Wednesday, June 23, 2010

happiness in a grand piano

A former ballet music director and his twelve year old student captured the attention of park-goers, playing a grand piano by the Washington Square Park fountain last Tuesday afternoon.

I've noticed the grand piano previously in WSP but this time a small boy in shirt and tie was at the keys, captivating an audience with classical music.  This was no beginner.  He played for well over 30 minutes without music and without pause.

As I shot my own video, I was approached by a man with a clipboard introducing himself as an MTV B-roll associate.  He and his small crew were taping other musicians in WSP. . . until they saw this small pianist.  "This kid's a child prodigy!  We had to catch this" he excitedly informed me, "I feel like I'm gonna see a lot more of this kid someday."

And the clipboard full of forms?  I was in the background of their footage and they needed a waiver from me.  It's true, I'm pretty much a superstar now.

So who is this child prodigy?  His name is Jason W. Cordero.  He's twelve years old, originally from Ecuador, and currently living in Queens.

Jason began playing the piano six years ago when his father bought him a toy keyboard and soon discovered Jason playing songs by ear.  They enrolled him in piano lessons.

Jason also enjoys playing the violin and guitar but he's happiest at the piano keys, explaining simply that the piano "is just better."

Jason kept a growing audience in WSP, even drawing the admiration of the young skateboard and scooter crowd:

And don't worry about the youngster being out on his own, Jason's father is always close by when he plays.  On Tuesday, Jason was accompanied by both his father and his younger sister.

But Jason and his father are usually found gracing major NYC subway stops with a keyboard.  What brings them to WSP with a grand piano?

Colin Huggins.  The self-proclaimed "crazy piano guy."

Colin, the former music director of the Joffrey ballet school, often plays a grand piano near the WSP fountain, drawing crowds in his own right.  Colin began playing in parks in the summer of 2008.  Broadening his art to the parks allowed him to have what he calls real performances, much different than the limits on art and the limited audiences he found in Joffrey performances.  He saw the pleasure his music brought to wider, public audiences and he was hooked.

After the summer of 2008, Colin steadily phased out of his work at Joffrey.  By the time he left Joffrey in January 2010, he only oversaw the payroll, working for the benefits.  Now he is a full time public performer.  His Joffrey days are long gone and he is "so much happier."

Colin loves playing for the public – "I like to perform and I like to meet people.  At the ballet studio it was just the same thing day after day."

You may have previously seen Colin playing an upright piano in various locations throughout the city: Union Square, the West 4th Street subway station, Times Square, or Herald Square.  He has only recently begun to use the grand piano, which he only brings to WSP.

Ask him how he gets a grand piano into WSP and he'll point to his biceps – "Isn't it obvious?"

The grand piano is stored by Manhattan Mini Storage, who sponsor Colin by allowing him to store the piano for free.  In return they get the effortless advertising of a sticker on Colin's piano.  The piano legs fold up and Colin rolls the piano upright from the storage facility near the Holland Tunnel to WSP, a distance of approximately 1 mile depending on the route.

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Despite the profound impact that the grand piano makes, Colin is undecided between it and an upright piano – its sound quality and level seem somewhat soft to him.  He would also like to start rotating locations  again, even with the grand piano.

So why has he chosen WSP as the currently exclusive location?  Because of WSP's long history of tolerance toward musicians.  The police may stop him other places, but in WSP he is a welcome addition to the culture of street performers, most of which Colin has met and likes.

I've even caught him teaming up with other WSP acts:

Yet Colin says street performers have taken a hit.  Due to government dislike of buskers and the decreased tourist industry since September 11th, buskers have diminished.  According to Colin, the ones who still perform are a more limited group of those who have "really held to their guns."  He is one of the few WSP buskers who make their living full time from street performances.  Most have day jobs.

Colin understands the government's distaste for buskers, stating that there are few reasons for the government to like them as they draw crowds which can stop pedestrian traffic and pull people away from full priced, ticketed performances.

Tourists provide the main source of donations to buskers, thus the drop in tourism has a large impact.  While Colin says other buskers claim to have once made $600.00 every time they played, he has only made that once – when he needed to pay his rent and played from 10 AM to 10 PM.

Despite this, Colin is committed to making it work because of his vision for art, which is similar to that of most great artists – that art should appeal and be available to everyone.  He likens this vision Ballacino's strategic directing of the NYC Ballet which eventually drew diverse attendees so that the audience, according to Colin, "looked like a street performance audience," catering to a wide demographic rather than to an elite few.  Colin is also writing music and social networking, hoping eventually to release and market his own pieces.  He would also like a few more sponsors – often the key to an artist making it.

So where does Jason come into the picture?  Colin kept seeing Jason play the keyboard in subway stations.  He says that Jason's music was "really good" but that he made a few "fundamental errors."  So Colin suggested that they meet for lessons in the park, the only place he has a piano accessible.

Jason is Colin's only student.

Not only does Jason get the lessons for free, he makes money from the sessions, emptying the tip buckets each time he relinquishes the keys to Colin.

Although Jason has only had lessons for the last several months, he learned most of the difficult pieces he played on Tuesday from Colin.

For their actual lesson, they keep the piano in a corner of the park and play softly.  "You can't teach anything with an audience" Colin states.

Then they role it out to the fountain and have a blast performing.

And if you think Colin is the one who profits most from Jason's performance, I'd have to disagree.  It seems Jason stole the show and took the tips Tuesday.  After his initial lengthy set, Jason switched off with Colin every few songs.  He didn't leave until after 8:00 PM, when his father pried him away.

Colin said he'd play until 10:00 PM.

And park-goers loved them.  Many took a seat, staying longer than they seemed to intend.  One onlooker waiting to meet a friend exclaimed "Have you ever seen anything like this!?"

There is certainly something special about a grand piano in WSP.

"This is such a nice park to spend time in," a local New Yorker told me, "and this. . . this is incredible."

But despite the applauding onlookers, Colin and Jason each have complaints about WSP audiences.

"I don't know what it is about the children here," Colin mused, commenting that they often behave worse toward him here than in other performance locations, hitting the side of the piano or stealing from his tip bucket.

And while I would think Jason would rather play a grand piano in a grand park than a keyboard underground, Jason prefers the subway station.  Why?  This small entrepreneur grinned, "I make more money there."

Jason's performances are hard to find.  He plays in subways almost every Sunday but he rotates stations without a set schedule.  His lessons with Colin in WSP are even harder to predict.  He'd only say he comes every couple of weeks.

Colin is a more regular WSP presence, usually spotted in the late afternoons and evenings.  He said comes four to five times a week and more frequently toward the end of the month (when rent is due soon).  If you want to catch a more guaranteed performance, head to WSP on a Friday or Saturday night, where Colin has concerts near or even in the fountain from 8:30 - 10:30.

Whether or not you're prone toward classical performances, Colin and Jason will surely bring a smile to your face.  And thanks to visions like Colin's, WSP continues to be a place where New Yorkers and tourists alike can experience the truth of Colin's philosophy – "art exists to make people happy."

To see more, you can also visit:  (Note: the first minute of this video is an advertisement for the video producers.  After that, it features Jason and his father).

1 comment:

  1. I remember another little kid who played piano in the subway, with his father watching by. He then went to Juilliard. I wonder what happened with him. This was maybe 10 years ago.
    NYC is full of excellent street musicians. Have you seen the 'Saw Lady'? This is she: