Pianist Pushes 800-Pound Piano Through Manhattan To Play For Free — And The City Adores Him For It
Feb 23, 2021 by apost team
Colin Huggins has a passion for music. He turned that passion into a career, working for the Joffrey Ballet as an accompanist on the piano. Many musicians dream of achieving such a position, but Huggins seems to have wanted to make his music more available to the public. In 2007, he decided to take his music out into the open — literally. Since then, Huggins pushes his piano half a mile, several days a week, in order to play for the public in Washington Square Park in New York City. Huggins has been doing this for over 15 years, and local residents have come to know him as the piano man.
But Huggins is more than just a busker. He doesn’t play with the hopes of getting big and playing for a living one day. Instead, he seems to play with the desire to bring classical music to people who normally wouldn’t seek it out themselves. It may seem like very few people enjoy classical music these days, but all it takes is one look at the crowds around Huggins and his piano to know that it can be as popular as any other genre — if the circumstances are right. And Huggins certainly knows his audience members, some of whom burst into tears when they hear this pianist play.
Huggins appreciates the love the neighborhood has shown him and reciprocates with his hard work. He plays four days a week, rain or shine, in the frigid New York winters and in the muggy heat of Manhattan summers.
Be sure to reach the end of this article to see the full video :-)
Huggins lives half a mile away from the park where he plays, which means he has to push the 800-pound piano a mile round-trip every single day he plays, as the New York Post reports. That kind of work requires real love, both for the music he plays and for the community he lives in. Huggins seems to give his music his all, just like how he puts his effort into pushing the piano to the place where he performs.
As for the music itself, Huggins is a very talented pianist. You can hear his skills in the video below, but the love that locals have shown him speaks volumes about his ability. He started out at a professional level, and Huggins has been playing for four days a week, nearly every week, for more than 15 years, as The New York Times reports. Any professional pianist with that much practice would develop into a talent worth the crowds that Huggins draws. Without any marketing or famous career, Huggins' talents have brought crowds of dozens around him for over a decade.
Huggins’ hard work has not gone unnoticed. In 2016, Huggins crowdfunded for a new instrument and bought a Yamaha C5 piano. Around three years later, another crowdfunding campaign gave him enough money for the Steinway B grand piano he plays today. Steinways don't come cheap, and locals' love for him shines as bright as the glossy paint on the expensive instrument. Although the grand piano is certainly more difficult to transport than the little upright piano Huggins started with, he seems happy to push harder if that means he is delivering a brighter sound to the audience he loves.
Because He Loves It
Maybe the love Huggins' community has shown him has driven his almost fanatical devotion to play for them, but just from hearing him talk in the video below, it is clear that he truly cares. Huggins says in the below video that when he plays, he doesn't just think about the emotional content of the music he's playing. He also listens to the people around him and is receptive to their needs. He thinks about what makes his public concerts special and tries to make every performance an experience for the hundreds who walk by. It seems like those people can feel the attention he’s paying to them because he turns heads even among the busy New York City crowds.
Maybe it's Huggins’ care for others that makes his concerts so special. In any case, he consistently draws large crowds of people who circle around just to see and listen to the piano man. Some go well out of their way to visit the quiet Manhattan neighborhood, and at this point, Huggins' reputation likely precedes him in Washington Square Park. But every day he plays, he rises to the occasion and likely amazes even those who have heard him play dozens of times before. In most classical concerts, the pianist can seem distant from the audience. Huggins looks his audience in the eye and smiles at them from only a few feet away.
Because Huggins is thinking about the people around him, he is able to keep his performances fresh enough to make people come back for more.
A Special Way To Listen
Even the most talented buskers often have a limited repertoire, but Huggins takes requests from his audience and evidently plays with enough variety that he has loyal audience members. Those people would be season ticket holders if Huggins played in a concert hall, but all he asks of them is their appreciation for what he creates.
A few years ago, Huggins discovered a novel way for his audiences to listen to him play, as he explains in the video below. Because Huggins and his piano play out in the open, they get more wear and tear than most pianists and their instruments. Huggins has his piano tuned regularly to account for this, and his piano tuner would lie beneath Huggins' piano while he played in order to make sure that the piano was in tune.
Huggins thought of this when one of his frequent audience members was having a bad day. The onlooker asked Huggins to play his favorite piece, "Claire de Lune" by Claude Debussy, and Huggins (with some help from his friends) brought the man under the piano for a special listening experience. When the piece ended, the man stood up with tears streaming down his cheeks. Huggins had found something truly special. He may have given that man a much better day, but that moment benefited hundreds of others in ways neither man could predict.
Since that day, Huggins has given regular passersby that same opportunity. It has the same effect as it always has, with audience members lying beneath the Steinway, wiping tears from their eyes as they listen to Huggins play.
Doing It For The Love
There aren’t any concert halls that allow even the highest-paying ticket holders to sit directly beneath the piano, but this special experience is available to anyone who asks. Best of all, it’s as free as all the other music Huggins plays.
In a city like New York, Huggins could have listeners pay top dollar for this piano-listening experience. Tickets at the New York Philharmonic cost hundreds of dollars for seats that are so far away that most of the audience can’t see the performers’ faces. That’s when there are hundreds of tickets selling all for the same event. But to get a single special seat at a private piano performance with a famous and well-loved pianist? That ticket would easily cost thousands.
But Huggins doesn’t sell his services like that, nor does it doesn’t occur to him to do that. When you hear him talk about his performances, it’s hard to tell if he is being paid at all. Instead, he focuses on the effect his playing has on those around him. He wants to see the wide range of emotions his music can create, and that seems to be compensation enough for him. From the crowdfunding efforts he's created, it's clear that plenty of people are willing to put their money into Huggins and his music. But Huggins doesn't seem to want to create any barriers between his audience and his music, and if that means he is paid less than other professionals, he seems unbothered.
In exchange for the unique experience Huggins is giving them, his audience jumps in to make the performance even more special.
Huggins is close to his listeners — literally — and that creates opportunities for spontaneous moments of collaboration.
In one video, two women jump up onto the piano to sing along while Huggins plays. Later in the same video, a woman dances joyfully to Huggins' music. These are special moments that can't be created in a normal concert setting. Even the most informal performances don't involve the spontaneity of audience members jumping up to join the performers, but Huggins and his audience enjoy doing that nearly every day.
At this point, Huggins is attracting as much attention as some of the best pianists in the world. That’s not just because of his talent, although he is a brilliant pianist. Instead, he captivates his audiences because he is happy for anyone to be his audience, and he lives out that belief four days a week.
Who knows where Huggins’ journey will take him next? As he gets more and more well-known, the crowds around him could grow until he has created a public concert hall of his own. Huggins could change the type of music he plays, or he could find other novel ways for his audience to listen to his music. But one thing will surely stay constant: Huggins will push his piano down the streets of Manhattan and play with all the love he has for his city.
“Most people follow the money, but I don’t do that,” Huggins told The New York Times in July 2020. “I’m a street performer. I follow the emotional experience and the ability to give someone a powerful experience. It means I’m poor, but so what.”
What did you think of Huggins' performances? Have you ever seen a street performance that has changed your life? Let us know — and be sure to pass this article on to musical friends family members.