Dotan Negrin is a guy who plays piano out on the streets for money, but to say he’s just another street performer is like saying Felix Baumgartner — you know, that guy that jumped from the stratosphere back down to Earth last October — is just another skydiver.
A couple of years ago, Negrin, a 26-year-old native New Yorker, sunk his life’s savings (about $10,000) into a GMC box truck and an upright piano and hit the road for five months with his now-three-year-old Jack Russell/chihuahua mix, Brando, making his living entirely from playing piano in dozens of American cities.
Since then, he’s done two more such road trips around America, and in about two weeks, he and Brando are planning to head out on their most ambitious trip yet — a 10,000 mile journey from Manhattan to Panama. This time, he’s bringing a cameraman along for the ride with the intention of putting footage together to pitch to TV networks for a travel show idea Negrin likens to Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, but featuring music instead of food. He’s Kickstartering the project in the hopes of raising $10,000 to pay his cameraman and a post-production crew upon their return. He’s close to his goal — the project funding period goes until Monday morning — but he’s going through with the trip whether or not he makes that goal.
“Why do I do it?” says the gregarious Negrin, repeating the obvious question posed to him. “I was tired of living that ordinary lifestyle. I asked myself, ‘Do I have to? Is this what life is about? I got out of college and now I have to do all these things that everybody tells me to do, and I have to do what everybody else is doing?’ And I said fuck it, I really am tired of this, I want to do this and who cares? If nothing comes of it, I’ve had an amazing experience.”
Negrin was a late bloomer as far as piano is concerned, picking up the instrument at age 18 while majoring in theater at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. His roommate, a jazz guitar major, got him into Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and Negrin “became obsessed with this music and eventually jazz piano. There was a piano in the building and I had never played, but I started by ear and took a basic class, and then over the past seven years I’ve taken a couple lessons but I mostly learned on my own through books and YouTube and things like that.”
Back in New York after graduating in 2008, Negrin got part-time work driving a 16-foot box truck making deliveries for a Manhattan painter and photographer. The artist then paid Negrin deliver his work down to the Art Basel art fair in Miami in 2009. “I was like, this is so cool — he’s paying for my hotels and meals and everything else and I’m getting paid to take a road trip,” says Negrin. “That was my first spark of inspiration to figure out how I could travel, perform, and make a little bit of money. I was working toward this other artist’s dream where I was an artist, too, with my own dream, and I wasn’t pursuing it.”
With his plan in mind, he bought the GMC box truck and piano, but before he could head out on the road Negrin first had to work up the courage to play piano in public. So every day for months he pushed his piano from the small building near Canal Street that his father manages about eight blocks to City Hall Park, where he’d play standards like “Autumn Leaves” and “All the Things You Are.”
“I wasn’t very good at all when I started playing on the streets,” Negrin laughs. “I guess people thought it was cool, like, ‘Oh look, a random guy playing piano in the street,’ but I’d spend like four hours playing and I’d only make maybe $40.” But Brando helped — sometimes sitting on top of the piano, he often attracted a crowd. “He’s a little bit of a drama queen. He loves the attention. He’s kind of a celebrity, and he knows it. I’d play along, like, ‘For all inquiries, please talk to my manager –he’s the boss.'”
Finally, he hit the road in April of 2011, ultimately spending five months driving around the country, wheeling his piano out of the back of the truck every morning and playing on the streets. “The goal was to get better at piano because I figured if I was playing every day and depending on it for money, I was going to get better pretty fast, and I did. And I started to make more money.”
He played piano at Glacier National Park in Montana, inside a giant redwood tree in California, and on a cliff’s edge at Yellowstone National Park. He made lots of friends, hooked up with a couple of hot girls who watched him play for hours in New Orleans (“although Brando is better than me at picking chicks up,” he laughs), and got robbed by an OxyContin addict in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “He was a nice guy, though,” Negrin laughs. “We were playing together –he was playing the buckets and I was playing piano and he was really good and really nice. We hit it off, and then he took all of the money out of my bucket and ran off.”
When Negrin got back to New York, his parents — who weren’t particularly happy with his decision — started pestering him to go back to business school or get a real estate license. “I still haven’t convinced them that I’m doing the right thing,” he laughs, “but they saw that I got a little bit of press and some recognition while I was out on the road, and I told them that maybe I could take that and build it into something I can support myself with, and they were like, ‘OK.'”
Two more month-long trips — one down to Florida and another up to upstate New York and Canada — followed in 2011 and 2012, and in between he continued to play piano on the streets of Manhattan (he’s been a staple at Union Square). Some days, he makes a few hundred bucks at it. He pinned a U.S. map to the front of the piano showing all of the places he’s been, and he also affixed a sign with the simple yet profound message “You owe it to yourself to do something remarkable with your life.” He says he regularly gets emails, and Facebook and Tumblr messages, of how he’s inspired other people to follow their dreams, too.
Now he’s about to head off to Panama. “The idea is to meet with different musicians in different cities, talk to interesting people who devoted their lives to music and are living extraordinary lives,” he says. “Sort of like me, in a way. I feel like I’m living a dream lifestyle with music and I’d like to find other people like me and ask them about the importance of music in their lives. I’m gonna do it, then come home and see where the idea takes me.
“Sometimes I look at this, like, ‘I’m a guy who plays piano on the streets with a dog, what the hell am I doing?!’ But I think all artists sometimes second-guess what they’re doing. I have moments, like, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ But I’m so far into this, I can’t stop now. And Brando’s so used to traveling around now, he’d probably never forgive me.”