NEW YORK—As he climbed onto the rooftop of a vacant building in Albuquerque, N. M., on a warm evening in May Dotan Negrin, a traveling street performer, was unsure of how his new friend would react.
Earlier that day, Negrin had befriended Ehron, a street drummer. Negrin liked what the drums added to his music, and they talked about traveling together as a duo. However, at the end of the night Ehron took off with the proceeds they had earned performing that day. Negrin decided to confront him at his sleeping spot on the rooftop.
“I’m an addict! This is my life. What? Are you going to punch me?” Negrin recalled Ehron yelling. The money had already been spent on the opiate OxyContin.
At that moment Negrin felt profound sadness rather than rage. He knew from earlier conversations that Ehron’s family had given up on him—even his grandmother had kicked him out.
“What would punching him give me?” Negrin said. “Even today, if I saw him, I don’t think I would be angry. I would still take him traveling with me if he was off drugs.”
Negrin, 26, travels across America to perform on the streets with an upright piano. He has met around 5,000 people on his trips, and he wants the world to know that despite the imperfections of people, goodness still prevails over violence and drugs.
Piano Across America
Negrin graduated from the University of the Arts in 2008. He wanted to be an actor, but after waiting in audition lines for a year after graduation, he realized he was standing with the same people who had been standing in line much longer than him. Negrin began to re-evaluate his life.
He wanted to travel and perform. If it meant he that had to play on the streets, then that was what he was going to do.
He embarked on his first road trip in April 2011. Not knowing what his itinerary would be, he left Long Island, New York, with $2.82 in his bank account. During a five-and-a-half-month trip, Negrin broke even financially and managed to travel through 53 cities.
Street musicians have an inconsistent salary. Negrin can make $1,000 in one week, and only $400 in another. Negrin estimates he will continue playing on the streets for 2–3 more years.
Close friends have been made along the way. He met a lady in New Orleans who owned a handmade apparel shop. She was a warm, spiritual, woman that was twice his age. On the first day that they met, she closed down her shop and they laid down on the ground outside to talk about life for hours.
“There are certain people you meet that you feel like it’s not a coincidence,” he said. He still calls from time to time to ask the lady for advice.
When the time came around for his 25th birthday, Negrin was alone in Madison, Wis.
He wrote a post to his social media followers to see if anyone wanted to spend his birthday with him. A man, who was couch-surfing online, responded and said he and his friends wanted to take Negrin out to dinner. It turned out to be one of the best birthdays I have ever had, said Negrin, and it was with six random strangers.
When I started traveling, the way I looked at life changed, he said. I believe it’s so important for people young and old to travel—travel alone, travel in groups—but meet people and don’t just stick to tourist spots. “That’s so important to understand the world that you live in,” said Negrin.
Negrin said it is a shame that many people do not travel these days. He met a 65-year-old woman who had never been outside of South Carolina.
“’Have you watched TV? Have you seen all those things that happen?’” Negrin recalled her saying.
“Many TV shows and movies [are based on] violence, drugs, and negative things that occur in the world,” he said. “I’ve met a lot of local people in different places and the impression that I got is that more people are giving, open, friendly,” he said.
Despite his articulate playing, Dotan only began learning the piano at age 18, when he heard “Blue in Green,” by Miles Davis for the first time.
“The piano does such an incredible job of creating emotion. I became obsessed with that because I was studying theater,” he said. “I was inspired by the fact that this musician was able to create sadness within me.”
He played by ear for the first two years, and then started reading books and taking lessons. He realized it was incredibly important to learn music from the basics, starting with classical music.
“A lot of young musicians think, ‘I can do this without training.’ They feel like they can do it without hard work, and just get that instant gratification,” he said. “We get that impression from popular culture, such as with Justin Bieber.”
“We need to develop musicians who are well rounded. Classical music is complex, intellectual. It opens and expands your mind. We must keep it so we don’t lose it,” he said.
In the future Negrin plans to put together a versatile group of street performers to travel and book indoor performances.
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