TTC Busker Profile: John Williams

Wandering the Spadina station walkway, I came across another TTC busker whose musicianship took my breath away.

"What's your name?" I asked the clarinetist.

"John Williams," he said.

"As in the famous composer?"


Alas, this John Williams was not the renowned composer of some of Hollywood's most celebrated film scores, nor did he have mountains of accolades to show for his musical talent. But considering the music I heard the 23-year-old magic from his instrument, it's a wonder he isn't more recognized in Toronto's music scene.

I wasn't the only one impressed. Just as I started filming the video below, a man walked by and dropped some money into John's box.

"Buy yourself some Rico reeds," he said.

A short chat with John himself revealed all there was to know about the young clarinetist, his experience as a TTC busker, and the stranger's curious reed suggestion.

Tell me a bit about yourself. Who is John Williams, and what does he do?

I've been playing the clarinet since I was eight. I studied classical clarinet performance at the University of Toronto, where I received my Bachelor of Music. Since graduating, I've just been playing a lot of jazz and everything but classical music, really. So that's what I'm up to.

Do you get that a lot from people, the fact that you have the same name as a famous composer?

Yeah, I hear that all the time, actually. It doesn't help that I'm somewhat interested in composition and a little bit interested in film composition.

Who are some of your inspirations?

In high school I was a really big fan of John Zorn, an experimental music composer. I also liked Benny Goodman, all clarinetists like Benny Goodman. Don Byron is another one; he's a really great clarinetist in New York City. I like a lot of film music, too. Actually, right now I'm listening to a lot of country, like Hank Williams. I like the way his voice is kind of like a wailing sound, and I try to emulate that on my clarinet sometimes.

Have you won any awards?

As a youngster I played in a lot of Kiwanis competitions, stuff like that. I won a bunch of Kiwanis awards in high school -- my mom has a box of them at home. But no, not really, I haven't won any awards recently.

Why did you become a TTC busker?

My friend and I recently returned from a kind of Greyhound busking tour. He plays guitar, and we have a folk duo. In September, we went out west to Nanaimo and back. We spent most of that time busking at all the stops along the way, and I got a feel for it. It's a fun way to make some extra money. This is my first year as a TTC busker. My license started in November, so I've been at it for one month.

Do you find it challenging to play to a constantly moving and changing audience?

I find it difficult in some ways, and easy in others. One thing that's kind of easy about it is that you can repeat the same solo twice in one song because the people have changed by that point. It's not like having a captive audience. There's an energy to that that's missing in TTC busking, and you have to create that on your own. When you perform for an attentive audience, you have these nerves that make you perform better. When you play in the subway, it seems like there's less pressure, so you have to keep your guard up and make sure you don't start playing poorly just because the audience isn't as captivated as in a bar or concert hall.

Do you make as much as you'd like?

Yeah, it's usually good. I'm having to get used to the swings of it. I'll have a bad hour and I'll find it kind of depressing, like, "Oh, what am I doing wrong?" Or I'll have a good hour and I'll think, "Oh, I'm great!" I just have to get used to the idea that there are good hours and bad hours, and it all works out to something that's pretty nice. A decent hourly wage.

What do you do when you're not busking?

I play in a lot of bands. Occasionally I teach clarinet. I've been playing in a band for about four years now called Max Galactic and the Cloud of Evil. I'm in various side projects. I try to play as much as possible.

You might remember that guy who dropped a coin into your box and told you to buy yourself some Rico reeds...why did he say that? Do you actually use Rico reeds?

I actually use Vandoren reeds. I don't know why he wanted me to use Rico reeds specifically -- I'm guessing maybe he's a sentimental clarinet player and remembered using Rico reeds when he was younger, and was fond of them. A lot of the time clarinet players can relate to me, and they'll stop and talk to me about stuff like that.

Do you take song requests?

My repertoire is slowly expanding. People do have song requests and sometimes I try to learn those songs. I'm looking forward to my repertoire being large enough that I don't have to repeat songs so often.

Any interesting stories from your busking?

A while ago I played at a Christmas party because someone hired me as a solo clarinetist. That was kinda nice; it's nice to meet new people. There was one man there who gave me this little craft he had made out of a lottery ticket. He said he didn't have any money, but he wanted to give me something, so he gave me that.

Another man once stole some of my money, vaulted a turnstile, and disappeared down into Osgoode. I guess that happens sometimes. I wasn't too perturbed. He seemed like he needed it more than I did.

What's the most the interesting thing you've had dropped into your box while you were busking?

This woman gave me an orange, once. I was pretty happy about that. While I was busking in Calgary, this lady came by and gave me a sandwich. About ten minutes later, this man came by and offered us some juice. So we got a meal out of that.

I've heard some complaints from buskers about how people are sometimes seeing you in the same light as panhandlers. What do you think about that?

That doesn't bother me so much. We do work very hard, and have worked very hard for a long time to be able to perform the way we do. I think most people appreciate the music buskers play, and the people who don't -- you know, they're not really the type of people that I enjoy in life. I play for the sort of people who like this music, and I don't really mind those who don't.

Watch John play the jazz classic Autumn Leaves below (my apologies for the initial tilt!).

Every Friday, TTC Busker Profiles aim to shed some light on the talented people who add a little something to our daily commute -- Toronto's true "underground" musicians.

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