This life : BUSKING AROUND EUROPE AND SCOTLAND IS NO WALK IN THE PARK, BUT FOR VRONI HOLZMANN, SETTING UP IN THE PARK TO START WITH IS A TEST OF ENDURANCE
Interview by Vicky Allan, Photo by Stewart Attwood
" The tour of Europe was a mad venture, and I didn't really know if I was going to pull it off, but when I've got something in my head I just go and do it. Days on tour differ depending what you're trying to do. Some of them are just driving; some involve driving and playing. On my tour of Europe this summer I played my piano in 16 cities in five-and-a-half weeks. The weather is the biggest problem because you can't put a piano out in the rain. It was hot this summer, but you always get rain.
How do I set it all up? I get permission beforehand if I need to, then, basically what you do is you arrive in a town and you have to find the pedestrian zone. The first problem you've got is you need to get as close as you can to where you perform, but it's pedestrian. So, sometimes you cheekily drive in. Often I'm not brave enough to do that, and police will come running. Once you've done that you quickly unload, which is another problem because you need people to help you. In the bigger cities, we would basically goes as close as we could, unload the piano and then wheel it in. When you're looking for people to unload you have to stand about casually asking people who look strong. I say, 'Excuse me, can you help me unload something?' and they usually think it's a wardrobe.
The first moment you play is really weird because no one's seen this before. In the radius around you everybody's reacting. I then play for three or four hours and there are these amazing moments where people come up to you and talk. It's not just those who are like-minded. When someone stops who you would never think in 100 years would, in a tracksuit and looking dodgy, and is all interested, puts money in your hat, you're like, oh I didn't expect that from you.
In 1999 I first got the idea to play my piano in the streets for the Edinburgh Festival and went out and bought the cheapest piano I could find and the cheapest van. It was one of these vans that has padlocks instead of locks, £500, with only two months MOT, and it wasn't going to get through again. I knew I just needed it for a month. I didn't think I would do it again, but I've played almost every year since.
I played through my pregnancy. I was due during the Festival in 2002 and I played till my due date. Once I had my daughter, Sophie, it became much more complicated. I didn't take her with me but I phoned her every day and saw her several times in between. It was all so complicated to organise that sometimes I thought I couldn't do it. You have to organise so much, but on the other hand you want a spontaneous adventure.
People didn't give me extra money when I was pregnant. I've done it long enough now to realise that you don't necessarily get paid extra for anything because the extra is right there, the piano on the road. In fact anything else would just take away from it. If you make it more of a show or start wheeling out a grand piano, it becomes far more obvious. The great thing about this is that when they see you, people who haven't seen you before are just totally puzzled. Out of 100 people, 95 will say, "I've never seen that before". The other five might have seen it abroad 10 years ago.
I suppose for me this is art, but I know that some people don't see me that way. What I'm trying to do is to bring the piano close to people. I'm trained in photography and film and I've always played piano. It's just my own passion. Of course to set the project up, as I did in Scotland , was the silliest thing anyone could do. It would make more sense in any other country because Scotland is so changeable with the weather. I spent my first season of playing looking out the window thinking are you going to stay, or what are you going to do?
My tour this year started in July. I usually have a travel partner for most of the stretches of the journey, and we drove together to Manchester, put the piano out, played, put the piano back in, drove on to Oxford, stayed the night and then played Oxford the next day and drove to the ferry. I did that two or three times and it's quite a mad thing, a long- distance drive and still playing.
For me it's not like I'm out there to try and get every penny; it's just paying for expenses. On tour I'm lucky to break even. I spent £1300 and I made just over £1000. I'm not yet making money from my art, but I'm hoping to, one day soon. I'm building up my artistic career which I used not to even dare think about.
After that first festival, I found a van which was far more expensive, thousands of pounds. I also found a new piano. I put a local ad in my newspaper in Germany while I was back looking for a small piano for an art project. A woman phoned me up, and it turned out she had a piano which is a proper piano but shorter and looks like a chest of drawers when you close it. It's heavy as any piano, but what's so great about the shortness of it is that I can interact and communicate with people, even just with looks. Before, one of my big problems was that I was looking at a wall and that's really bad for busking.
The street life is so interesting. When I first started I was so detached from it, which is probably normal in this society. I've met the homeless, the alcoholics, the eccentrics, and the people who work on the streets. You share this space with them. In the Meadows, the people who do the bins see me playing. They stop their truck, get out their lunch, as if they're thinking this is as good a place as any. On tour I play my three or four hours then stop and load up the piano again. Loading is more tricky than unloading. Then afterwards I'm really exhausted but really wired, so I need to wind down, have a rest. You've worked so hard but also it's as if you have an adventure day every day."
[Sunday Herald Magazine, 29/10/2007]