As autumn approaches, public musicians anticipate seasonal challenges


A subway passenger pauses to watch one-man band Peter Joseph Paul’s Music Under New York performance at the Grand Central subway station on Saturday, August 30. Photo: Alanna Weissman

A subway passenger pauses to watch one-man band Peter Joseph Paul’s Music Under New York performance at the Grand Central subway station on Saturday, August 30. Photo: Alanna Weissman.

With cold weather rapidly approaching, many public musicians find themselves seeking a performance space sheltered from the elements through the city’s Music Under New York program, which provides artists with permits to perform in subway stations and other public spaces.

The process of obtaining a permit can be arduous, some performers say. Musicians apply by calling schedule coordinator Tim Higginbotham two weeks ahead of a performance time to request up to three desired locations and times; if approved, they then receive a permit in the mail.

The process necessitates that musicians keep their schedules open for all of their requested times, even though they may, depending on demand, be approved for none. Sometimes, this means not scheduling other gigs. “Everything could use some improvements,” said Elyssa Plotkin, the manager and clarinetist for the Washington Square Winds quintet, regarding the permit application process.

Higginbotham could not be reached to comment on the call-in process.

The desire to perform in specific stations increases in autumn and winter, when playing underground offers shelter from the elements. Some performers, like the Winds, define location preferences only in cooler weather, as certain stations are uncomfortable at best and make performance difficult at worst.

“We learned the hard way that some stations get colder than others,” said Plotkin, citing the Rockefeller Center and Lexington and 53rd Street stations as examples of chillier spaces. “We are definitely not going to play in those once it gets colder.”

The group feels the influence of weather especially acutely, given that its members, as wind instrumentalists, cannot wear gloves.

“[Once it gets colder,] we will stick with the bigger stations that are more sheltered from the outside, like Penn Station, Grand Central Station and Times Square,” said Plotkin.

The Renaissance Street Singers, who usually perform through the music program twice a month from late November to mid-March, say that finding a space can sometimes be a challenge because of the group’s size. At least 12 members perform at a time, which means they are limited to two performance spaces, the Graybar Corridor in Grand Central Station and Penn Station, the latter of which they avoid because it is too loud, according to director and longtime member John Hetland.

Founded in 1985, Music Under New York provides approved musicians and other acts with guaranteed performance space on Department of Transit-controlled property throughout the five boroughs, including the subway stations at Columbus Circle, Grand Central Station, Times Square and others. The artists must do well in an audition, held each spring, to be allowed to participate in the program; once approved, artists do not have to audition again, and may perform with Music Under New York as often as twice a week or as little as they would like. The biggest benefit of Music Under New York, according to many musicians, is the permit. While it isn’t required for public performance, it does entitle musicians to sole use of a specific location at a given time.

But some authorities disregard the validity of a Music Under New York permit, causing difficulties for performers.

“Even with the permit, the cops can shut you down,” said Welf Dorr, an alto saxophonist with the Underground Horns, noting that the authorities are stricter in popular locations such as Times Square. “They usually always ask you if you have a permit, and you’re better off with a permit. [The permit] makes it easier with the cops.”

Despite the drawbacks, many artists with the program are pleased with their experiences.

“It teaches you different aspects of being a performer, how to attract attention,” said Washington Square Winds bassoonist Annamaria Kis-Ven. Her bandmate concurred, mentioning that the challenges add to the reward.

“I feel a lot better asking for tips when I’ve gone through this process,” said Caryn Freitag, the group’s flutist.