Virtuoso has grand plan to soothe the city streets
January 6, 2010
SOME buskers juggle, some play bongos, others pluck electric lutes. Natalie plays Rachmaninov, Chopin and Mendelssohn on keyboard like a concert pianist.
To the background of tram bells and horse hooves in the city yesterday, her music caused many passers-by to stop and stare.
Rosie Rahman, of Collingwood, was moved to tears by a rendition of Beethoven's dramatic sonata Pathetique. ''It's very touching, very sad, like maybe she's lonely when she's playing the song,'' she said. ''When I first heard it I was in a shop downstairs and I thought it must be someone famous playing on a CD.''
Amy Shokoohmand, of Brisbane, said: ''She's amazing. It's amazing.'' Her husband, Ali, said: ''It makes you think about calmness, about the good things in life, never giving up.''
Fifteen years ago, Natalie was homeless when The Age found her playing a baby grand piano at David Jones. She would walk in at odd times and ask staff if she could play.
On New Year's Eve, we found her again, busking on a Roland keyboard in Swanston Street opposite Melbourne Town Hall.
Natalie is no longer homeless. She's living in a good hotel, where she often plays the grand piano in the foyer and where the regulars cherish her. She busks for just half an hour or up to five hours, three times a week if the weather's good, and her son Matthew is available to haul her keyboard. She doesn't do it for money; she tried not putting out a box ''but people would throw coins at me, so I put it back''.
She feels a certain peace, here among the peak-hour noise. ''I am being set free of a lot of things. This is where I want to be,'' she said.
''People make beautiful comments, like 'It adds something to the city' or 'This has been the highlight of my visit to Melbourne', that I've made a difference to their life.''
Her happiness is the hard-won kind: her two daughters died, at ages six and 22. Her husband left her and one of her two sons has battled illness and drug and alcohol addiction for 20 years.
She grew up in the 1940s in working-class Guildford, Perth, to Croatian immigrant parents.
Nuns taught her to play at primary school and, at 12, she won a music scholarship to Santa Maria College. At 15 she knocked back a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music in London because her parents couldn't pay non-tuition costs.
When she left school at 17 she had her diploma of music and taught piano for a year at Santa Maria. But she wanted to travel. At 20 she joined a travelling musical group and performed all over Australia for six months. They parted in Brisbane and Natalie hitched with a truck driver to Adelaide.
She drifted to Hobart, where she met her husband, Denis. They settled in Southport, south of Hobart, where Denis became an abalone diver. They had four children. But in 1967 daughter Kerin, 6, died in a car accident. In 1986, daughter Jo-Ann, 22, died of cystic fibrosis.
In 1984, Denis asked for a divorce. Natalie said son Nathan, who had been a top footballer and musician, was given medication for depression that ''wrecked him''. ''He lost co-ordination, couldn't play guitar. He took a pool cue and smashed it over a table.''
It was Nathan's idea to move to Melbourne in 1993, for a fresh start. Natalie lived in a Brunswick motel and won permission to play a piano in the Moreland council chambers in Brunswick. She also played in a Sydney Road music shop.
But after nine months the motel changed hands, so for nine years she lived either outdoors in Royal Park or in boarding houses. In late 2003 Natalie collapsed with anaemia and was hospitalised for six months. They put her in a nursing home but she walked out.
In July 2004, she booked in for a few nights at a city hotel and hasn't left since. She is close to Nathan, 41, who lives at a men's shelter.
It was her ex-husband Denis' idea two years ago that Natalie busk. He lent her money for the keyboard. Listening to her play in the hotel foyer one day, he said: ''You want to play with more people to hear you.''
She hasn't looked back. ''Children come up to me, people of all classes and all walks of life,'' she said.
''I just love being there and I feel that they should hear the music. The way I feel when I play and the way I feel when I'm among the people, it just feels really good.
''It's something I wouldn't get from a concert hall because only certain people go there. But this is for everyone.''