Improvising Life with a Piano, a Dog and a $2 Dream

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Dupont Circle, Washington, D.C.

In April 2011, Dotan Negrin, 24, did what anyone with an unrewarding job, two dollars to his name and a full tank of gas would do: He quit, packed his 500-pound upright piano into a truck he’d bought on eBay and set out across the country in the hope of supporting himself by playing piano on the street. Riding shotgun was Brando, his four-footed Jack Russell-Chihuahua-blend friend.

Behind him were a BFA from Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, plans to pursue acting, years of auditions and underwriting non-paying parts by working as a day trader, photographer’s assistant and deejay. Ahead of him was the first stop on what he dubbed his two-dollar road trip: New York City, just a short drive from his hometown of Huntingdon, Long Island. He set up shop in front of a Whole Foods in Tribeca and, after three nerve-wracking hours, he’d made $152, enough to fill his food cooler and fuel his truck as well as his dream.

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Union Square, New York City

Five months, 50 cities and 15,000 miles later, Negrin returned to New York with a proof of concept and a new raison d’être. His travels had taken him much further than the miles on his speedometer. His huge risk had paid off, literally—he was earning a living doing what he loved—and, he discovered, his leap of faith was inspiring others to pursue their own dreams.

Negrin has since crisscrossed the country three times, playing on streets, on beaches and even in national parks, sharing stories about his travels on his site, Piano Across America, and capturing the attention of CNN and major media in Italy, France, Germany, Australia and Taiwan. He’s inviting everyone to join Brando and him on their fourth road trip—a 10,000-mile journey from New York City to Panama—and he’s launched a Kickstarter campaign with the goal of funding a documentary web series called Language of the Universe that chronicles his adventures and explores the importance of music in people’s lives. Funding will cover the costs of a production crew, equipment and piano maintenance, and Negrin will personally match every dollar raised.

If you need any further inspiration, read on and watch Negrin in action in the videos below, a highlights reel from all the many locations he’s played and a clip from one of the most difficult—the cliffs of the Upper Canyon in Yellowstone National Park. And because you’ll want to see more after you watch those, check out the nearly 100 videos on the Piano Across America YouTube channel.

UPDATE: On January 28, 2013, the last day of Piano Across America‘s Kickstarter campaign, Negrin met his goal of $10,000. Thanks to everyone who contributed, you’ll be able to follow Negrin and Brando on the road from New York City to Panama in their upcoming video web series.

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Glacier National Park, Montana
You were frustrated with your jobs, prospects and life in general for a while before you decided to start playing piano on the streets and try to earn a living from it. Was there a particular insight or moment that set it all in motion?

I think it was a culmination of the inspirations and experiences I had in 2009. I was working as a personal assistant for a photographer-painter. I spent most of my time working towards his dreams and his goals. I think one of the major moments that inspired me was the first job I did for him. He paid me to drive his 16-foot box truck from New York City to Miami for the Art Basel contemporary art fair and I did a lot of thinking on that trip. This was where I thought, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if I could get paid to travel and perform at the same time?” Of course, it was a pretty extraordinary idea at the time. I didn’t think it was possible.

How did Brando come into your life?

Brando came into my life by chance. The artist who I was working for had a Jack Russell and I found out that he recently mated with another dog. So we went to see the puppies. I’d never had a dog before, but the puppies were so adorable. The man who owned the other dog pressured me a little bit asking if I wanted to buy one. Eventually I caved in and bought Brando (who was named “Smalls” at the time) for $120. He was 6 weeks old.

There’s a video on your site that shows Brando at 8 weeks old, playing with a ball and hopping around like a rabbit. You call him Parker but he doesn’t respond. How did you realize that his name was Brando?

Ha ha, that’s funny. I went through about seven different names that week. I tried Parker, after Charlie Parker, and he never responded to that. Finally we came up with Brando after Marlon Brando and it was a perfect match. His personality and look gives off the impression of a “Brando.” Now I sometimes tell people that he is Marlon Brando reincarnated as a dog.

Early on, as you were pushing a piano on a street in Tribeca, you hit a pothole and the piano tipped backwards and crushed your left hand, causing multiple fractures. You said the emergency room treatment was the most physically painful experience of your life and that you were deeply depressed during the healing process. And yet, you say you eventually saw the positive side of the incident, that it solidified your endeavor to become a musician. How?

