From New York to Panama – Travelling Across America with a Piano on Wheels
I am willing to bet you never thought about taking $2, your dog, and upright piano on a road trip that would last 31 days and take you to 11 cities!
Well, that is exactly what Dotan Negrin did last year. To top that off, he came home with $2,229 in his pocket.
How did he do it? He played his piano for the public and lived off their generosity.
Dotan Negrin is a true artist at heart. He originally wanted to be an actor and did some off off Broadway, but in the end realized that his true destiny was to use art to inspire people via a different route. He plays piano and entertains as a street artist.
According to Dotan, “The Essence and Purpose of the Theater goes back thousands of years ago to the Greek Philosophers who didn’t want to merely entertain but to become catalysts for change in the world, to put up the mirror to society and say, this is who you are! In the last 2 years, my passions have changed. With Piano Across America I would like to go beyond the surface and into the core of Life. Using Music, Theater, and my personal experiences, I want to become that catalyst for change in the world. I want to help people find their true meaning in life of which goes beyond their individual selves but in helping others and challenging the self. I want to meet people of the world and understand where they come from, their beliefs, their troubles. I want to use Music to bring people together and create a dialogue between neighbors… And I want you to come with me on this journey.”
Having currently completed three solo roadtrips across the Americas playing his piano, Dotan is currently doing his 4th trip. However, this time he hopes to bring a crew with him to document his travels from New York City, to Panama!
The theme of the journey is Music in Society and he hopes to explore the importance of music in people’s lives. The title of this documentary web series is Language of The Universe and is part of his Piano Across America project.
1. You’ve traveled to over 50 cities at this point, playing your piano as a street artist. Many people cannot even imagine this. How would you describe what it is like to do what you do?
I’m currently on my 4th road trip, this time going down to Panama from NYC. This entire project has been one big experiment trying to figure out how I can make a living doing what I love most in life: Travel, Performing, and meeting people. I’ve been living on the road mainly out of my van (I used to have a 12 ft box truck). I usually don’t stay at hotels because they are expensive and spend my time Couchsurfing. I live very minimally and actually sold most of my possessions on eBay in the last 5 months. At the moment I pay for gas and food by playing piano on the streets in the cities I visit. Lately I’ve also been getting gigs at restaurants that pay really well since I bring my own piano. I get to meet new people and make lots of friends in every city I visit, Occassionally I will stop at a National park to visit the sights and do some hiking, practice piano, and soak up the land. It’s a very freeing experience and although I currently dont make as much money as my friends who are in finance, I’m doing what I love, I’m incredibly happy, and I live by my own rules.
2. You mentioned that on your journeys you sometimes get invited to people’s homes. What’s that like? Do you find your lifestyle has really shown you a lot about people in general?
I get invited into peoples homes all the time. One time in Aspen I met this couple who were visiting for the week and they loved what I was doing and when I finished playing on the streets they took me int their timeshare gave me a shower, did my laundry, and we had dinner together. They even introduced me to their friend Aron Ralston (from the film 127 hours)
There was another time I was invited to an Annual Family Gathering on Vinal Haven Island in Maine. I showed up right when they started dinner and there I was sitting at the table with 3 generations of this family (About 14 people). It turned out that many of them were musicians. After dinner the sons had a gig at the local bar with 2 of their friends who play Bass and Alto Sax. They asked me to join them and set up a keyboard for me without me knowing. I thought I was going to play one song with them but I ended up playing an entire 4 hour set without knowing any of the songs (they fed me the chord changes and I did a lot of playing by ear). By the end of the night the eldest son handed me $200 for playing the gig with them. And all this without really knowing what was going to happen. I just sort of went with what came my way. It was certainly one of the greatest moments in my life.
3. Your About page at Piano Across America mentions how theater can be a catalyst to change the world. With your own version of street art playing your piano, you hope to use music to bring people together and create a dialogue. How has that been going so far on your travels? In your experience, does music establish a point of connection?
There was a moment in NYC where I had a small crowd of creative folk hanging around the piano. We were all talking music, I would play a song and then some guy with a guitar showed up and we jammed on a few tunes. An opera singer was hanging around and she sang a song for everyone. It was as if all these normal “blocks” that we put up as New Yorkers were lifted and we all connected upon a similar theme of Music. Sometimes I like to take a break from playing and just talk to the people around me. I’ve had some really in depth conversations about Politics, Music, the Environment, Health and Food, and Travel. I even had a conversation with a man who was convinced that he was abducted by aliens multiple times throughout his life- That was pretty wild!
Part of what I really hope to do with Piano Across America is inspire people to create interesting and remarkable social projects that go beyond the self and help to give something back to society. I’m really not sure where it will take me at the moment: perhaps a non-profit, or an Artist collective, who knows. This is still a very fresh adventure for me. I’ve been doing this for 2 years now.
4. What made you decide to go to the cities you have gone to so far?
I choose the next city based on where I am and where the next closest city is with people. Sometimes I’ll do some research online or ask people on social networking. Sometimes I’ll decide to take a detour and head into the mountains first. I find that the best way to travel and know where to go is to just ask as many locals in the area. They always know whats best.
5. Have you had a favorite city so far? If so, what about that city makes it your favorite?
I would have to say that New Orleans is definitely one of my favorite cities. I love it so much mainly because it’s a music town and there are so many people to learn from and collaborate with. New Orleans is unlike any other city in America because it really has a cultural feel to it rather than just concrete and glass buildings and generic tourism. I love that New Orleans is a big city with a small town feel. I can walk through the French quarter and see the same person that served me coffee the week before or that vocalist I saw at that venue last weekend.
