Spare change for the cellist?

An acclaimed classical musician swapped the concert hall for the concourse of St Pancras station last week. Susie Mesure listened in

Over the bustle of a busy half-term lunchtime at St Pancras station, the mellifluous tones of a cello are barely audible. Even the musician caressing soaring melodies from a wooden instrument worth more than her home doesn't immediately stand out.

Casually dressed, the slight, black-haired girl looks like any other busker. Which might explain why barely anyone marching past M&S Simply Food on route from the Underground to the Eurostar check-in was paying her any attention.

But this was not your average street musician. She was, in fact, Natalie Clein, the 30-year-old concert cellist with a string of accolades longer than the bow she was moving so deftly across the neck of her 230-year-old cello.

She was there last week at the behest of The Independent on Sunday, curious to test whether an ordinary London crowd would recognise great beauty out of context – in this case without the backdrop of a concert setting, expensive tickets or programme notes. Clein has, after all, been BBC young musician of the year and won a Classical Brit.

The cellist herself was excited by the challenge: "My hope is that people dare to open their ears and eyes and be open to something different from the usual."

For the first 15 minutes of our hour-long experiment it looked like she might be disappointed. Yes, two women did toss a coin or two into the hat whisked from her boyfriend's head before she reached the end of her first piece of Bach (the prelude to the first solo cello suite in G major) but they were the sort of people who make up Clein's core concert following.

There was more cause for hope when a young Venezuelan man dragging a suitcase past the makeshift stage (a blue yoga mat) paused, shifted back a few metres, then settled back to enjoy the music, which he called "a meal for the soul".

Yet barely one in four people even turned their heads as they walked past, and of the first 100 or so passers-by, scarcely a handful broke stride. Denzil McNeelance, a regular busker who performs under the name Dr Sax, thinks he knows why. "If she'd chosen somewhere different, like the tunnel between South Kensington Tube and the museums, she'd have done far better."

True, Clein's music was somewhat muted against the bustle of an international train station: the departure of the 12.30pm to Paris did her no favours. And she had to endure her notes getting lost somewhere in the 100ft of air between her temporary platform and the vaulted ceiling of the refurbished St Pancras.

With her next piece though, Kodály's solo cello sonata, Op 8, the mood began to change. Maybe it was the choice of music, perhaps it was Clein's (frozen) hands warming up, or possibly it was a sheep-like public taking its cue from those around them, but suddenly people noticed her. One girl exclaimed to her friend: "Oh my God, that made me cry!"

By 12.50pm there was almost a steady stream of coins falling into the hat. The music's virtuoso fireworks proved magnetic for Maisey Shreeve, 10, who couldn't resist poking her head round the defunct information board acting as Clein's stage set. "It's lovely," she whispered. The Kodály's end drew applause. For Tobias Gibreel, 28, who was lunching outside Le Pain Quotidien, the experience was "beauty that you don't see every day".

Maisey aside, Clein's biggest fans turned out to be an American toddler, who craned forward in her buggy to get a better view, and four-legged Pippa, aptly a papillon hearing dog, who couldn't seem to open her shaggy ears wide enough.

And the money? Clein made £28.22p (and 55 euro cents), which she planned to give to her local Big Issue seller. Enough to make the busking bigtime? McNeelance thinks not. "She'd have at least doubled that in a different pitch. For me £30 an hour is a bad day. I can do as well as £150."

Clein, who is off to tour New Zealand and Australia, was enchanted, however. "It took me about 20 minutes to get into it but then I really started enjoying myself. I felt I didn't have to be anything other than myself – normally people come to watch me with expectations which can be quite inhibiting." For her, busking created the "circular energy" she says she needs to play. "Often I could just feel the appreciation, people didn't need to clap."

Star turns: Busking it: the roll call of past masters

Sting

The former Police frontman once busked in disguise to prove he could still do it. He made £40 at a Tube station.

Travis

The Scottish band treated Glaswegians to an impromptu busking gig in 2004. They were soon mobbed by fans.

James Morrison

James began busking aged 15 in his home town of Porth, Cornwall, making good money, "£70 an hour sometimes."

KT Tunstall

Last year, KT revisited her roots by performing on the streets of Glasgow. This time, however, she raised £270 for charity.

Damien Rice

Frustrated with record labels who wanted to make his former band, Juniper, more commercial, Damien left and spent a year busking around Europe.

Rolf Harris

The Australian entertainer sustained himself on his long sea voyage from Australia in 1952 by busking. He also played "Waltzing Matilda" on the accordion to crowds at the Coronation, as he later told the Queen.

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