The incident was such a shock to me that it made me realize if I don’t go after this NOW, I may never end up doing it. I remember the doctor telling me that I might not be able to play again and that hurt me so much. Turns out the doctor did such a great job and that I was very lucky the piano didn’t smash the joints in my fingers.

After I broke my fingers I started planning my trip to travel America. One of the positive sides of the incident was that I started playing piano a month later with limited use. I was able to use the pinky, ring and thumb on my left hand, which were my weakest fingers. Doing this allowed me to build those muscles and develop my piano playing skills.

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New Orleans, Louisiana
Where did you get your pianos?

I got all my pianos through eBay and Craigslist. Most of them were cheap pianos, under $600. There seems to be a surplus of old pianos out there, most of which are going to be sold or destroyed.

A good-looking young man playing piano on a city street with a dog sitting on top of the piano: It’s a foolproof formula for attracting attention. Did you realize that at the start or discover it along the way?

It didn’t start like that. It started with me playing piano on the streets in NYC without Brando. I wasn’t very good at piano in the beginning, but it was challenging, it took me out of my comfort zone and it opened me up to meeting some really amazing people. I never intended this project to become what it is today.

Brando ended up on the piano by accident. One day in Philadelphia he just jumped up on the piano while I was playing and it just sort of stuck. Now that has become his spot.

Everywhere you go, you attract crowds of listeners and other musicians who ask to jam with you. What is it about music that breaks the ice so easily?

Just about everyone listens to music and it is a huge force in all our lives. Many musicians come up to me to talk and I almost always ask them to play with me because I find that it can lead to some interesting discoveries. I play differently with each musician and I find that exploration to be fascinating.

When I see a good musician playing on the streets I get attracted to him or her partly because I like the music that they’re playing. Then I get interested in their story: Who are they? Why are they playing on the streets?

So I guess part of it is the music, the other half is the desire in all of us to connect with other people.

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Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
What do you like to play? What do people ask you to play?

I am a huge jazz and classical listener and I love instrumental music mostly because I am intrigued by the way musicians can tell stories, create environments and make you feel emotion through organized tones. I mostly play jazz and classical and sometimes I will throw in some rock and pop.

I like to improvise and make up my own music on the spot. It’s the most exciting way to play because I’m making discoveries as I go along. When I improvise, I don’t know what will happen next.

Most people in America ask for Billy Joel, Elton John—or the Entertainer, which I think is really funny because that is the most popular American piano music.

Do you write original music?

Very recently I’ve started to explore my own original sound. I haven’t made an album yet because I really want to be ready.

Out of all the places you’ve played so far, what’s the most unusual?

The most unusual place I’ve played would have to be inside a redwood tree  in California. My piano was so beat up at that point and it was out of tune, but I did it anyway because, how often would I get the chance to do that? The redwood forest at Prairie Creek had the most amazing acoustics I have ever experienced.

Where have you been asked to leave?

I usually get asked to leave in high-traffic place in cities. Usually near big corporate buildings and major areas in cities. I was asked to leave when I played near the Empire State building, on the High Line Park, in Seattle on Pine Street.

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A note from a fan
Someone once threw a note in your bucket that said: “Thank you for being the hope and inspiration I needed.” That has to make you feel like you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing, right?

My journey changed in the last year and a half. It started off as a journey to help me achieve my personal goal of being a self-sustained performing artist and traveler. But as I went along I started getting messages from high school students, middle school teachers who shared my story with their students and parents of kids that I met. These messages inspired me so much and I realized that my story was inspiring others to do something really extraordinary. Since then I realized that rather than just helping myself, I could go beyond that and inspire others to do something extraordinary with their lives.

I’d like to take that idea further and maybe go to schools to do interactive workshops with kids about music, go to colleges and do some public speaking, maybe even create a nonprofit that helps people create really interesting projects that not only help themselves but gives something back to the people and world around them.

You regularly post details of your finances on your site. What’s the most you’ve ever made in a day? The least?

The most I’ve ever made in a day was $550 and that was after about eight hours of being on the street. The least was $45 for five hours and that was when I first started.

What determines how long you stay in one place?

A lot of my travels have been based around feeling and intuition. I’ve learned to let go of planning and just go. I would let the discoveries and the people I meet inform my next destination or how long I would stay in a city. There is only so much you can learn from travel blogs and travel books. I believe the best way to learn about a location is to get there and meet as many people as possible.

