Subway musicians embrace unconventional performance
For Sean Grissom, being a subway musician is a choice, not a means for survival.
Grissom has played cello at private parties, nursing homes and hospitals, and for Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He was even an opening act for David Bowie.
But he prefers the audience at Pennsylvania Station.
“The thing about playing in the subway is you have to figure out how to connect with your audience,” said Grissom, 48, a full-time musician who lives on the Upper West Side. “I love the fact that I get to create the stage. The potential is there; I just have to find it.”
While subway musicians view themselves as playing outside the box, they have a hierarchy all their own. Musicians such as Grissom, who are members of Music Under New York, an organized group of subway musicians formed in 1985, represent the top of the pile — both literally and figuratively — as they play on the coveted mezzanine, high above the tracks and trains. Other musicians who are not registered with MUNY represent the middle of the group, playing on the platform and competing with the roar of passing trains and hoping a passerby will stop and listen for a few seconds before boarding a train. And those who represent the bottom of the totem pole are the musicians who play on the trains as they travel from station to station, keeping an eye out for police officers and hoping they escape a ticket should they get caught.
Up on the mezzanine, Grissom plays the Cajun cello, a new twist on an old classic. The Cajun cello has a bit of Southern twang with a Cajun influence, a mixture of his Texas and Louisiana roots, he said. It sounds similar to fiddle tunes on the violin.
“I learned how to play fiddle tunes on a cello in Texas,” he said. An upside down navy blue Yankee cap laid on the station floor as he played, an assortment of bills and coins placed inside.
Grissom declines to say just how much he makes in one day of playing in the subway, but he does say he supports his wife Fran, a stay-at-home mom, and his daughter Jane, an undergraduate student at New York University, solely with his music — playing at private gigs, parties and in the subway.
“In many ways, the money is decent, but it’s not why you do it,” he said. “But the money, it makes a difference. I have a family to support.”
The payoffs often come in other ways, making connections and playing private parties or events, selling CDs or simply getting his name out there, Grissom said.
But subway musician isn’t his only identity. He teaches a rock string music course at Beacon Heights one day a week, instructs improvisation seminars to classical musicians and teaches seminars for teachers on how to make classical music more accessible to students.
To some, it may seem odd that a man who received his master’s degree from Hunter College and studied at Juilliard and the Pratt Institute plays music underground.
“People perceive street performers as a low-level profession,” he said. “People will say, ‘Why aren’t you in an orchestra?’ They equate success with being in an orchestra. And I say, ‘Do I look like an orchestra guy?’ ”
He admits he’s a bit of a free spirit. He wears his curly blonde hair in a long ponytail, wears round wire-rimmed glasses and a gold hoop in his left earlobe. He doesn’t have a cell phone or e-mail account and is hesitant to use the Internet.
When Grissom plays, he dresses the part in a multicolored polka dot shirt, blue-and-white Oxford-style shoes and a silver bow tie. A stack of rubber bracelets circles his left wrist. Even his homemade cello is dressed for the occasion, a miniature Santa hat sitting jauntily at the top of its neck.
While some may not associate being a subway musician to being successful, to Grissom it is just that.
“Success is doing what I want to do when I want to do it,” he said. “Playing in the subway is great because when you want to try out something new, you get immediate feedback from the audience. You can’t do that in an orchestra.”
But he still jokes about performing in a bottom-of-the-totem-pole venue.
“It’s like Reagan’s trickle down theory. I’m not even gutter trash,” he said, pointing upward to the street level. “I’m lower than gutter trash.”
But Grissom doesn’t just play in the subway, hoping for donations. He has nine CDs on sale for $15 each when he performs. He keeps a trove of business cards on hand in hopes of landing freelance gigs, and he averages about 250 performances annually, he said.
Grissom started performing in subway stations in 1983 and is one of the charter members of MUNY. Currently, MUNY has about 100 musicians who perform in 25 locations throughout the subway system.
“The goal of the program is to encourage the use of our transit system and improve the mass-transit environment,” said Lydia Bradshaw, manager of the Arts for Transit Project and Music Under New York. “If you’re traveling through a station on your daily commute and come across a musical performer, it can be uplifting, can be a cultural experience. It can uplift your day, your mood, can be something new to you — a new kind of musical experience.”
But Grissom admits capturing the attention of an audience of commuters isn’t always easy.
“Basically, you’re dealing with a non-captive audience,” he said. “They’re not here for me. They’re here to get from Point A to Point B. I have maybe 20 to 25 seconds to catch their attention.”
