The Pianist that Brings a Steinway to the Park

Remove the lid, unscrew the lyre, set the piano on a board, strap them together, take off the piano’s three legs, and put all the parts into different bags. Those are simplified instructions for disassembling a grand piano. A Steinway piano worth tens of thousands of dollars, at that.

Colin Huggins, 41, a classical pianist and street musician, has repeated the process nearly every weekend for the past eight years. He does it every time he wraps up his performance at Washington Square Park in Manhattan, usually in the evening, watching fellow street musicians pack up much smaller instruments such as flutes and guitars before they leave.

Then it takes him 20 minutes to lag the 750-pound piano, together with his backpack and three tip buckets, over half a mile back to a storage unit in lower Manhattan.

He plays a variety of classical pieces at the park, from Franz Schubert to Sergei Rachmaninoff to Philip Glass, as long as the temperature is at or above freezing. When it’s too cold, he can’t move his fingers and Rachmaninoff turns into Rachmaninwayoff.

Before working as a street musician, he worked as a ballet accompanist. He tried breakdancing, then in the summer of 2007, he brought a $150 upright piano and took it to the streets for the first time.

It sounded “horrible,” he says.

By 2017, Huggins had a $12,000 Yamaha baby grand, and invited people to lie underneath it. He got the idea from a piano technician, who described how amazing it was whenever he lied underneath a freshly tuned piano to ensure it sounded right.

“Actually you can feel the notes as well as hear them,” Huggins says. “Every note has a different feeling in your body.”

For most of his audience, it was their first time listening to classical music this way. “When he was doing the lower notes, it was vibrating down there. We don’t hear that from a distance,” says Marc Serre, 50, a visitor from Quebec, Canada, who, on his back, listened to Chopin on a cold February day. “He puts emotions into the pieces.”

Part of the experience is the piano itself, a new $60,000 Steinway B baby grand, which Huggins bought for $35,000 last year.  

In June he fundraised for it through a project called “lay under the best piano” on Kickstarter, raising $30,000 in a month. “I felt like if it was something that people find valuable, they would not have a problem giving me money,” Huggins says. “It’s really hard to do that with art though, especially music.”

Three days ahead of the deadline, he still needed $8,000.  

He tried everything he could think of, live streaming himself telling stories, transporting the piano, and playing Rhapsody in blue as many times as he could until he got at least $2,000 in donations. It took him playing the 17 minute-piece 10 times in a row that day. As usual, people waited until the last minute to donate, which it did by midnight, the bewitching hour. After arriving home, however, he noticed someone trying to pull the money out at 2 a.m. The platform stopped the person; later he learned it had been a friend’s prank.

He collected about $27,000 through Kickstarter, after the platform deducted its portion. The rest, about $8,000, came out of his own pocket.

“He’s got three buckets out there,” says Tim Geoghegan, 44, a creative director and Huggins’s friend. “What’s the meaning of that? Versus somehow making the money, it’s like what did people really value, and it reminds you that we all value the same things.”

Playing music on the streets is Huggins’ sole source of income. He makes enough to “barely” cover expenses, living in a one-bedroom apartment at East Village, paying $600 a month for the storage space, getting the piano tuned for $150 every weekend, and purchasing $400 board wheels every two months.    

He usually saves money for the winter to avoid playing in the extreme cold. However, the coming of the new piano tightened his budget. “I realized I just needed to keep going and try to make as much money as possible,” he says.  

When the first really cold weekend arrived in December with a dash of snow, Huggins was worried about his Steinway, which sounded terrible after he played it outdoors all day. The delicate instrument seemed especially sensitive to frigid temperatures.

After the parts of the new piano successful broke in, and the strings stretched themselves, the Steinway got used to the cold weather. “It just needed some time,” Huggins says. Just in case, though, Huggins checks seven weather forecast apps on his phone before going out to play.

Monday through Friday, Huggins practices in his apartment, playing from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a cardboard sign in front of him that reads: “BREATHE” in yellow highlighter. Huggins usually plays the hardest pieces in the morning, and at 1 p.m., takes a break for lunch. He tends to eat healthy to stay energetic, preparing a mix of rice, wild rice, and edamame, and a smoothie that looks purple, as he adds beets to it.

At the end of a practice day, he watches Game of Thrones, a show long enough that he could continue watching every other day. Prior to that, his entertainment was a 10-hour civil war documentary.

Spending most of his time alone on weekdays, Huggins performs to big crowds on Saturday and Sunday. People gather around. To make his voice heard in an open space, he has to play and speak louder than he likes. During breaks, he steps up on the stool, explaining what he does, asking his audience to move closer and inviting people to lay underneath the piano.

When the crowds fade away, Huggins packs up his piano, pushing it through the streets. Sometimes friends help, but not today.

Jimmy Pearl, 62, musician and a long-time resident of Washington Square, met Huggins five years ago as the pianist asked him to help push the piano. “He is a great guy,” Pearl says. “He is more famous than he even realizes it himself.”

“Who does that?” Peal says, shaking his head. “Who puts people underneath a piano in the middle of New York City at some park?”