How does traveling so much affect your personal relationships?

Traveling has opened me up to so many people and I’ve made so many friends in the last two years. I love the idea of having so many friends all over the world I could meet up with and even travel with. In terms of my personal relationships with people at home, it hasn’t affected them at all.

You’ve said that your travels to more than 60 cities in America have made you appreciate New York City more than you ever did. What have your travels taught you to appreciate about New York?

New York is interesting because of the large amount of people who live there and the diversity of the people. It’s truly unlike any other city that I’ve been to. New York is so amazing because there are these little villages, each with their own type of people and atmosphere. The West village is certainly different from the East Village. You’ll find the Puerto Rican community in Alphabet City, the hipsters and punks of Williamsburg, the glamorous people who walk West Broadway and the Meatpacking District. There is always something to discover even when you’ve been there all your life.

Another thing is that in New York everything is within reach, as compared to LA, where you have to drive 30 minutes just to get somewhere. But in NYC you can hop on a train or walk and you are instantly in another part of town. In some cities I found myself walking the streets alone looking for people to meet.

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White Sands, New Mexico
You’ve said that you fell in love with the New Mexico desert and a tiny town named Claunch in the middle of it. What about it was so captivating?

What was so captivating was standing amidst the open and expansive desert of New Mexico. The weather was sunny with a breeze at 75 degrees and the view was breathtaking. The road looked like it traveled for miles and miles. There wasn’t a single human being around and it was just me and the earth. It was a feeling of freedom that I’ve never had in my entire life. As if there were no laws or rules to life, just to Go.

Part of it was the feeling of isolation that I’ve never experienced. Its actually the total opposite experience of NYC. Time slowed down in the desert. It felt risky going down that road because there wasn’t any food or gas for 100 miles or so.

The weather must play an important part in what you do. What do you do when it rains? When it’s really cold?

I am dependent on good weather to play piano. When it rains I’m usually spending my time at a library or practicing piano. There isn’t much I can do. When it’s too cold, that usually means its time to travel south to Florida and play in Miami or the Keys.

What are some of the challenges of traveling with Brando?

Brando can sometimes be a challenge because he is a little bit high maintenance. I have to walk him and care for him which can be tough when I have to move a 500-pound piano around.

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Madison, Wisconsin
As a musician, you improvise. But you’ve also said that carries over into life. What does it mean to improvise your life?

“Improvise your life” is something I came up with because it describes the way I like to travel. As I said before I travel without much planning and I like to make discoveries as I go along. But it also describes the way I like to explore playing the piano.

Sometimes you don’t have to know or have an answer to all the questions in life. When I am home I find it important to have plans and be organized, but when I travel I like to let go of time and the pressures that I have ever day and just Be. Its an incredibly freeing experience that most of us never get an opportunity to do. To let go of time and the limitations of every day life and just live and explore Life.

How have you changed as a result of your travels and experiences?

I’ve learned so much through traveling. I’ve really learned to appreciate the earth and all its wonders. I really care about the earth and hate the fact that I need to use gasoline to travel. (I am actually searching for a new method of travel or a way to get rid of my dependency of gasoline to travel around.)

One of the major lessons I’ve learned is that I don’t need so much stuff in my life. I had so many possessions stored at my parents’ home and when I traveled I realized that I don’t need much at all to be happy. In fact, I learned that having too much stuff can be a stressful experience. In the last six months I’ve actually been packing up my things and donating most of my belongings so I can let go of the unnecessary objects in my life.

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Redwood National Park, California
You’ve said that there’s no such thing as overnight success and agree with Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule” from The Outliers, which states that success in any endeavor is dependent upon practicing for approximately 10,000 hours. How many hours are you in?

I’ve been playing piano for around eight years. I would say that I play on average anywhere from two to three hours a day, although some days I’ve played eight hours, sometimes none. I would say that I’m around the 5-6,000 mark. I am certainly no master in piano, but it’s all about the journey, not the end result, right? Slowly, slowly, I’m finding that I can literally translate the things that I imagine in my head to the piano. Then again, the exploration in music never ends, you continue to find new ways of expressing yourself as you age.

What does success look like to you?

