Piano Around The World
Dotan Negrin’s Grand Tour
Interview by Mackenzie Lowry
During a visit to any big city in the world, you’ll find yourself being welcomed by street performers. There are acrobats that will pull you out of a crowd, and men with patched up pants tapping away on homemade drum sets. Once, I’ve even encountered a man with a small typewriter, typing poetry for whoever was willing to pass on a few bucks, in exchange for his melodic words.
However, it’s a rare occasion that you’ll find yourself walking down gum-stuck streets to the sound of a piano. On an occasion like this, I searched for the source of the music and found myself face to face with Dotan Negrin, while he was making magic with his fingertips and the ivory keys. I did not realize I was part of the reason Dotan was out there, playing his music. It’s the people he meets on the road, who keep him going and inspire him every day.
In 2010, after exploring seventeen jobs including acting, truck driving, being a DJ, and trading stocks, Dotan quit his job to play Piano Around the World. It is an idea and lifestyle that combines his love for music, travel, and meeting people. His new lifestyle required physically moving and playing the piano all over the world, for a living. From Long Island sunsets to the streets of Paris, and the rainforests of South America, Dotan Negrin has raised people’s spirits while sharing the message, “Follow your dreams”.
Mackenzie Lowry: Where did you grow up?
Dotan Negrin: I grew up in New York City and Jericho, Long Island.
What’s your history with playing the piano?
I started playing piano when I was 19 years old, in college. I got into it randomly. My roommates were musicians and they kept playing a lot of jazz music. I fell in love with jazz because I love the way it is able to create emotion without any words. I wanted to be able to recreate that. I started tinkering with the piano here and there and trying to imitate what I heard, but I never saw it as a career. I just started playing as a hobby. I took a couple lessons but I didn’t go to school for music. A lot of my exploration has been by myself and just experimenting with chords and songs and learning new things.
Before you quit your job to play piano around the world, did you travel very much?
I did a little bit of traveling, but I had never really traveled by myself until January 2010. I was 23 years old and it was the first time I really got the “travel bug”. I became addicted to the adventure lifestyle. I just fell in love with waking up every day not knowing what’s going to happen and excited to explore the opportunities that would arise. It made me really appreciate and love spontaneity and going into the unknown.
During my first trip to the Dominican Republic I met up with a friend who lived there. While there I learned how to ride a motorcycle in a couple days. I was driving in a stormy rain forest and it was one of the most incredible adventures of my life. From then on, I became really hooked on travel.
Why did you make the decision to change your life to travel and play the piano?
It was really a combination of things that happened leading up to that point. I was deeply frustrated with my life. Feeling like a robot, feeling trapped in New York City, feeling trapped in a routine, and feeling unhappy. I would just go through the motions every day. I was working for a photographer delivering his prints. Sometimes he would pay me to drive from New York to Miami. I would think, “Oh, this is so cool, I’m getting paid to travel”. I would go to work and I keep thinking, “If I could do anything in the world what would I do?” So I came up with this crazy idea of putting together all the things I love to do, which is play piano, make music, perform, and travel.
The other spark for me was when I started playing piano on the streets in New York and after a month later I had an incident. A piano fell backwards and landed on my hand and broke two of my fingers. I became really miserable and depressed. I didn’t think I would be able to play the piano again. It was that moment that really shocked me. I knew I needed to do this idea now and not wait. There was no better time to do it.
So far it’s been an interesting experience. I haven’t really figured out how to make a good living doing this, but I did it for the adventure, the lifestyle, to explore. I’m definitely a different person than when I first started doing this five years ago.
The money you make goes to food and such?
So far, that’s the way it’s worked. I’ve had a couple brand deals. I did a commercial once. The last five years, everything has been one huge experiment. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I didn’t know what I was going to be in five years. I was lost a lot of the time when I was doing all this stuff. I didn’t know anything really. I just took whatever came my way. So if an opportunity arose, I would say, “Yes, let’s try it, let’s see what happens.” If it didn’t work out, I would go back and try something else. That’s just the approach to life I’ve taken in the last five years.
