Washington Square Park’s very own pianist
By Sophia Rosenbaum
Every Saturday in Washington Square Park, the normal activity of an urban green space is interrupted by a man playing a baby grand piano, stopping people in their tracks with his subtle chords and classical tunes.
“Conceptually, he’s just another street performer, because he has those buckets,” said Matt Kocienczny, 27, as he sat on a nearby park bench listening. “But the piano escalates his performance. This is really only in New York.”
The pianist is Colin Huggins, the self-proclaimed “Crazy Piano Guy” with radiant red hair, and he’s been a street performer for more than five years. Born in Decatur, Ga., Huggins moved to New York City in 2003. During his mid-twenties, he worked as a ballet accompanist for the American Ballet Theater and as music director at Joffrey School. But, in 2010, he quit both jobs and pursued street performances full time to have more musical freedom.
“At the end of the day,” said David Isakov, a New York University student and longtime classical music fan, “he does what he likes and he’s happy. Colin is inspirational.”
When Huggins, 34, first started performing, he transported an upright piano down into the subways and played anything that would get money in his five-gallon black bucket. But once he started playing in the park, his music evolved from pop to classical.
“In my experience, classical music has the most integrity,” he said. “I don’t like playing music without integrity even if it gets more money in the bucket.”
For the past two years, Huggins has towed his 650-pound Yahama piano to Washington Square Park every weekend. He likes to start early, around 8 a.m. As soon as he assembles the piano, the crowd starts. And, he plays no matter what the weather is like.
“I’ve seen him play in all types of weather—cold, cloudy, rainy, sunny, snowy,” Isakov, who comes to see him weekly, said.
Huggins never wears gloves while he’s playing, but he’ll take five-minute breaks to warm up his hands and take care of other needs.
“I think it’s pretty amazing that we have this world-class pianist playing,” said Annie Millican, as she sat bundled up on a nearby park bench. “It democratizes the chance to see this type of music and I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
By midday, all the park benches surrounding Huggins were filled. Most people said they sat down because they were shocked to hear classical music and see a baby grand piano in the middle of the park.
“It makes sitting in this park feel like you’re sitting in a fancy hotel,” Millican said.
Alexandra McHale, a freshman at NYU, first heard Huggins play a few months ago and decided to bring her parents to listen.
A few weeks ago, McHale approached Huggins to buy one of his $10 CDs. When she told him she went to NYU, he gave her a code to download the music for free.
He doesn’t like to talk about the business end of his performances, but said he makes a “modest living” that pays the rent.
Realistically, Huggins said he has a few more years left in him to continue outdoor performances, but he expects to be moving toward playing indoors in the future.
For now, he’s happy performing outside. Just before he left for his bathroom break, Huggins thanked everyone for listening and urged them to buy his CD.
One man came up and dropped a 10-dollar bill in one of his buckets.
“His life will never be the same,” Huggins said. “The same could happen to you for just 10 dollars.”
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