Monday October 16, 2017

From soloist to busker: why Ezra Azmon chooses to play on the streets

Busker Ezra Azmon

Busker Ezra Azmon (Tori Marlan)

Listen 27:30

By Tori Marlan

Ezra Azmon grew up in Israel with a singular goal: to be a great violin soloist. He practised hard, won scholarships, and studied with a world-renowned teacher. But he sometimes struggled under pressure, and his career didn't go as planned.

He was unemployed and living in Toronto when his wife, Patricia, became pregnant with their first child. In desperation, Ezra took his violin to the subway and began to play.

"I closed my eyes not to see the people, because I was so ashamed," he remembers. "But I heard the coins falling, and when I opened my eyes, I was like, 'Wow—I can make really good money, it's a nice amount of thanks from the public.'"

Ezra Azmon

Ezra Azmon busking barefoot on Monkland Avenue, Montreal (Tori Marlan)

Ezra busked for the next five years, supporting his growing family. But for most of the time he and Patricia were raising their two sons, she was the main breadwinner. A classical singer, Patricia built a successful career teaching voice, while Ezra bounced from low-paying job to low-paying job, pumping gas, picking cucumbers, washing dishes, cutting trees.

After 14 years, Ezra couldn't bear it anymore. His dream of being a soloist had never gone away—only now it was the street, not the stage, he craved. He needed to busk.

Ezra Azmon busking in Montreal1:26

But Patricia didn't want him doing it in the small Alberta town where they'd settled.

"I just think the community doesn't really get it," she says. "People think it looks like begging."

So they compromised: Ezra would go away to busk every couple of months for a couple of months and not have to work when he was home. That's how they've been living for the past six years.

Wherever Ezra lands, he finds the well-trafficked spots, picks up his instrument (now a viola), and spends the next five or six hours treating pedestrians to classical music.

"There is no bad day," he says. "How can you say you have a bad day playing Bach? Or a Beethoven concerto?" - Ezra Azmon

The street is where he belongs, he says—it's where he's found his livelihood, as well as spiritual fulfillment, a creative outlet, and respect.   

And he doesn't ever have to worry about choking under pressure.

"When you are a soloist there is expectation for you to perform to your name," he says. "But when I play on the streets, I can just surprise for good."

In this documentary, Ezra Azmon recounts the long journey that brought him to where he is today.

Ezra Azmon

Ezra Azmon busking on Monkland Avenue, Montreal. (Tori Marlan)

Tori Marlan

Tori Marlan

About the producer

Tori Marlan is an award-winning journalist whose stories expose abuses of power, illuminate subcultures, and profile fascinating but unheralded people. From 1995 to 2007, she was a staff writer for the Chicago Reader, specializing in immersion journalism. Her freelance work has been published by Pacific Standard, The Atavist Magazine, BuzzFeed, the Texas Observer, and The Christian Science Monitor and featured on the Tablet Magazine podcast Vox Tablet and the public-radio shows This American Life and Weekend America.