6. What is your favorite part about what you do? Traveling? Playing piano? Meeting new people?
My favorite part about what I do would have to be the people. I’ve probably met close to a few thousand people already in the last 2 years and have made so many friends from all over the world. I got to see how people of all varieties live their lives and even get to experience important cultural events in their lives. I got to spend some time with an indigenous Mayan family in Comalapa, Guatemala recently. They have 7 children who were all learning how to play the Marimba and different musical instruments. We had lunch and spoke about what its like to live in Guatemala, how much money they make, what they pay for taxes…
Of course music is my life and without it, I wouldn’t be able to connect with the people I meet and be doing what I do. I will forever get enjoyment from Music because of the challenge and the limitless exploration there is with it. What makes all this even more amazing is when I get to connect with other musicians and then play music with them. Its exhilarating playing music with someone you just met that second..
7. Your next trip is the one you hope to have a crew along to help document the experience and the importance of music in people’s lives as you witness it in your travels. You picked traveling down through Mexico and Central America. Was there any particular reason for this choice of destinations?
I really wanted to head over to Europe this year but when I said that to my brother, he said, “you haven’t finished the America’s yet.” And he was right. But deep down, there was this fear of heading south of the border. I was really scared of coming down here simply because of all the stories in the news and all the things people were telling me about in America. Little did I realize that most of the people that were telling me all these negative stories have never been there and were just relaying ideas that were told to them. I learned through this experience that unless someone has been these, they really don’t know much.
Part of coming down here was to face my fear and challenge myself to go beyond America. I also have a very strong interest in Latin culture. I’ve been to Dominican Republic many times and love the language, the music, and the people. I wanted to explore more of that.
The idea with bringing down a camera man was to meet with different musicians from all over Latin America and to see what their process is, how they learned the music and then to collaborate with them. It was pretty rough coming down here. It seemed as if we had an endless amount of problems as we drove down through mexico and into Guatemala. I got sick the first day in Guatemala and had to go to the hospital due to a bacterial infection, The camera broke on the first day of shooting with this Guatemalan band, and then my camera man got sick. All in all it was a serious challenge and I took some serious losses. But we did get to meet with some interesting musicians to see what life is like for them.
8. How do you think this trip with a crew will differ from your solo experiences?
Usually when I’m by myself, there is no conflict. Its just go with your intuition, meet people, play on the streets to make some food and gas money, and enjoy my time. This time around there was an agenda. We had an objective and almost always, things NEVER go a planned. There were also some conflict between me and the cameraman about planning and organizing. It was definitely a bigger challenge working with someone on this than when I usually travel alone.
9. On your kickstarter webpage Language of the Universe, where you are hoping to raise enough funds for your trip, you offer a lot of interesting incentives to people who donate. One is a private Skype session with you while you are on the journey. Have you done this before? What is that like? What do you find people who do this are most interested in hearing about?
I actually haven’t done a private skype session with anyone before. But I’m curious to do this more and meet some of the people that are following my blog.
10. You wrote about yourself as having a “free spirited approach to life.” Can you explain more what this means to you?
I love living life on the edge. Sometimes its ok not to know everything or have justification for everything that happens in life. I like to improvise when I play piano. So much of music making is about letting go of thought and just going with the feeling and flow of things. When you let go of some of the questions in your head, you realize the answers to life are already in your intuition.
11. Your faithful companion on your journeys has been your dog. Who is this little guy you take with you? What is he like?
Brando is a small dog of about 13 pounds but with a big personality. Sometimes i feels as if he is a human being in a dogs body. He clearly loves meeting people although sometimes he is a bit protective. He is certainly not shy and likes to be the center of attention. He can be a great companion to have on the road, especially when I’m alone. But sometimes he can be a bit of a hassle when I’m traveling. Its sort of like having a child with me at all times. I need to care for him. So leaving him at home on this last trip down to Panama has been a big release of effort.
12. If people are interested in reading more about your trip or viewing your web series Language of the Universe, where can they go? How can they get to read and/or view this?
They can follow my Tumblr blog:
I update these more often than the other social networks.
13. Do you have any long term plans for after your travels down to Panama? Do you plan on always staying in the Americas as your project is titled Piano Across America?
Yeah I didn’t think of that when I first made my project. I didn’t think it was going to be something that I would do long term. I hope to one day travel to Europe or Asia and see what life is like for people out there. During this trip I’ve been developing my skills as a musician and doing a lot of writing. I hope to put out an album after this Panama trip and put together a band.
14. Do you have any other future goals for your life in general?
I really want to start a band now and form some collaborations. I’ve been a solo pianist for a while and want to expand my learning by playing with new musicians.
In the future I’d like to create a free children’s workshop about music to inspire people to learn musical instruments and explore other styles of music.
15. As an artist, what would you say to other artists wanting to find a way to use their art to inspire others?
I think its important for artist to ask themselves WHY they are making art in the first place. We all have different goals in life, but I think its important to be clear to yourself why you are choosing to pursue something outside of the “normal” spectrum of jobs. There are so many artists who quit because they lose focus or get so caught up in the fear of being an artist. Most of the time if you keep making art and be persistent, eventually success will come your way. Of course, then success is unique to each artist.
Dotan Negrin travels across the United States with an upright piano in a truck. Visit him at pianoacrossamerica.com
Tal Gur is an author, founder, and impact-driven entrepreneur at heart. After trading his daily grind for a life of his own daring design, he spent a decade pursuing 100 major life goals around the globe. His journey and most recent book, The Art of Fully Living, has led him to found Elevate Society.