this (musical) life
RELATIVES and friends in Australia and Malaysia often ask why I visit the CBD so frequently, often managing to fill a whole day. I am not a shopper, do not frequent pubs and am not on the lookout for good restaurants. My secret is out — what keeps drawing me back to the city is its street musicians. I have little doubt I have met and spoken to more of them than anyone else in Melbourne.
Why am I attracted to street performers? I see a part of my musical self in such musicians.
Growing up in what at the time was Malaya, I always wanted to become a concert violinist. I first held a violin when I was 13. A cousin who was much older played the violin, and its sound had a profound effect on me. One day, when he went to work, I crept into his room and started to strum the strings. I was unaware that they were tuned a fifth apart, but knew instinctively that the notes were on an ascending pattern starting from the G string.
My parents could not afford to buy me a violin, let alone the monthly cost of tuition, equivalent to our family’s grocery bill for 10 days (it was 1953). So, using my cousin’s instrument, I taught myself and within a month was able to play simple pieces by ear. One evening about three years later, to my untold joy, my father came home holding a violin and bow (without a case) and told me, ‘‘I bought this for 20 dollars from a Chinese opera troupe.’’ I kept on practising by ear (and learned to read music several years later). I’ve been playing by ear ever since, rarely from music, and performing in aged-care facilities, in community events, in and for small groups, and on festive occasions, always on a voluntary basis.
I must have met and chatted with more than 100 street musicians. A few are still in touch with me and regard me as a friend and a fellow musician. Most are fine musicians. They may not be in the same class as the professionals who play in orchestras, but their renditions are delightful, and they mostly play by ear.
They include a Spanish violinist who played light classical pieces, tangos and dance music. Another street musician, a young New Zealander, was a soprano who sang operatic arias; after hearing her exquisite rendition of Schubert’s Ave Maria I invited her for coffee — she was cutting a CD and needed support, and I was glad to chip in. It turned out she had cancer. Then there was the award-winning young singer, composer and guitarist, aged 21, who had cut two CDs — such a lovely voice. I bought her CDs and am still in touch with her three years later.
One regular, a landmark of Melbourne busking, was a pianist who played with great virtuosity. His repertoire included songs of the 1940s and 50s and music theatre. His audience was huge. In contrast was the doleful Chinese man who played the same few Chinese folk songs over and over; his two Western pieces were Auld Lang Syne and Amazing Grace.
Another street musician has become an intimate friend. He was playing Johann Strauss in Melbourne’s Elizabeth Street one winter night. He had two violins and I joined him using the second. In his heyday, he was apparently an orchestra concert master; he took degrees in music, composed classical pieces, competed in national events and conducted an undergrads’ orchestra at Oxford while a student there.
Samuel Johnson would not mind this parody: He who is tired of Melbourne is tired of life.