The life of a wandering busker

2008-01-08 00:00

Mark Schonau is a familiar sight around town, dressed in his shortish top hat and waistcoat, and playing his violin. He turns up at festivals, shows and events, as well as at private functions like weddings and parties. But he is more than a busker — Schonau is a full-time musician, one of those rare people who makes a living doing what he does best and enjoys most.

He had music lessons when he was growing up in Pietermaritzburg. However, music was not seen as a practical career option and so he did the sensible thing after university, where he studied history and theology, and became a history teacher. “I didn’t like the system,” he says. “But I enjoyed the children.” His career seemed set, with music as a hobby, playing in bands and doing a bit of busking.

Then he was asked to play at the Royal Show one year, creating a relaxed atmosphere on one of the stands, and he began to see a glimmering of the possibilities. “I took a break from teaching and went busking, playing in pubs and so on — and I realised it could work.”

So Schonau took his violin overseas, and his new career really took off. When he came back, he gave it a go here as well and never went back into the classroom. “It’s a lifestyle that works,” says Schonau. And of course, it is the lifestyle of musicians through the ages. “It’s how they used to make their living,” he says. “There were no formal jobs for them in the towns, so they joined travelling circuses or wandered from place to place, earning money with their music.”

Travelling suits Schonau down to the ground. He spent last August and September travelling to Spain, Portugal and Ireland, his violin in his backpack. Sometimes a trip will pay for itself with the money he makes from playing, and each year, he tries to head off somewhere for two or three months. Just as in the days of travelling minstrels, there is still a camaraderie among itinerant musicians and Schonau hears about the good places to play from people he meets. Apart from the South African festivals, like Grahamstown, Oudtshoorn and Hilton, where he is part of the scenery, he has played at Edinburgh five times.

“Most cities in Europe are busker-friendly, although the best ones are cities like Munich where there is a culture of street theatre and entertainment.” In Dublin, where he has played recently, musicians are respected and treated well.

When he plays in public places, he always wears his trademark outfit, something that started when he was asked to play at a wedding where the bride and groom wanted an 1850-ish look. He had always worn a hat, which is vital when you are playing a violin out of doors in a hot climate. He found a short top hat for the event and things evolved from there. The hats are not easy to replace, but Schonau has recently found a supplier and now sports a new one, with a smart pink band around it.

Finding music is easier. Schonau has a huge repertoire, and has learnt to pick up music and play it by ear. “I get asked to play something and it’s amazing how the brain works. It all gets downloaded — old tunes, famous tunes — and they stick. People ask how I remember it all, but they know what the music is — they recognise and remember it too. I just play it as well.” Somehow I doubt if it is as easy as that, but Schonau proves that it works.

His hobbies are travelling; music of all kinds, from the classical music of his early training which sees him playing in the Pams orchestra, to rock ’n roll, folk and Celtic; movies; and reading history, travel and music books. It all makes for an integrated existence. And now he has started teaching violin, after pressure from people who kept asking him if he wouldn’t give lessons. He loves the interaction with people that teaching brings, and maybe it could offer a more settled way of life, should Schonau ever need that. For as long as he can, he will be backpacking with his violin, travelling and playing for anyone who will listen — young and old alike.

“It’s a great life, and I’ll do it for as long as I physically can,” he says. Have violin, will travel.

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