The small Italian city of Siena sits on top of a hill. It makes for beautiful views. But if you’re trying to get a piano to the top – not a keyboard, a full-blown piano – it means a lot of work.
But for Dotan Negrin, pushing a piano from place to place isn’t just a (bizarre) chore, it is necessary to maintain his livelihood: Playing the piano around the world.
His efforts, however, are rewarded. Two hours into his set in Siena, a man comes out on his balcony and starts to applaud.
“Red or white?” he calls down. “Red,” Negrin responds.
“I always say yes,” Negrin says. “I know it’s going to lead to something interesting.”
This impromptu meeting is just one of many Negrin’s had since 2010, when he began working as a traveling pianist, better known under the Instagram handle, @pianoaround.
“This whole thing has been a one huge social experiment,” he says of his playing. “It’s the most amazing ice-breaker.”
He’s spent months on the road – from the United States to Europe – living out of a truck with a piano in the back.
Inspiration hit back in 2010, when, like many 20-somethings, Negrin felt a bit directionless. He’d worked in real estate, he’d done day trading, but he never felt like he had a real passion.
But for one gig as a photographer’s assistant, he was tasked with driving pieces of art down to Miami for Art Basel. It was this road trip that piqued his interest in traveling for a living. But that wasn’t all he was looking for, Negrin also wanted to challenge himself in a way he felt his past jobs hadn’t. And perhaps most of all, he wanted do something that no one else had done before.
Piano had been a hobby of Negrin’s since college, although he admits he never saw it as a career. “I fell in love with the way musicians are able to create emotions and tell stories through music,” he says.
And yes, while bringing a keyboard would be simpler (and require a bit less manual labor), Negrin has never been looking for easy. “Anyone can bring a keyboard to the street and play,” he says. “I wanted to do something that’s challenging and extraordinary.”
In an effort to be extraordinary, Negrin nearly drained his bank account, paying $9000 for a yellow Penske box truck and another $500 for a piano. He converted the back of the truck into a makeshift studio apartment, complete with carpeting, a cooler, a closet, and of course, a piano.
He started playing in his own city, New York, on the street or in subway stations. He began to get into a routine of playing: He’d take crowd favorites, like Elton John and Billy Joel, and put his own jazz-inspired spin on them. It wasn’t long before he decided to branch out.
He drove for a collective 1,600 miles, hitting 34 states in five months. That was just the first. He’s done five trips total: Down the east coast to Miami, across Maine and into Canada, through Mexico to Panama, and all throughout western Europe. But, as he learned quickly, traveling around the world to play piano isn’t as idyllic as it sounds.
“[It is] definitely harder to navigate and travel through,” he says.
Negrin admits it comes with constant struggle, from the financial (he says that he’s lost money on every trip) to the physical (pushing a 500 pound piano isn’t only difficult in hilly Siena). He’s had his van broken into in Mexico, struggled to find parking on narrow European streets, and paid hefty prices for gas at his international destinations.
He broke his fingers and lost a nail when pushing his piano in TriBeCa, after it fell and landed on his digits. That injury is one of many: He’s suffered countless back injuries, muscle tension, and even more broken fingers.
“People don’t realize, but it’s so freaking hard,” Negrin says of pushing the piano. “There have been days when I would get up and I’d be like I don’t even want to do this.”
The exhaustion has taken its toll, but clearly, it has never stopped Negrin from getting to the next destination – and the people he meets along the way are a big reason why.
Despite the solitary nature of this chosen path – playing the piano, usually unaccompanied – Negrin is rarely lonely on his trips. A few times, his girlfriend or his dog, Brando, joined him for part of the journey, but mostly, he’d meet an endless stream of people.
And really, it’s the people that have made his travels memorable. He’s been invited to a family reunion in Maine. He’s met 100 people in a day in Zurich, including a group of 40 school girls, for whom he played One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful.” He’s skinny-dipped with a family in Amsterdam. Tasted a local beverage, Mezcal (similar to tequila) in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Through it all, he’s gathered countless friendships – and over 1,200 contacts in his phonebook.
And there’s still another side of the world he has yet to play for. Possible destinations? Asia or Australia, he says. He continues to get messages from young, aspiring piano players, who tell him how inspirational his ongoing project is.
“That,” he says, “keeps propelling me forward.”