The Art of Piano Performance: Dotan Negrin

Interview by Tanya Levy (MGBH)

As I was browsing the Internet, page after page, I stumbled upon an interesting phenomenon of a pianist who turned his passion for playing piano into a life journey. Literally. He quit his day job, packed up his piano, grabbed his dog, and got on the road to play piano around the world. Five years fast-forward, here we are, with Dotan Negrin (MGBH) curious about every detail of his inspirational life-changing experience.

PPM: Where did you grow up and when did you start playing piano?
DN: I was born in NYC and raised in long Island. I started playing piano when I was 19 years old while studying Theater in college. I never intended to be a traveling pianist. It all happened by accident.
PPM: Who were your teachers?
DN: I studied with a variety of jazz teachers over the years and of course spent countless hours exploring harmony and melody on my own. One of my favorite teachers was grammy winning, Laurence Hobgood (MGBH).
PPM: What was your childhood dream?
DN: My childhood dream was to become a Broadway and film actor. I loved to perform and the thrill of being on stage.
PPM: Tell us about your family and their influence in your life.
DN: My father was born (MGBH) in Greece and my mother (MGBH) was born in Israel. Both my parents had a strong love for the arts growing up. My father would listen to a lot of opera and classical music, and my mother loved to paint. We attended many concerts and Broadway shows around New York City.  My favorite was Rhapsody in Blue, because I played clarinet in middle school.
PPM: Did you go to college? What is your “official” profession?
DN: I went to college from 2004-2008 in Philadelphia at the University of the Arts. I got a BFA in Theater. If I had to choose and “official” labeled profession, I would consider myself a Creative Entrepreneur. I wear many hats and have a variety of skills that I have developed over the years.
PPM: What was the job that you quit to start traveling with the piano, and what was the exact moment that made you decide to quit your job and embark on a piano journey?
DN: I was working as a real estate agent in 2009 mainly because my father thought it would be a good idea for me to get into real estate. After 3 months I quit because I didn’t want to spend my life sitting in an office. In 2010, I got a job working as an assistant for an artist. He hired me to drive from NYC to Miami to deliver some large plexiglass photography. I thought it was great that I was getting paid to travel. I worked for him for 5 months before feeling unfulfilled again. I didn’t like that I was giving my life away to someone else at the age of 24. I believe that in your 20’s you should have the freedom to explore and take risks, especially when it comes to doing what you love.
I didn’t like that I was giving my life away to someone else at the age of 24. I believe that in your 20’s you should have the freedom to explore and take risks, especially when it comes to doing what you love.
At that time I was inspired to travel the world and I wanted to figure out how I could incorporate what I learned as an actor and build a traveling performance. So I decided to start playing piano on the streets of NYC to experiment. I had such an incredible time, and I was meeting so many people from all over the world that I knew this was the dream! Eventually I bought a box truck on eBay, packed up my piano, and hit the road.
PPM: When and where did you make your first trip to and how did your first traveling experience go?
DN: In 2011, I traveled around the United states in 5 months and visited 36 states. My first traveling experience was scary at first, but completely liberating. It was the first time in my life where I was solo and allowed the freedom to explore without anyone telling me what I can and cannot do. I drove south to New Orleans, spent 2 weeks there. Drove to Los Angeles in 1 month, along the coast to Seattle in another month. Then I took the last month to drive back to NYC through Utah, Colorado, and the Midwest.
PPM: What cities and countries have you travelled with your piano?
DN: I have traveled to more than 450 cities over the last 5 years and 22 countries and 47 states. Paris, London, Amsterdam, NYC, Miami, Los Angeles, Rome, Zurich, Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Costa Rica, Mexico City…
PPM: Is there a specific repertoire that you usually play? What are your favorite music pieces to play for your audiences?
DN: I spent a lot of my time improvising and composing original pieces. When I arrive to beautiful locations, I like to see how the location inspires my creativity.  I spent a lot of time playing Scott Joplin (OBM) Ragtime and Jazz standards. Lately I’ve been taking pop songs and rethinking them or playing them with vocalists or other instruments. My favorite thing to play is my original pieces because they come from deep inside of me and sometimes my hands take control and I like to see where they go next.
My favorite thing to play is my original pieces because they come from deep inside of me and sometimes my hands take control and I like to see where they go next.
PPM: Just curious, what are the logistics of transporting the piano in your case? Have you been traveling with the same piano?
