancer, Sterr fits busking into his flexible weekly schedule — appearing generally on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday late afternoons and early evenings.

And while he favors performing outside the Garden Theater, there are challenges. “There are times I’ll be playing and large, very loud, trucks will drive by, and I won’t be able to hear anything other than the traffic noise. I just keep playing and hope that the notes are right.”

Another challenge is when people start asking questions while he is playing. “It doesn’t happen often, but when it does it’s very disruptive. It’s impossible to hold a conversation and play a piece with multiple, complexly intertwined layers from memory at the same time. If it seems like the person is going to persist I’ll usually stop the piece and answer the questions and then start the piece over again.”

And no matter where he is, weather conditions make a difference. “With a classical acoustic instrument the biggest things are to not play in direct sunlight on hot days, and if it starts raining, show’s over. Other things to keep in mind are the fluctuations in humidity which makes retuning often a necessity. As we head into the winter months the cold is something to contend with as well. I’ve found I can’t really play too well if the temp goes below 50 degrees. Playing the viola won’t allow for gloves, once my fingers get too cold any accuracy and dexterity goes flying out the window, he says, adding, “My hope is to play up until Christmas if possible.”

Sterr uses a combination of natural acoustics, recording, and amplification. His musical approach involves “looping” or, as he explains it, “a line which is recorded and played back using a looping pedal, and I continually play over that line adding numerous layers to create a full, complex piece of music in real time.”

His playlist is simple: artists he likes. “David Bowie and Lou Reed, minimalists like Philip Glass and Max Richter, film music by Danny Elfman, Yann Tiersen, Hanz Zimmer, and others, and even some Beethoven. I’m working on building up a few original pieces as well,” he says.
Talking about the benefits of busking, Sterr says, “When I started I was expecting to have to deal with a lot of harassment and rudeness, but actually the opposite has proven to be true. People seem to really enjoy what I’m doing and openly express that to me.”

He adds that several performance opportunities have arisen out of this. “I am always looking for interesting collaborative projects to be a part of,” he says. “If you are a professional performing artist (especially dancers, circus artists, or other interesting musicians) and you have the means to see a project through to completion, contact me (asterrmb@yahoo.com). Or if you see me playing out in public, don’t hesitate to come up to me in between pieces and introduce yourself.”