Even in Hospital, 85-Year-Old Street Pianist Keeps on Playing, Spreading Joy Amidst Adversity

ByQuyen Anne

Jul 26, 2023

Natalie Trayling has been amazing people in the Australian city of Melbourne for more than 20 years, playing on pianos around the city, or on her keyboard in public spaces.

As cities have become deserted through COVID-19 lockdowns, Natalie has been absent from Melbourne’s streets, receiving rehabilitation treatment for anaemia and nerve damage in her leg that prevented her from walking. But music is still with her, as is an unswerving sense of what she describes as “contentment” with her life. ABC Classic caught up with Natalie over the phone to find out more.

Natalie was born in Western Australia of Croatian parents. She was mesmerised the first time she saw a piano at the age of five. She even remembers the first piece of music she heard, “Good night mister moon.” She begged her mother to learn the piano, but the family couldn’t afford it. After a few years, she stopped asking. But one day a teacher in the playground had good news. “Natalie, your mother’s been in the school. She said you want to learn the piano, but you can’t afford it. Well you’re starting right away.”

At the age of 20, Natalie left home to tour Australia with an entertainment troupe. She ended up in Tasmania, “after reading the Women’s Weekly where it said the Apple Isle was Tasmania. I loved the idea of going to a place and I loved apples, and I hopped on the Princess of Tasmania and arrived in Tasmania.” Eventually she moved to her current home city of Melbourne.

Natalie Trayling plays a keyboard with her back to the street. A tram drives by in the background.

Natalie’s determination to play hasn’t changed from that young girl who begged her mother to learn. Living in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, she had been playing on a piano in a local shop. One day she went to play but the piano had been sold. “As I felt like playing, I just walked four or five kilometres to the city of Melbourne and I saw someone in Bourke St Mall. I said, ‘Is there a piano here?’ They said, ‘there’s one in David Jones’…and off I walk there, and that was the beginning.”

Even a nine-year period living without a home couldn’t stop Natalie from playing. Not that Natalie regarded herself as homeless. “I found that being out like that, it was a great freedom,” she recounted. “I remember playing the Galleria and coming out when they closed the doors at six o’clock.”

“And I sat on the bench out in the open on the street and I thought, ‘I’m home already. This is home. I’m home wherever I am.'”

Natalie did what she calls “living out” for nine years, but ultimately as she says she “let it go.”

For the last 10 years or so she’s been playing on the streets of Melbourne with her well-loved keyboard, moving it around with the help of her son Matthew. It’s thanks to Matthew that Natalie’s music has been shared all over the world. He put a video of her playing on his YouTube channel, which now has more the 9 million views. For Natalie, “It was just a terrific thing, to be out there amongst the people.” Not that Natalie is really that motivated by the recordings.

“I just play because I just want the people to hear me.”

YOUTUBENatalie Trayling on YouTube in 2014

Why is it so important for Natalie to share her music? Her answer is direct: “I don’t think I’ve ever really regarded it as important. It was something that I just did.” She feels like her music has been changing over the last year or two, however. “I had this fantastic feeling at different times of being absolutely one with the whole thing and the people.”

Natalie calls her music “spontaneous composition.” She doesn’t practice and she doesn’t play music as it’s written. Sometimes she will improvise on a melody. “I do that with Beethoven. I do that with Bach. I do that with Chopin. I do it with Schubert. I do it with all the composers, as many as I know.” Some say she sounds like Mendelssohn; some compare her to Satie. But for Natalie, “I’ve developed a style that I haven’t deliberately developed. It has actually evolved.”

People have suggested to her that her music has changed according to her age. She disagrees. “No, I haven’t adjusted anything. It has evolved to the way that I play over the years, as it unfolds.” Just like her life. “And my life is still doing that now, it’s unfolding. So that every day is really a new day … there’s always something that unexpectedly, excitingly made me think, ‘Oh, gosh, isn’t that fantastic that’s happening.’”

Natalie’s playing clearly has an impact on people. How does that feel? “I don’t know. It’s a great feeling of some sort of contentment. It’s actually a uniting.” One day a young man was watching her play in the Victoria Hotel and asked her, “How do you know how to get into people?” Her response: “I play.”

But she doesn’t feel that makes her different to other people. “Everyone expresses themselves in their way of life and in their views of life.”

“I don’t think I’m really doing much more than anybody else…Everybody does things that are good for them and that’s how they unite with people too.”

People or not, she just loves playing. “I don’t care if there are crowds, or if there is hardly anyone there. I love the feeling.”

As COVID-19 unfolded in the beginning of 2020, Natalie was playing less and less in public as her mobility was becoming more difficult. In June she spent two weeks in hospital with severe anaemia, and having lost the use of her legs. That didn’t stop her playing though. Matthew filmed her playing on a keyboard brought by the hospital music therapist. “I could barely walk to get there, but it was very comfortable sitting on the chair, and felt really good with my fingers playing. It just felt so good.”

YOUTUBENatalie in hospital

Through much of July, Natalie was in a rehabilitation centre to make sure she received the vitamins she needed and physiotherapy with the hope of restoring the use of her legs. Matthew visited daily and brought her a small keyboard to keep by her bed. “I have been playing it here sometimes, and people here have enjoyed it.” Ever generous, she also offered, “If anybody else wants to try it then they’re welcome.”

Does Natalie see music as a solace? “I don’t really need anything for solacing. Because I don’t consider myself in any way going through any hardship.” Instead for her:

“It’s an expression. Yes, I get a lot of pleasure out of it. Because I feel that I’m actually part of it.”

Natalie is somewhat philosophical about her health: “Well I feel very healthy and even when things aren’t very easy for me, I tend to let time work itself out. I do the things that I find are working and let the rest take care of it.”

For her son Matthew, it’s important to see his mum make music through this time, but for him, “It’s hugely important she gets well enough to be able to get to her feet, to be mobile enough to be able to get to the piano without assistance. Music is her life, and she wants to share that life among the people.”

As for playing in public, she says she doesn’t miss it. “I don’t know whether I miss anything.”

I’ve got to the stage right now that I’m just going along with as things be and as they are. And really I feel very content and at peace.”

Just a week ago, Natalie was able to return home, where she’s receiving weekly visits from a physiotherapist. According to Matthew she’s progressing well and has been able to walk down the street with her walker. He’s visiting daily to help her with meals and shopping, but is hopeful that she’ll be back to doing that for herself again soon.

It might not be soon, but don’t be surprised if you see Natalie playing in the streets again. “Sometimes I think I’ve done enough and then something spurs me back on again.”

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