There are the usual suspects you see at The Beaches on any given day — joggers pounding the boardwalks, dogwalkers throwing a frisbee, cyclists zipping by on the bike path.
And then there’s James Levac. He’s hard to miss, not only for the jaunty top hat he wears, but for the unique tricycle he rides, sporting a baby grand-style piano mechanically fastened to the back.
For the past year, James has been pedaling his piano-bike into Kew Gardens, a park in this Toronto east-end neighborhood, giving impromptu concerts in the open air.
“I just thought it would be a great thing to do,” he explained to Global News one afternoon at the park. “To meet people and tell them, ‘Look, I’m a piano teacher’…it’s gone beyond that now. It’s become more of about entertaining and being a musician.”
His concert set-list has a bit of everything for everyone — including songs from Bach to Bob Marley — sometimes featuring dog barks, bird chirps and the whistling wind.
And with the natural soundscape of the great outdoors, and a spectacular view of the lake, Levac says he has lots to pull from for musical inspiration.
“The whole world is the concert hall here,” said Levac. “It’s the here, there and everywhere experience of music. It’s blending life with art,” said James.
For the 47-year-old, it all began with a passion for retrofitting pianos, a hobby he started back in 2012— in addition to his many jobs as a piano teacher, church music director, retirement home entertainer and fiddler.
He even designed a hefty, wheeled solar-powered grand piano which he used to push — yes, push–onto the boardwalk. Sometimes, his friend with an electric-powered scooter would, mercifully, help him tow the piano to his favourite spot to play.
Eventually, Levac moved on to a lighter, more mobile model — the current electric piano he tugs around now — which he retrofitted to run on “12 DC batteries converted to AC”, he says.
“The technology I’m using here is more like an impeccable grand piano,” said Levac. “So the tone of this piano is like a $200,000 Steinway or Yamaha…so people are really hearing evocative tones coming from this.”
His spontaneous serenades on the boardwalk have made him a bit of an icon at The Beaches, drawing an audience of dogwalkers and joggers — and with them, paid gigs.
“They’d thank me,” Levac says, remembering. “And sometimes they asked me to play at their weddings.”
But then, in March 2020, the pandemic hit, putting a quick end to those requests. With retirement homes and his church closed to in-person gatherings, Levac suddenly found himself without a job.
For some, that would be reason to panic, but for Levac, he saw the sudden shutdown as an opportunity.
“I was thinking this would be a new era of creativity,” Levac told Global News — a chance to reinvent himself as a full-time busker. Since last September, he’s been putting in upwards of six hours per day, tickling the ivories beneath the trees — rain or shine, morning or night.
WATCH: Petition to create support fund for Canadian musicians
Mingling with the natural rhythms and sounds of The Beaches, Levac’s music doesn’t go unnoticed or unappreciated here, especially these days when happiness and hope can sometimes feel elusive.
“It gives me hope,” said one walker who stopped to take in Levac’s music. “It reminds me that the best days are yet to come and that we have extraordinarily gifted artists in our midst who really get that.”
For Levac, hearing that sort of feedback is music to his ears.
“I sleep well at night, having played piano for people. I love it, I enjoy it, it’s wonderful to be able to share music with people,” said Levac.
As for where the music will take him next, Levac says the sky is the limit — a cross-city or even cross-country tour could be in the books.
But for now, he says he is content with surprising unsuspecting passerby in the parks…hopefully making someone smile.
© 2021 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.