Have you ever seen a film about New York City that really plays up the artistic world of old? Where it seems that everyone is a writer, dancer, musician or painter? Perhaps the sound of typewriter comes wafting out onto the street as an actor strolls down some charming Village lane. Or frenetic singers bump into each other in a hallway somewhere in the theater district on the way to an audition. And someone is banging on their ceiling with a broom because a neighbor is hammering away at their piano at some god awful hour.
Romantic folly and Hollywood nonsense? Not completely. Because as I was reading for this story last night after 10 PM, I could actually hear Colin Huggins in my apartment through my open window (see here and here), playing his piano in Washington Square Park.
I can't imagine anywhere else where I could enjoy this privilege - my hair stood on end. Some days the city really feels like the promised land - everything I had hoped for when I moved here. A place where I could find a man like Colin Huggins, dragging one of his many pianos onto the street using dollies.
Colin is a classically trained pianist, has worked as a dance accompanist, and is music director for the Joffrey Ballet. He keeps his pianos at various storage facilities in Manhattan near his performance spots. I have seen him in Washington Square Park and Father Demo Square. He also can be found in the subway system. Huggins believes he is the only person to bring a piano to the subterranean depths - no small accomplishment (he uses a subway elevator - there are a handful of them in the city). In 2007, feeling he was getting a bit too much into a work grind, Huggins tried bringing a real piano into Washington Square Park. From Colin's website:
I've been a dance accompanist for five years in New York now. And even though I enjoy it, it started to make me feel like the old man behind the piano. When I began to lose sleep every night and found myself irritable everyday, I knew without a doubt, it was time to figure out how to feel like a rock star instead.
So last summer (2007), for fun, I tried bringing a real piano into Washington Square Park, and honestly, I'd never felt so good about an activity in my entire life. I made money, played songs that I really enjoyed, and made a lot of other people happy too. No matter what age or cultural background the listeners were, I could figure out something to play that would make them smile. It's a challenge I'm really excited about. So although it may seem like I'm going down on the totem pole of career choices and stability, I feel so much better about myself and so much more connected to the community here and the arts in general.
When I asked Huggins for his contact information, he handed me his card, which said:
Colin Huggins / Pianist Rock Star / World's Happiest Man / www.thecrazypianoguy.com
You will still find thousands of working artists in New York City. Although I do fear for their survival, as many are squeezed into the most inhospitable neighborhoods in the outer boroughs, I am hopeful that those with resourcefulness and tenacity (and perhaps day jobs) will survive the sieve of Darwin :)
An inspiring note: As I write this, I am listening to the Chopin Nocturnes and Waltzes played by Artur Rubinstein, considered one of the greatest pianists of the 20th century. I am absolutely astonished reading about Rubenstein. A prodigy at age 4, Artur was fluent in 8 languages, had perfect pitch and a photographic memory, keeping most of his repertoire in his head. From Time Magazine:
In 1903 he caused a sensation in Warsaw by performing Paderewski's Sonata in E Flat Minor the day after it was published; he learned Cesar Franck's complex Symphonic Variations on the train en route to a concert hall in Madrid. He can commit a sonata to memory in one hour, and he can play as many as 250 lieder. His friends used to play a kind of "Stump Artur" game in which they would call out titles—excerpts from symphonies, operas, Cole Porter scores—to see if he could play them. "Stumped Friends" would have been a better name for it. "Rubinstein," says Conductor Edouard van Remoortel, "is the only pianist you could wake up at midnight and ask to play any of the 38 major piano concertos."
"When I play, I turn the pages in my mind," he explains, "and I know that in the bottom right-hand corner of this page is a little coffee stain, and on that page I have written molto vivace."
But Rubenstein was not just a brilliant technician. He was the consummate artist:
On stage, I will take a chance. There has to be an element of daring in great music-making. These younger ones, they are too cautious. They take the music out of their pockets instead of their hearts.