Get to know a busker: violist Thomas Beckman

Vancouver busker violist Thomas Beckman. Photo by Jose Antonio Madriz

At first, violist Thomas Beckmanwas intimidated by busking. Classically trained by a fierce Russian musician at the University of Cape Town, Beckman says he was shy and socially awkward when he was younger. Learning the violin helped him to break free from this. It took him a while to get used to playing outside on the street. And yet he also realized that he could practice, make some money, and meet people all at the same time.

“It struck me as a practical activity,” he says.

He got his start in Vancouver’s busking scene as part of the Sons of Granville, playing what he describes as “rock, folk, funk, with a bit of gypsy high-paced energy and some slow ballad-like songs.”

When I first encountered Beckman, he was playing solo in front of the Broadway/City Hall Skytrain station, and I was struck first by the fact he was playing a viola, and then by the originality of his music—full of a mournful longing that struck me as uncharacteristic of Vancouver. That’s what led me to ask him for an interview.

When I reached Beckman by phone last week, he told me about his new CD called Conception Bay, which was inspired by a road trip he took in South Africa in 2003.

“I was studying in Cape Town, living with my parents, and two German geologists invited me along for a getaway. We drove to Namibia, a fascinating place geographically. We drove for hours and hours on the long open road with nothing, no towns. When we’d see a gas station, we’d fill up completely. You never know where the next one is.

“I realized there is so much beyond the little bubble of the city, so much that lies outside of everything we think we know—so much beauty right there waiting for us. We can always go back to the memory of that place, untouched by humans, and connect with earth and sky and appreciate how gorgeous that is. I was trying to capture the feeling of being free and unhindered, not repressed. I embrace improvisation on many levels, not just musically.”

For Beckman, the trip was a turning point, though he continued to study classical music at the University of Cape Town and at UBC when he moved back to Vancouver, where he was born. 

Producing this CD proved to be yet another turning point.

“I learned I can be ten times more fiery in the studio and let it rip,” he says. “I could go nuts with my own creative technique. It was a breakthrough.

“I was always desperately searching for a way to do what my teachers wanted me to do with my bow technique. When I started to busk, I said to hell with it; I’m going to play in my own way. I have no tension in arm when I play. I used to. And no danger of tendentious, an occupational hazard for a musician. It’s not the body; it’s the mind.”

As much as it has been something he has sought to transcend, Beckman’s classical training also comes in handy. Busking takes discipline, and according to Beckman, discipline involves “a higher knowing, above the level where that affects you. You ride the waves of bad weather or people or the odd belligerent policeman and fatigue. It’s not about the money, it’s about the passion and enjoyment, and you get better when you play for hours. It’s almost like a meditation. The outside world can’t touch me when I’m on the inside—enraptured by the music that I’m playing. People feel that and respond to that. It takes fortitude and discipline to get into that state of mind and sustain it for hours sometimes—until I make my quota.”

Beckman explains that his quota is a dollar amount, what he needs to pay his bills and meet expenses. He has also been building community around his work and has collected just under 800 subscribers from the conversations he’s had with people on the street over the last few years.

Beckman started off studying violin as a kid and continued through his first three years of university. But when he heard a recording of Alfred Schnittke’s Viola Concerto, played by Yuri Bashmet, he knew he had to switch to the viola.

“I’d never in my life heard a viola sound like that,” he says, “like a human being, organic, fat, rich and emotional.”

Besides, Beckman says he’d always been too big to play a violin. The size of the viola suited him better.

The busking scene in Vancouver has taken some hits recently. Randy Ponzio’s death had an enormous impact.

“It’s really tragic,” says Beckman. “He was a leader, encouraging, supporting an inspiring person, the most successful of all of us.”

Another well-known hip-hop musician has shifted away from busking because he objects to having to buy a license.

Beckman doesn’t object to the license, but he does object to restrictions on amplification for acoustic instruments. Part of the problem seems to be a lack of communication between buskers and city authorities.

“We were never told we were racking up all these complaints [about noise] or why,” says Beckman. “We had no idea was actually going on.”

Beckman and other buskers called a meeting with the street supervisor and the outside activities people. The problem is twofold. They don’t really understand much about performing music, and they can’t afford to monitor a growing busking scene. The attitude seems to be if we can’t monitor, we might as well close it down. 

“We are willing to cooperate to accommodate the complaints,” says Beckman, “but you can’t ban amplification. It would devastate the music scene. Life on the streets, cultural vibrancy is good for business. “Lots of local businesses want street musicians. It makes people happy, creates a sense of buzz and a sense of excitement. Happy people are more inclined to spend money.”

Beckman would like to see the city invest a bit of extra money for a busking program, a committee that includes people who know something about music, and more discernment when it comes to who gets a busking license.

“It’s a privilege to busk,” says Beckman. Not everyone should get a permit.

Though Beckman felt the February meeting with city officials was positive, he’d like to see more regular communication with the committee, so that when people complain, the musicians can know what the complaints are and what neighborhoods they’re in, so they might rotate according to levels of volume and times of the day. Given the difficulty of lining up schedules, Beckman suggest something like a forum on Facebook that keeps lines of communication open.

 Are you a busker? Do you live or work near where street musicians play? What are your opinions?

 

 

 

 

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