Success for me is where I can be 100 percent sustainable with my career as a performing artist and traveler. I would like to take this project to point where I am performing on stages across the world. I would love to have my own travel TV show where I get to travel with my piano and meet different musicians from all over the world. Or even a nonprofit that inspires and helps other people create really amazing projects like Piano Across America.

Do you have a favorite inspirational book, film, music, TV show/series?

I don’t have one particular book or music because I’ve been inspired by so many different things in my 26 years of existence. Recently I’ve been inspired by Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which was a book given to me by a man I met in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He told me that my story and journey was similar to that of Thoreau and he wanted me to read it. I was inspired by Travels with Charley by Steinbeck. Of course, I read On the Road by Jack Kerouac and that was a big inspiration on me. He was also a big jazz listener and find myself having similar experiences to the ones in his novels. I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy and exploring different blogs that talk about meditation, yoga and motivation. In terms of music, I have been inspired very much by the carer and exploration of Miles Davis. As  pianist I have always been fond of Bill Evans. And I also love Bobby McFerrin as a performer and improviser.

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Brando, on the road
Do you ever acquire any souvenirs?

I’m not a souvenir guy. I usually like to have some really nice photos. Sometimes I’ve taken some sand or dirt from my favorite locations. Sometimes I’ll grab a nice rock or piece of wood.

What have you learned about yourself as a result of your travels that you never knew?

I’ve learned that I can survive with very little and still be very happy. My values and morals have changed since this journey.

Most of all I’ve learned that I want to devote my life to creating really interesting projects using the performing arts that inspire, provoke, motivate and teach people to explore living life outside the box.

What are you hoping to accomplish with your Kickstarter campaign? Why should someone contribute to it?

I’m hoping to develop a travel show around music from all over the world. We will be traveling with an upright piano to different cities in America and Central America meeting with different musicians and discussing their process and how they live their lives.

People should contribute if they are interested in exploring new musicians who aren’t in the mainstream and are living extraordinary lives through music. Viewers will also get an inside look to what its like to road trip on a budget from New York City to Central America.

You’ve said Brando is the boss. Is he a good boss?

Brando can sometimes be a little bit too bossy. He is a mix of a 3-year-old spoiled child, a dog and a famous celebrity. So I find myself doing a lot of maintenance to make sure that Brando is safe and not getting into trouble.

UPDATE: On January 28, 2013, the last day of Piano Across America‘s Kickstarter campaign, Negrin met his goal of $10,000. Thanks to everyone who contributed, you’ll be able to follow Negrin and Brando on the road from New York City to Panama in their upcoming video web series.

 

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  3. Oh, this is so cool especially with the dog, Brendo traveling across America. Among the places where piano has been, Colorado I guess would be the best destination. The big and roaring mountains will just make the sound of the piano perfect to arrange music. Having different people across America to jam with the music that is played in the piano would be the best and memorable thing one can experience. I am just truly amazed by this, thank you for sharing.

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  5. Amazing and inspirational! I love street musicians, anyway, but haven’t really considered their motives or the different life stories behind their profession. Anyway, I’ll let my mom know that I see a chance how the piano-lessons from way-back-when may finally pan out – because damn right I know how to play “The entertainer”:) Just very, very badly:P. All the best to Dotan and Brando – they seem to have many more great ideas, and I hope they get a go at lots of them!

    • To see Dotan in action is even more amazing and inspirational! I am self-taught on the piano and never mastered The Entertainer, not even badly, so, unfortunately, we will not be able to duet. Dotan is a man of many inspiring ideas and I’m hoping he does indeed get a go at them, beginning with his Kickstarter campaign.

  6. I am happy to see that traveling on road with Piano is working out for Dotan, unlike a lot of people whow when they perform on road do not get a very good response. I think blogging and Youtube helped here.
    The whole concept is novel and inspiring, good to also read that he is taking the whole gig to next level by the kickstarter campaign. Here in India we have a lot of street performers struggling.

    • I agree with you that blogging and sharing videos on YouTube has helped Dotan raise awareness and build a following. But as you also note, what he does is both novel and inspiring. I stopped in my tracks the first time I saw him playing on the street in the West Village — there’s a guy with a piano on the sidewalk and there’s a dog on top of the piano! — and I watched him play for a good half-hour. So did many others, because, in addition to everything else, he’s a good, positive guy and it shows. And, of course, there’s Brando.

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