How did you first become interested in music? When was the first moment when you thought you wanted to pursue music as more than a passion? The musical saw is a rather odd, unique, and rare instrument to specialize in. When did you first discover the musical saw and what was it about the instrument that captivated you?
I was a professional dancer, but one day coming back from Lincoln Center, I was hit by a car. That put an end to my dance career. I was devastated. I searched for an alternate career, but nothing I tried filled the void the lack of dance left in my spirit. To cheer me up, my parents took me to Europe. We went to a show for tourists and part of it was a guy playing a saw, and for the first time since the accident I felt excited about something. It was as if providence pointed its finger to tell me what I was meant to do in life.
I fell in love with the angelic tone of the saw, but more than that, with the fact that the whole instrument moves when played (unlike other bowed instruments where only the bow moves and the instrument itself remains stationary). It was like a dance!
Since there was no musical saw teacher to be found, I taught myself, through trial & error (no internet tutorials back then either) how to play. At first I only thought of it as a hobby, but an invitation from a local Salvation Army Center (which heard about my playing from a neighbor of mine who could hear me practicing) changed that. They recommended me to another place, I played there and they recommended me to another, and so it continued. When my phone kept ringing with invitations to perform, I realized that I could turn this into a career.
It takes many musicians’ years to get good enough at their craft to earn the accolades you have. Can you describe the route or process you took to become so acclaimed? Did you take lessons? How often did you practice? Etc. You have gotten the opportunity to travel around the globe, perform with dozens of orchestras, and receive a fair amount of fame from your musical skill?
Practice makes perfect – there’s no going around that. Nowadays I usually practice at least 3 days a week, anywhere from 3 to 6 hours at a time. What I do differently from most musicians, is that I practice in front of an audience! That makes a world of difference. Of course when I learn a new piece I first practice it at home, but once I’ve memorized the piece, I take it out on the street. Most musicians sit at home waiting for the next gig. I also wait for the next gig, but I don’t wait at home – I go busking (street performing). Busking was the smartest thing I ever got myself into. When you play on the street, you get 1) free rehearsal space 2) you gain experience in front of an audience (and you get to try new material and see how people respond to it) 3) you learn to play through anything (useful when mishaps happen on stage and the show must go on) 4) you are in a perpetual audition – you never know who might walk by you and invite you to a gig. I got so many gigs this way, that since I started busking I never needed to go on auditions! Film directors, composers, conductors, recording engineers, theater producers, etc. all happened upon me playing in the NYC subway and as a consequence, invited me to perform. If you sit at home waiting for the phone to ring – the chances of something happening are small. But if you go out on the street, you augment your chances of something happening by a lot.
With an instrument as rare as the musical saw, was it difficult to get noticed? How did you work to get your name and your work out to the public at large?
As with anything, there are pluses and minuses to playing an unusual musical instrument. The plus is that you have less competition, but the big minus is that there isn’t much need for your instrument, and most people don’t even know of the instrument. So one has to mostly invent their own opportunities. Approaching venues, orchestras, etc., to interest them in potentially hiring you is much easier when one plays a known instrument. The biggest obstacle I continue to face is that people don’t want to give a chance to something they are not familiar with. When I say that I play a saw, so many people don’t even want to give it a listen, because they IMAGINE it sounds like a log being sawed in half… Of course once I get them to be willing to listen, they all say it doesn’t sound anything like they imagined, and then they like it, but getting people to the point of giving it a first listen is more difficult than if I played say a violin or a flute.
That is again where busking comes in handy. I get to educate people through it, because I bring my art to the people, where people are, and acquaint them with it. When I started busking 17 years ago, nobody in NYC seemed to know what a musical saw is. Now, I hear people passing by me explain what it is I’m playing to their friends – I succeeded in familiarizing people with my instrument.
Correct me if I am wrong, but you create your own music. Is that something you needed to teach yourself? Can you describe the process of creating a piece from scratch? What are some of the major obstacles?
I don’t compose. I enjoy interpreting other people’s music and I work to educate composers about my instrument, so that there will be more music written for it. I think it is important for the survival of the instrument to have its own repertoire.
Musicians like other artists who make a living on their name and skills, often need to market themselves to start to garner attention. How much marketing of yourself or your music have you done? What sort of marketing was it?
In today’s world, when people are constantly bombarded with entertainment options everywhere and competition between performers is huge, marketing is unavoidable. What does it matter how great you are, if no-one knows you exist? You could have the coolest video on Youtube, but if you don’t market it, no one would know to watch it.
Also, when I busk, I hand out cards, have an e-mail signing list and I display a QR code which gives people a FREE MP3 and gives me their e-mail address. I usually only send one marketing e-mail a year… I should send more, but I don’t seem to get around to it somehow…
Also – whenever possible I wear a t-shirt that says www.SawLady.com on it. The reason why I do that is because so many people videotape and photograph me without my permission. It used to upset me because I felt that they were stealing from me – instead of buying my CDs or my downloads, they were capturing my music in low quality. But then I figured that if I have my website on my t-shirt, then at least when they show the video or photo they took of me to their friends, they’ll have an advertisement for my website in it.
Musicians are some of the only professionals who don’t necessarily need an advanced degree to reach the top of their field. What sort of formal musical education have you had in your career? If you did have some formal education, how did it help? If you didn’t, do you think it would have helped you looking back?
I didn’t study music in university. But then, there is no university that teaches musical saw playing… I learned to play the recorder, piano and guitar in elementary school and I sang in choirs. That taught me how to read sheet music, and that is vital. I had the best of training as a dancer, which turned out beneficial to me as a musician later on, because it taught me to be musical, to know how to relate to music, and I also incorporate dance arm movements to my playing, which gives me a playing style unlike that of any other musical saw player.
I must confess I am extremely lucky – my mother was a concert pianist, so through her and her colleagues, though completely informal, I got the best musical education as a kid.
A formal education is always helpful (a diploma perhaps might have helped me gain an entry to certain institutions) but if one doesn’t have it, it’s no reason not to pursue one’s dream!
You have accomplished quite a bit in your career, so what does the future hold for you as a musician? Is there anything you want to accomplish that you haven’t?
I have chosen this life, and it has been immeasurable kind to me. My dream is to establish the art of playing music on a carpenter’s handsaw further – I’d like to open a Musical Saw Museum/research center/school. I’d also like to bring this art form into colleges and music conservatories.
It doesn’t need to be exactly your path, but what sort of advice would you give to someone following in your footsteps? Are there certain things young people should know about being a musician before they start their career?
Being a professional musician takes a lot of hard work – you have to be willing to put in many hours of practice a day, deal with fierce competition, put in lots of time and energy into promotion and into initiating performance opportunities for yourself. Some people love the music making part, but not the business part. I have friends who chose to pursue music as a hobby, despite the fact that they have tremendous talent, because they don’t want the hassle. There is nothing wrong with that! They get to enjoy what they love while not having to worry about making money with it. If, however, you have a burning ambition to make music your profession, then application, diligence, and cheerful persistence is the path to success.