The Piano Player’s Public Performance

Last week, I was in New York City for a few days, and one of the things I did was participate in a public art project called “Pop-Up Pianos.” The project, sponsored by Sing for Hope, celebrates the organization’s year-round work in schools, hospitals, and communities, and reflects their mission of uniting artists and bringing art to all.

I love that. “Bringing art to all.”

I was schedule to perform in front of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library on 5th Avenue, right behind one of the landmark lion statues, last Thursday and Friday. Unfortunately, New York City was a cold and rainy place last week, and my first show was canceled. Friday, the weather was still quite iffy, but there was no actual rain at my concert time, so I went ahead and did a 45 minute set. I know for a fact that the threat of rain kept a fair number of people away – they figured the show would be canceled again.

This week, I received a very sweet email from one of the audience members, a photographer named Billy Carpio. It was really interesting for me to read his percpective on my performance. He was a photographer who happened to walk by me and stopped to take some photos. He wrote:

I thought there was something sad about a woman sitting alone at a piano playing for an inattentive crowd. I also thought, what could be sadder still than when the woman starts singing to herself?

Such was the state I saw her in when I ambled into Bryant Park where I suppose in the summer an entertainer was hired to bring music.

An opportuning photographer that I was who, as far as she was concerned, had only regard for capturing images and none for appreciating music, I approached slowly from behind knowing that my camera’s noise would surely rouse her from her melancholy.

Whether or not she heard me taking shots, she kept on playing. She sang listlessly, I’d say as if in resignation to the fact that an audience of one, however disinterested, was better than none.

Soon, however, I heard footsteps and a small crowd formed behind me. I stepped to the side and then to the front of the piano to give the crowd room. I raised my camera to take more pictures at my new location.

As the photographer went on to report, a small crowd did gather, and I am grateful for these images. I think sometimes people don’t know what to do with public performances. Sometimes, they are an intrusion – someone is used to having a quiet lunch break in the park, and all of a sudden someone is playing a piano and singing. Others are curious. Still others stop for a moment, then mosey on. Everyone in New York City is going some place, and even when you realize this, the disinterest of passing pedestrians is a little discouraging at times.

There was a lesson for me in this, though. Before I had much of an audience, I sang half-heartedly. This was partly because I was not amplified, so I figured no one would hear me. But it was also because I was not fully committed to what I was there to do: background music? If so, I didn’t need to sing. Entertainer? If so, I did need to sing.

As I read his reflections, which were really quite sweet, I realize that I wish I had been more confident when I first sat down. Eventually, as a crowd gathered, The Entertainer came out, and I put on a pretty good “second act.” But why didn’t I go for it from the start? Why did I need an audience in order to give it my all?

I have been thinking about this. I have been an entertainer my whole life. That’s part of why, when I was acting full-time, I always preferred live theater to television and film. I have always thrived on the energy of my audience.

Of course, that can work against you too, when a listless matinee crowd makes your job twice as hard.

The photographer went on to write:

When it was over, the crowd gave applause and she bowed in return. She talked to them about music — a young crowd of what appeared to be college students.

In the past, I have on occasion been to other places where I’m asked to leave the premises and not take pictures. So always in the back of my mind I am prepared to leave promptly and politely however picture-perfect the scene and however dour and downcast I might feel.

This time, however, I walked away feeling valiant and lofty. As the smile on the woman’s face would seem to attest, perhaps thanking me from the bottom of her heart for bringing to her the crowd, photography was welcome. I’m no knight in shining armor, but I like to think that my actions, however perfunctory, and my thoughts, however delusional, bring justice to the world and peace to humankind, and even then when circumstances arise, find occasion to respond and dispense aid to a damsel in distress.

The crowd of students happened to be visiting NYC from Mexico City. Most of them had never been to the U.S. before, and they were really excited to talk with me. I was excited to talk with them, too – I’m taking Spanish this semester, and was grateful for a chance to practice with some native speakers!

That day, when I showed up for my gig, I was discouraged by the weather and the small crowd. However, by the end, I was thrilled to bits that I got to connect with several people one-on-one. (There were about ten others who came and went who are not pictured here, but I had brief conversations with them between songs.) An entertainer doesn’t need a huge crowd; she just needs an interested one. In the end, I got that last Friday, and I was grateful for all who stopped by to listen that day.

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