Subway Sonata: Great music for the price of a subway ride



The Meetles (Photo Credit to Jingyi He)

It was 9 p.m. on a recent Friday at the 34 Street-Herald Square subway station. The Meetles, a classic rock tribute band, lit up the otherwise gloomy underground station with the song: “When I find myself in times of trouble, Mother Mary comes to me, speaking words of wisdom, let it be.” A woman in a brown sweater got very involved, dancing and singing along. 

Some commuters stopped, filmed the graying band’s performance on their phones, and hummed the nostalgic Beatles tune as the band played, “Let it be, let it be, let it be, let it be. Whisper words of wisdom, let it be.” Others gave a thumbs up and dropped coins into a plastic bucket. Still, other subway riders just glanced at the performance as they rushed to and from trains, while others simply ignored the music.  

People come, and people go—a subway station seems to be the destination for nobody. However, there is a group of people who treat the subway station as their destination. They come here just for music. They are the fans of subway music.

The audience of the band’s performance (Photo Credit to Steve Rosenbach)

Steve Rosenbach, a 69-year-old photographer, has been a fan of the Meetles for eight years. “I’m going to see a great band in the subway,” he said, “It only costs the price of one subway ticket to get admission.”

Rosenbach lives in Millersville, Maryland, but travels to New York City almost once a month for his photo workshop. Every time he’s here, he said he will try to watch the Meetles’ performance and will drop anywhere from $10 to $20 in the band’s bucket. Rosenbach pops underground to see the Meetles at least five times a year. He also invites people from his workshop to go with him. 

Subway music in New York City is encouraged. The city runs a program to help schedule the time and location of performances. Paul Mueller, who coordinates Music Under New York, which is a part of MTA MUSIC, said the program has more than 350 members, providing 7,500 performances annually at 30 prime locations throughout the New York City transit system. There are also many freelancers who play in the subway stations. 

Most New York City subway riders run into subway musicians by happenstance. 

“Seeing subway musicians is second nature for most riders,” said Kurt Boone, author of “Subway Beats: Celebrating New York City Buskers.” Boone has spent 16 years traveling all the subway lines in the city. After interacting with over 800 subway performers for his book, he realized that although subway music brings “poetry” into commuters’ lives, people rarely acknowledge the musicians’ contribution to the arts of New York City. 

Still, Naomi Paulin, bass player and vocalist of the Meetles, whose band started playing in subways in 2009, said they see many repeat audience members at their performances and some of the supporters go back to the band’s early years.

Rosenbach is one of them. Rosenbach had a “silly dream” of singing in the subway when he was a young man, who enjoyed singing mostly in the shower. He realized his dream in 2011 when he met the Meetles. Before going to a performance, Rosenbach will text the group on Facebook to request singing some songs with them. Sometimes, the Meetles even allow him to do the main vocal. 

Charles G. Wolf, a music lover and a fan of the Meetles, also occasionally sings with the band. Wolf said his grandmother told him, “Music is humanity’s gift to itself. Man creates music, but it’s a gift back to himself.”

Wolf has lived in New York City since he graduated from college in 1978 and he first met Eric Benjamin Gordon, Meetles guitarist, in Washington Square Park before the band formed. They sang songs together that day and became friends. 

“I just do this for fun,” Wolf said. “That means I don’t have to practice. I don’t have obligations.”

The Saw Lady (Photo Credit to Jingyi He)

Natalia Paruz, the subway’s famous Israel “Saw Lady,” said this is the charm of subway music—a direct interaction and a great exchange of energy between the performer and the audience. Though Paruz is frequently invited to play on the stage, the subway is still her favorite location for playing her melodious saw.

“When you are playing on the stage, there’s a feeling of isolation,” she said. “You’re up on a stage with lights in your eyes. The audience is down there in the dark. You don’t really see them. It feels like there’s a glass wall between you and the audience.”

For Rosenbach, the charm of subway music doesn’t only lie in the interaction between the performers and the audience, but also in the communication within the audience. Rosenbach always meets a photographer from New Jersey when he comes to see the Meetles. They don’t even know each other’s names, but they will chat and hug. Rosenbach also enjoys capturing the surprise on the audience’s face, the evidence of the Meetles’s real effect on people who walk by them.

 However, Marc Mueller, AKA StreetMule, who has played in the New York City subway since 1990, is nostalgic. Mueller said technology disrupts the interaction between the performers and the audience. 

“When the camera goes up, there’s a disconnection between the audience and the performer,” he said. 

When Mueller sees people filming him, he will raise up a yellow sign, saying: “BEING PRESENT. SHARING IN THE MOMENT.” He has a notebook in front of him, asking the fans to leave their email addresses on the notebook. This is his trick to let people get closer to participate, instead of shooting him from a distance.

Marc Mueller’s yellow sign (Photo Credit to Jingyi He)

Paruz has the same concern as Mueller, but she also sees the positive side. 

“It’s nice if they put it online and tag me, because then I get a souvenir from the day. That also causes an interaction online,” she said.

But there is still an unwritten etiquette for watching a street performer, Paruz said. If people want to film a musician, they need to show their respect by donating money, by saying thank you or simply by going thumbs up. Many people just stop to take a picture or a video of a musician and then walk away without asking for permission or acknowledge the musicians.

“It makes us feel like you stole from us. You stole our performance,” Paruz said.