How do you move the piano around the world?
It kind of sucks and I’m really tired of pushing pianos around. My muscles are taking a beating. I move the piano with a special dolly that has six wheels. Originally, I had two crappy dollies I bought from Home Depot and the wheels would always break. It was such a pain in the ass. The piano weighs 500 pounds. It’s difficult to move, but I have my own technique.
Has it always been the same piano?
No, it hasn’t always been the same one. I’ve probably used fifteen or sixteen pianos over the last five years. I would use a piano for six months and then think, “I don’t like this piano anymore. I’ll just sell it and get a new one.” Finding pianos isn’t very difficult because everyone is trying to sell their piano. Nobody really plays the piano anymore.
I started to rethink my life recently, because I’ve had a lot of injuries. I want to take it a little bit easy from moving pianos and just focus on making music and cool videos.
What are the benefits of going by yourself?
I love traveling by myself, it’s one of my favorite things. You’re forced to make friends. You’re forced to put yourself out there. There are times when you get really introspective and you think about life. I’m a very analytical guy so I tend to think a lot. I really enjoy meditating, yoga, and getting out of my head. I love being isolated and being in a place where there’s no distractions.
The reason why I like that is because living in New York is tough, things are going on constantly. That’s why I love having my own space. I love traveling alone also because I meet awesome people. Sometimes I have really good experiences by myself, that I don’t share with anyone, and that’s actually really special, too.
Who is the most interesting person you’ve met while traveling?
There are a lot of interesting people that I’ve met. I once met a guy in Salt Lake City who was raised as a Mormon, but he ran away from home and decided to leave the Mormon culture behind him. There was a period in his life where he moved to Florida to live at a monastery for six months. He later studied with a Korean yogi who was 99 years old. One day scientists hooked him up to a heart monitor and he literally was able to stop his heartbeat, leave his body, and then start his heart again.
With the power of his mind, and meditation, a 99 years old guy was able to stop and start his heart. There’s actually been many things written about this research. It’s really, really interesting and it talks about meditation – how meditation is very powerful, since we only use about five percent of our brain.
Do you have a favorite city?
I have a lot of favorite cities because each city has something different to offer. Another thing is that normally my impression of a city is dependent upon who I meet. There’s a video in Zurich and I met 100 people that day and that’s why I love Zurich. Another couple places that are my favorites are Santa Cruz, New Orleans, Quebec City Canada, and Oaxaca Mexico.
Would you choose to live in any of those cities?
I would definitely live in Santa Cruz one day. I love Argentina. I don’t think I would live there all year through. My ideal life would be to live in New York for the warm period and in the winter go live somewhere else. The winter in New York is really tough sometimes. My ideal life is to live in multiple places throughout the year.
Out of all your travels, what’s the weirdest place you’ve ever slept?
Oh, man, I spent a lot of time sleeping in my van – in my trunk, not showering for a couple days or even a week, being dirty and smelly and kind of like a bum. What was the weirdest place I’ve ever slept? There was one time I was with a friend I met at a hostel and we slept in my van in a tropical rainforest in Costa Rica. It was so hot and humid that there was no way to sleep in the van without opening the doors, but if you open the doors, the mosquitoes would come in and we had no repellent. That’s maybe not the weirdest, but definitely one of the most difficult.
I slept in the Alps, up in the mountains. I didn’t think it was going to be that cold, but it ended up being really freezing. It was the middle of July and freezing. It was a terrible idea. We woke up and it was just complete fog. It was pretty crazy. It was the mountains, but you could see nothing but fog.
Every place you visit has different kinds of music and different connections to music. Do you have a favorite musical culture?
I found a guy in Guatemala who played the marimba and it’s actually their national instrument. But the marimba is actually an instrument that comes from West Africa and was brought over to Latin America during the slave trade. I met a Mayan street performer that played to make a living.
