One of the most wonderful releases for New Yorkers emerging from shelter-in-place has been the joy of entering pianist Collin Huggins’s “living room” in Washington Square Park. Each morning, the slender Huggins wrestles his 900-pound piano from its storeroom at the Judson Memorial Church at the north end of the park, places it on a dolly and moves it onto center stage.
For a long time, Huggins has been the most ambitious of the local street buskers, entertaining crowds with renditions of Rachmaninov and Lizst, Bach and Philip Glass, along with his own improvisations.
Before the pandemic, visitors would lie down on the pavement beneath the piano to feel the vibration of the strings. Film lovers will recall how the writer Georges Sand (Judy Davis) positioned herself this way, in Impromptu, to absorb the passionate playing of Frederic Chopin (Hugh Grant).
Originally from Decatur, Georgia, the 42 year-old Huggins started playing guitar at an early age, then took piano lessons for four years. After moving to New York City in 2003, he worked as an accompanist for dancers from the Joffrey Ballet. He began to busk in 2007 and one day he brought his upright piano to Union Square at 14th Street. When local residents began to complain about the large crowds Huggins attracted, he began playing at Washington Square Park, sometimes for twelve hour stints, telling his listeners that in 1892, the Polish pianist Paderewski sponsored the construction of the Washington Square Arch.
Back then busking was a risky business. Performers were often ticketed by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and Huggins was fined over $6,000 in 2011. (The policy has since been revoked.)
In 2016, Huggins upgraded to a full-size grand piano, a Yamaha C5, and had Woody Guthrie’s guitar slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists,” inscribed on its sides. After a second successful crowdfunding campaign in 2018, he brings a Steinway B to Washington Square Park most weekends.
The New York Times recently profiled Huggins (“It’s a tough time to be a street musician with a 900-pound piano“) and you can hear a sample of his playing here.