Street musician Dotan Negrin, 28, started playing piano less than 10 years ago. Today, he’s making a profit traveling the world as a street pianist.
After graduating with an acting degree from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Negrin spent two frustrating years as a struggling actor in New York. Fed up with his day-to-day grind and inspired by his love for music and travel, Negrin wanted to, in his own words, “do something extraordinary.” So he bought a piano and a truck and took to the streets.
Since then, Negrin has become a nationwide sensation.
He has even traveled internationally – he just returned from a trip to Europe and is hoping to travel to Asia next year. Negrin sat down with Artistry Magazine reporter Gwen Schanker to discuss his music, his passions and where he’s headed next.
Gwen Schanker: What were you doing before you became a traveling street pianist?
Dotan Negrin: I was a personal assistant for a photographer and artist and the first job I did for him was drive his truck full of his paintings and photography all the way down to Miami from New York for a big art festival down there. It was kind of like a random sporadic thing. When I got to Miami, my friend called me up and told me to fly down to the Dominican Republic. I ended up going down there and had one of the most amazing times in my entire life. I rode motorcycles through the tropical rainforest and made friends with people and explored. It was such an eye-opening, mind-blowing experience. It’s kind of what started my addiction to travel.
GS: What first gave you the idea to travel the world as a street pianist?
DN: I spent the week in the Dominican Republic, and then I flew back to Miami and the artist needed someone to drive back to New York. I traveled the world, and I came back home with profit. That was kind of like the initial seed to try to figure out a way to travel the world and make money. That was the dream.
I started playing piano [when] I was 19 years old. It was a college thing. My roommates were jazz guitar and jazz drum majors. That’s what propelled me into music and piano. I fell in love with the emotion that music could produce without words. I wanted to be able to recreate that.
I spent two years being frustrated with my life in New York and not moving forward and feeling like anything was really happening. Everywhere I was going I was dependent on other people to get to where I want to go. I was tired of that. I wanted to be independent. I wanted to create my own thing. I wanted to do something extraordinary.
As kind of an experiment, I brought an upright piano onto the streets of New York. I [played] it for a couple days and I was meeting people left and right. I met so many types of people every day. That’s what became so much fun about it – I’m meeting new people and it’s not the same mundane experience.
GS: What were the first few months like?
DN: A couple weeks after I started playing on the streets, a piano fell on my hand, breaking two of my fingers. I was out for three months – I couldn’t do anything. Now my finger kind of looks like weird deformed finger, but it’s not that bad anymore. Once I started to heal, I started playing piano again and getting better. That incident kind of inspired me to say, I need to do this now.
Initially I was a little homesick. It was difficult – I was living out of a van. It was fun, [because] I was meeting people, I was playing piano, I was practicing, I was getting better. It was adventurous because I didn’t know what was going to happen next.
GS: How does that compare to your experience now?
DN: I just came back from Europe. I ended up spending a lot more money than I wanted to. If I go on another trip, I want to be able to come back with profit. I want to see this as a business that I can grow and make a living doing the things I love to do in life, not just doing what other people want. I’m still working towards that goal of being self-sufficient. I’m always testing ideas. I literally take whatever comes to me first and I’ll roll with it and see what happens, and if that doesn’t work then I’ll try something else.
GS: What have been your favorite places that you’ve visited and played?
DN: I have a lot of favorite places. New York City is probably the greatest place in the world. I also love New Orleans; I love Quebec City in Canada; I love Santa Cruz, California. All of those towns have a street-performing scene. It’s the people that I meet in the cities that end up reflecting positively on that city.
GS: What’s one of the craziest experiences you’ve had?
DN: Getting robbed in Nicaragua (and) having to survive for a week with $100, which is very doable. I ate a lot of guacamole and fruits and vegetables, and stayed in a hostel for $5 a night. I had heatstroke at the same time. It was so stressful. I was surfing for the first time in my life, and my car got robbed, and I felt like I was dying. It was the worst experience of my life, but it was a challenge that God was giving me, or whatever. I see it as my fault – I was a little bit too loose and too comfortable at that point.
GS: What about one of the best experiences?
DN: One of the best experiences I ever had was playing on the streets of Portland, Oregon and getting invited to this guy’s family reunion. Here I am having dinner with 3 generations of this family, and they’re all musical. After we eat, the brother that invited me says, “we’re playing at the local bar.” They surprised me by setting up a keyboard for me to play with them. At this point, I had never played with a full band. I ended up playing an entire four-hour gig with them. It was one of the most incredible times. After the gig, the older brother came up to me and handed me $200. I literally just took what life gave me and went with it.
GS: Does that kind of thing happen to you a lot?
It happens to me all the time, that people invite me to their houses. The pattern that I’ve noticed is that the people that invite me over are usually the people that have also traveled. That’s something I want to write about eventually. People who travel end up learning what the world is truly like, or they see a different side of the world that opens their mind to meeting people and being open. With travel, there’s an understanding amongst travelers. At the same time, the music and the piano and traveling and living this lifestyle is a really great icebreaker, which is also why I love street performing in New York. In the same day I might pass a billionaire, or someone from CNN who wants to do a story on me. It’s the best networking I’ve ever done. It’s really incredible how many people I’ve met.
I did a commercial last year for Goodyear because some woman saw me on the street and she worked for CNN. Now I’m in talks with them to potentially go to Argentina with them. And it’s all because of this woman I met on the street. It’s crazy! It’s like a chain event that occurred.
GS: What’s the most difficult part of your journey? Have you ever wanted to quit?
DN: I’ve thought about quitting this project like 5 or 6 times. There have been times when I’m just struggling, sleeping in my van. All my friends are in finance or banking or something. I start to compare myself (to them). And then I speak to my friend and he tells me, “Dude I wish I was doing what you’re doing.” I am doing something pretty awesome and I should just keep going, and eventually it’s [going to] pay off.
GS: What keeps you going?
DN: It makes me feel so gratified to be able to inspire people to change their lives or to create other interesting projects that might change other people’s lives. The times that I’ve wanted to quit, I think about the people I’ve inspired. Someone will send me the most heartfelt, beautiful message about how they are taking off of school to experiment and try something that they love. Earlier this year, I got a message from a guy in Texas who’s like, “now I play piano on the streets in Texas too.” I just love it. I love inspiring people.
GS: Where are you headed from here?
DN: I want to continue touring as a musician. I want to get a manager and I want to start playing at venues. I don’t just want to be on the streets anymore. Although I love traveling with a piano, [it’s] so much work. I love street performing, but I want to start doing venues that already have pianos in there. That’s kind of where I’m going now. I’m (also) going to try to pitch a TV show.
GS: The slogan for your website is, “Do Something Extraordinary.” What other undertakings would you consider extraordinary?
DN: It’s very general. I think if you can create a movement, or a nonprofit that changes the lives of 10,000 people, I think that’s extraordinary. I think it’s extraordinary when someone or people can challenge the norm. When someone can break away from the normal routine of things and create their own way of doing it. The most notable figures in science (and) athletes are people who’ve reinvented, not those who have taken the same route as anyone else.
GS: What advice do you have for college students who want to “do something extraordinary”?
DN: The whole idea of being spontaneous and reinventing the rules – those are two big things. To challenge the way we think about how things are done. I just read an article about a woman who dropped out of Stanford and reinvented the blood test. I consider the 9-5 job kind of like settling. I’ve been through it, and I know how frustrating it is, and most people I know are kind of frustrated with it too. There’s no better time to start reinventing the rules aside from now.
More information about Negrin and his travels can be found on his blog, pianoaroundtheworld.com, and his YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/pianoaround.