It is very sad that in Guatemala, the Mayans have been very disrespected. The indigenous people have almost been killed off. The indigenous Mayans are really fascinating because they’ve gone through so much. The street performer also teaches music and marimba to the kids there. He showed me an indigenous Mayan ceremony. That was pretty cool. He’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met.
I liked experiencing the tango culture in Argentina. There’s an instrument called the bandoneon, which is only really seen in tango music. I met a very interesting guy that takes the bandoneon and he melds together with traditional ideas and modern rock n’ roll. I got to hang out with him for a while. Argentina has their own styles of music that a lot of people don’t even know about. There’s tango and there’s another one that kind of mimics like rap music. It’s a monologue and it’s poetic and there’s music in the background.
You had a lot of crazy experiences on your Latin America trip, that were both good and bad. A cop wanted a bribe, you were sick in a Mexican hospital, and border guards trying to embezzle money. What kept you moving?
The challenge. I live for the challenge and I love the challenge. When there are two options, the easy option and the hard option, sometimes the hard option is actually the better one to take because it’s more gratifying. It’s hard work and in that challenge you end up finding things that you wouldn’t find if you had taken the easy way out.
I had been robbed, lost a lot of money, my laptop, passport, and my credit card. I also got sick twice, and never made it to Panama, but the people were amazing and I was having amazing experiences. That drove me forward.
You’ve also taken your piano out to the Burning Man festival?
Burning Man was awesome. I had one experience when I was playing piano during the sunrise, while all the electronic music was dying down. I brought out my piano around like 7 AM. I pushed it into the center of the desert. I was literally in a cloud of dust and there was one point when there was 7 or 8 people around me, while I played one of my original pieces. At the end of the piece, I turned around and every single person was crying. I don’t know if they were on something, but for some reason everybody was crying. We hugged and spoke. It was a very poignant moment for me because I started crying too. It was very emotional.
Your journey and message has inspired so many people. Who inspires you?
Oh gosh, that’s a good one.There were different phases throughout my life and different people who have inspired me. I’ve been inspired from a variety of things in the last couple years. I was inspired by jazz musicians Miles Davis and Bill Evans. Author, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie. I’m also inspired by Tim Ferris, who is a business entrepreneur. He inspired me to be independent and try to build my dreams, by taking my passion and turning it into something I could live off of. A good friend of mine in college, Dan Delaney, started a web show and he inspired me to create videos.
Do you believe music is a changing force in the world?
I 100% believe it can be, however, the people that control the music industry are people that have money. They control the music and therefore they take that force and abuse it in some ways. I think music does and is a huge force in a lot of our lives. It influences us. Growing up during high school, I found myself by the music I loved listening to and the music my friends were listening to.
Do you hope to use the power of music to leave your footprint on the world?
Yes. As of now, I’ve traveled a lot but I haven’t really recorded a lot of my music yet. Part of me thinks I’m kind of scared to do that. I want to put something out there that’s really good. I’m kind of a perfectionist when it comes to that. I know I need to kind of just let that go and put it out there. I know I’m a good player, but I just want to put something out there that people really enjoy.
I’ve been really busy trying to do all these new things at once. The last five years have been such an experiment that I’ve tried everything. I tried to build my own web show, I’ve taken hundreds of thousands of photos and learned video editing. I learned how to play and record music. I also learned how to move pianos, and I taught myself Spanish. I’ve literally taught myself many new skills in the last five years. I think it’s amazing that I’ve been able to do it.
What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment?
Building Piano Around the World from scratch has been my greatest accomplishment. I think it’s because of the fact that I’ve gone through all the pain and difficulties of doing it. I’ve planted this awesome seed of an idea, and look at what it has become. I’ve met and inspired tens of thousands of people, and I’ve had incredible experiences.
If you could give one piece of advice to the world, what would it be?
Learn something new every day.