this (mu­si­cal) life

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Peter Lim

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.

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