MUNY subway musicians such as Grissom are identifiable by the Music Under New York banners displayed nearby when they are performing. To become a member of the group, musicians must audition for a panel of judges comprising MTA officials, professional musicians and other MUNY members. The program also organizes annual scheduled music performances and has a registry of musicians on its Web site.
“When the public sees a performer and weren’t able to jot down their number, they can call us and we can hook them up in case they want to hire them,” Bradshaw said.
While being registered with MUNY has its benefits, not all subway musicians buy into the idea, including Gio Andollo, 25, who calls himself a devout Christian and works as a music instructor at I.S. 230 in Queens.
“There’s something in my spirit that is really opposed to it,” said Andollo, who plays on the platform of the Delaney and Essex station on the Lower East Side. “I don’t feel like I should have to ask permission to express myself and enrich the lives of other people around me. It just seems like a way to marginalize people who maybe aren’t doing things the conventional way.”
A soft-spoken man with a slight build, Andollo plays an eclectic mix of folk music and punk on the platform. He plays the acoustic guitar and harmonica, and provides vocals for each song.
Andollo moved to New York City from Orlando, Fla., three months ago to join a flagship branch of the Orlando-based church Trinity Grace.
“People tend to have an understanding that religion (plays) a fundamental sort of role to you,” he said. “That’s not my lifestyle. In terms of rituals, I think of lot of those in Christianity are valuable, but a lot of them aren’t.”
Before he found himself playing music under the city streets, Andollo worked for AmeriCorps, a non-profit volunteer based agency, tutoring at a Florida high school. It was during this time he decided he wanted to become a street performer.
He cites his musical influences as Bob Dylan, punk group Against Me! and The Beatles. While The Beatles’ song “All You Need is Love” is his motto for life, Andollo’s folksy style is more reminiscent of Dylan.
“(Performing) makes me want to create a spirit of peace in our city,” Andollo said. “So I go out and sing about love and peace.”
As a new subway musician, the most he’s made is $7 over several hours. He’s having trouble making rent and paying bills at his Harlem apartment, he said.
“I am having a very difficult time surviving,” he said. “I can’t pay my rent with what I make here.” Andollo often finds himself competing with other musicians and street evangelists. He’s even had some negative reactions from passersby.
“I don’t know why,” he said. “I think they probably see it as an intrusion on what they’re doing, which I guess is just walking by.”
But in true street performer fashion, he keeps playing.
For Angel Cruz, 32, playing in the subway is simply a stop on the train to a better life. While Cruz, of Buskwick, Brooklyn, represents the bottom of the hierarchy of subway musicians, he actually prefers to play on the trains because it’s a more captive audience, he said.
Cruz is the father of seven and has another child on the way. He plays the harmonica on the trains across the city, performing lively Christmas carols and holding a white Styrofoam cup for donations.
“I like playing on the train, cheering people up and playing my harmonica,” Cruz said.
He hopes to one day earn his GED and get an associate’s degree from ASA College in Brooklyn.
“I was thinking of channeling my (energy), getting my degree, focusing on something else,” he said.
Ten years ago, Cruz saw a $7 harmonica for sale in a convenience store and bought it on a whim.
“It’s a portable instrument,” he said. “When I came across it, it was sparkling like a diamond in the sky, so I picked it up.” Cruz then taught himself to play with no lessons or previous musical experience.
“I’ve been told that I’m talented and play really well,” he said. His profits agree — he said he’s made up to $350 in just a few hours.
Performing and soliciting music on the train is actually illegal, according to MUNY standards. But that doesn’t stop Cruz, who isn’t a member of the organization.
“I’ve never gotten ticketed or anything,” he said of his interaction with the New York Police Department. “I have been stopped. (The police) weren’t rude or abusive or anything. They just said it’s not legal to (play on the train), and I could get a ticket. They checked my ID to see if I had any warrants, patted me down.”
The NYPD deputy commissioner of public information declined to comment on their policy when dealing with subway musicians.
Despite police intervention, Cruz continues playing on the trains, weaving in and out of passengers, his fingers moving like lighting across the harmonica, his cheeks puffing in and out rhythmically.
Cruz has always been an entrepreneur. Not only does he support his entire family through subway performing, but he also bought a shaved ice truck and sells shaved ice to kids in Brooklyn.
“I’ve always been trying to make a dollar out of 15 cents,” he said, pressing the harmonica to his lips as he resumed playing.