The Streets Are Alive With the Sound of Music


A performer busking at Union Square fills the station with music. (sara Azoulay/The Observer)


New York is never quiet—this we know, sometimes all too well.  Whether it’s rattling trains, honking taxis, drunken tourists or never-ending construction, there’s no shortage of sounds hitting us at any given time. But floating between this jarring noise is something more pleasant, even whimsical: live music. So often we plug in to our music players and hand-select the soundtrack for our days. But, after recently losing my iPod, I’ve let the city be my soundtrack. There is so much passion and talent in the music of street performers—and hardly any location showcases these performers better than Columbus Circle does.

A performer busking at Union Square fills the station with music. (sara Azoulay/The Observer)

Zach is 24 years old.  You may have seen him before, strumming his acoustic guitar at the top of the 59th street subway stairs. Shaggy blonde hair with a beard to match, Zach was the first street musician I approached. I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about asking him questions—How do I introduce myself?  Will I stop him from making money when he has to talk to me? Do I just go strike up a conversation? And in fact, all I had to do was strike up a conversation. Zach was more than willing to talk to a stranger who had just sat down on the ground next to him. He said he often travels alone, so any type of company is more than welcome.

“I don’t live in New York anymore; I’m just crashing with some friends here for a bit,” he said. “A while back I sold a bunch of my stuff and decided to bounce around for a while, you know, see the country. Obviously I’d never sell this thing”—Zach taps his guitar with obvious tenderness—“especially ‘cause it’s usually how I pay for my bus tickets.”

A native of the Midwest, Zach’s first love is traveling; he uses his music to get where he wants to go.  “A lot of times it’s just me and my guitar,” he said. In terms of traveling expenses, New York City is especially good to him: he can pay for a lot of bus fares with the money he makes here. “I’ve been a lot of places, and you can’t make the same kind of money anywhere else. Of course, it won’t make you rich—look at me, I can’t even afford a razor!” he said, pointing to his beard. “I joke, but really, [New York] is the place to do this.  I used to make a little more, but these days everyone’s holding onto their wallets a little tighter,” Zach said before standing up and pointing around Columbus Circle. “But it’s all good, ‘cause look at my stage!”

There are many performers who share this stage with Zach and some are true artists. As I walked down the stairs to the downtown D train one day, I suddenly became enveloped in beautiful classical music.  Inside the station, a girl was playing violin. The sounds she made to reverberated off the walls with skillful vibration, like she was controlling each note as it bounced around the room. Her face followed the music, her expression changing with the song—while seemingly unaware of her captivated audience. Never had I seen a crowded subway station so mesmerized; I had to know more about her.

Andrea is a 22-year-old student at Julliard. A Brooklyn native, she’s been playing the violin almost since she can remember—it is her canvas.

“Everyone has a way to, you know, express themselves. This is mine,” she said. “I was just lucky I found out early on what I’m good at.”

After listening to her play for quite some time, I can say with certainty that the word “good” doesn’t do her talent any justice. The music she created that day made waiting for the subway actually pleasant—a nearly impossible feat. On more than one occasion I noticed passers-by hesitate before getting on their train; they wanted to keep listening.  Andrea says she loves playing her violin in these train tunnels.

“There’s something about playing beautiful music, especially classical music, in an ugly place,” she said. “And it sounds so good when it’s underground. I mean, I already play music all day, why not make some cash while I’m at it?”

Not only was she making money, she was making all of our commutes a little brighter. She accepted every donation with a gracious smile and recommended street performing for anyone with some passion and free time.

“Some days, I make more doing this than I do at my restaurant job,” she said. “And it’s so much more fun!”

The enjoyment that she, Zach, and so many other street performers feel is shared by their audience. It’s a win-win for all: they get to earn a little extra income, we get to appreciate their talent and the city lights up in auditory magic—if even for a brief moment. Next time you’re rushing down the street, blasting your iPod and texting your friends, I strongly suggest unplugging and stopping to hear the musical roses, if you will.  The music that constantly surrounds us is, in my eyes, one of the most pleasant—and overlooked—benefits of living in this city.