Colin Huggins used to play guitar.
His brother played it, so he picked it up at an early age. But when he turned 16, his father’s collection of piano music had so infiltrated his musical interest that Huggins decided to take a stab at that instrument instead. Now, years later, he sits at a grand piano in Washington Square Park, his audience ringed around him in all kinds of weather.
We all know Huggins as a park staple. But who is he? And how does he get that huge piano into the fountain? We spent a morning with him to find out.
9:45 am: We met outside of Manhattan Mini Storage on Spring Street, 0.7 miles from WSP. Unlocking the piano that weighs hundreds of pounds and wheeling it out of the elevator is a feat that Colin has come to master.
Then Huggins started swing dancing to meet girls. As it turned out, he would have to wait until he became a ballet accompanist in Boston to find a girlfriend. During a trip to Boston, Huggins became interested in learning how to perform piano for ballet. After 6 months of learning, he quit his odd jobs and became a professional musician. He worked as a ballet accompanist until his girlfriend broke up with him and he decided to move to New York City at age 25, eight-and-a-half years ago.
In New York, he worked as a ballet accompanist for four years, but he found himself drawn to street performers and the eclectic audiences they attracted. Huggins wanted to be “someone that created things.” He did a stint as a breakdancer, then realized he “wasn’t all that good.” So he and his roommate came up with the idea to bring a real piano out to create a spectacle, he said.
10:03 am: Here he is walking down 6th Avenue, wheeling the piano on a pretty hot day. No wonder he broke a sweat. His job relies on the weather, so he keeps an eye on it. While most people bookmark the New York Times and Wikipedia, he has nine different weather sites that say slightly different things. “You have to take the average.”
One day in the summer of 2007 he brought a piano out to Union Square for the first time. He performed mostly pop, piano-playing and singing. He made about only $30 that day. “I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing,” he recalled.
10:14 am: Why Washington Square Park? It’s not as small as Father Demo Square (it perplexes him why this triangular-shaped-park on the corner of 6th & Bleecker is called a Square), where he used to play. When he began attracting bigger crowds, residents in the area “cordially invited me to stop coming back,” and WSP was the next best option.
Huggins said he likes that the piano is “very loud and full of energy.” He dreams of being a concert pianist, to play the difficult pieces of composers like Vladimir Horowitz.
Two years ago in the West 4th subway station, he practiced a section of a Chopin piece and played it better than he expected. This opened a new window of opportunity: He started learning pieces he thought he could never add to his repertoire, including Liszt’s “Un Sospiro,” a piece he tried and failed to learn at 16.
Now, that song is one of his favorites to perform in WSP. Another is “Etude in E-flat minor” by Rachmaninoff.
10:17 am: He takes a break and tells me the origin of “The Crazy Piano Guy” title. He wanted something that was easy to remember. “I’m not crazy. It was a stupid name. Maybe my name should’ve been John Smith.”
Huggins also likes being his own boss – he can decide whether or not he wants to take a request. A popular one, which he will quickly reject, is Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
“I hate that fucking song,” Huggins said.
He noted that he wouldn’t be able to say that if he was playing at a bar.
10:35 am: He starts to assemble his instrument. He used to think of it as a regular job, but now he goes out 2-3 days a week, for 12 hours at a time (!). The other days he spends practicing and getting ready to record an album. People might think “working” only two days is a great deal, but the schedule is clearly tiring: It’s hard on his hands, which bleed in the winter while he’s playing.
10:48 am: “I’m on like my eighth piano,” he says. He got this one through a Kickstarter project. He recently put up another Kickstarter to record a full album.
But he recently posted on his Facebook that, “for all sorts of reasons, I’m canceling my Kickstarter for a full album. Thinking a lot now about how I’m going to move forward with all of this. I didn’t feel bad about asking for help with the grand piano, but ultimately I don’t feel that great about asking for help with this. I don’t want to get all deep here. But I’m thinking a lot about what it means to be an artist and the kinds of stuff I should create to feel good about the art. There are so many different directions to go and different obstacles in each way. I’m going to try and solve this.”
10:51 am: He plays his first notes as he tunes up while an older fan takes some pictures on his iPad. Colin’s life as a street performer is documented on YouTube. “It’s weird,” he says.
10:54 am: He starts to play, and will probably continue until 8 pm. He plays entirely from memory.
11:07 am: A little boy applauds Colin …
… and then tries to pull money out of his bucket.
To hear Colin Huggins’ music, go to http://colinhuggins.com/.