DN: I have one main piano in the USA, but when I traveled to Europe, I had to purchase a used piano. I have gone through about 10 pianos over the course of 5 years. Some of the pianos I bought were not in good condition, so I would give them away and get a better one. Other times, the piano would get ruined from all the traveling.
PPM: What makes you choose one city over another when you travel? Do you have a travel schedule that you set up in advance or do you just travel on a whim?
DN: I usually just look at the map and see what is in the area. If there is a beautiful wooded area, I might head there based on my mood. When traveling, I usually spend MondayWednesday in the mountains and ThursdaySunday in the cities to play on the streets or at venues. Sometimes, I just travel on a whim and go where my heart takes me. Improvisation is a huge part of my life.
PPM: Are you planning to be home with your parents on Thanksgiving?
DN: Yes, I am currently taking a break from traveling to save money and work on transitioning to doing more videos with Youtube. I live in NYC for now and will leave in the winter to go to Austin, Texas.
PPM: Now that we mentioned Thanksgiving,  what are some of the things you grateful for in your life?
DN: I am grateful for my family and parents who shared music with me at a young age. My parents were very open about letting me explore and make my own mistakes. This journey has not been easy, and my family has always been there for me. I am also grateful to be alive in such an incredible point in time with the Internet and the ability for me to meet and connect with amazing people from all over the world.
PPM: Can you share some of the funniest stories that happened to you on the road?
DN: There were many incidents where people invited me to have dinner with their families. One time in Portland, ME, I met a drummer, named Daniel (MGBH), while playing piano on the street. He told me that he was going to his family reunion on a small island off the coast of Maine and invited me to join him. I was a bit unsure if I should go, but the next morning I decided to make the trip. I drove north 2 hours to a city called Rockport and took the ferry to Vinalhaven Island where I met Daniel.
We arrived at the home, and there I was having dinner with 3 generations of this family who I just met. It turned out that the entire family played a musical instrument or sang. The dinner was delicious with vegetables farmed by them and fish they caught themselves. After dinner, Daniel told me that him and his brother were playing a gig at the local bar. When I showed up at the bar, they surprised me with a keyboard and asked me to play with them. I thought I would play one song, but I ended up playing the entire 3 hour-gig with a 5-piece band. I didn’t even know any of the songs. I was just following the root notes the bass player was playing. It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, because all I did was say “yes” to an offer, which led me on a spontaneous journey with incredible discoveries.
It was one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life, because all I did was say “yes” to an offer, which led me on a spontaneous journey with incredible discoveries.
PPM: What are the logistics of your travel?
DN: I mainly travel by van. The van has become my home and I’ve spent many nights sleeping in that van next to my piano. Logistically, it’s much easier than having to always look for a place to sleep, and it is certainly much cheaper. When I traveled through Europe though, I took a plane and then rented the van.
PPM: Do you always travel with your girlfriend?
DN: No.  She came with me on 2 trips only. Sometimes I travel with my dog or with a friend.
PPM: Do you use airbnb.com or mostly hotels?
DN: I never use hotels or airbnb. I use couchsurfing.com to meet other travelers and stay at their house for free. I also spent a lot of time living out of my van and sleeping in the woods or in dark places. Sometimes I meet people, and they invite me to stay their home and have dinner.
PPM: What has been your favorite venue to play so far?
DN: My favorite places to play have been mainly been outdoors. I once played for 250 people in Peru at the Plaza Independencia, which is their main square. I played on the edge of a cliff in Big Sur as well.
PPM: Who are some of the interesting people that played your piano (alone or with you)?
DN: The most interesting people I’ve played piano with were the people who just came up to me and started jamming. One of them was Frans Bak – a Danish composer. Here are some videos that were captured of amazing spontaneous jam sessions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nsn8ZGb80-g
PPM: What is your 5 year plan?
DN: My 5 year plan is to develop my skills and build my audience using the web and social media to where I am working on a variety of different projects at once. I would like to build my team who helps me create great video content that inspires people and educates people about the benefits of music in their lives. One of my biggest goals has been to have my own television show where I go on location around the world to discover how music affects different people in different parts of the world.
PPM: Have you done recordings of your performances?
DN: I have done many LIVE recordings of my performances and even many videos at youtube.com/pianoaround. I am currently finishing a solo piano album of cinematic recordings.
PPM: Tell us about your Good Year commercial. How did it happen?
DN: Goodyear saw me on National news in USA and contacted me to see if I would like to help them promote their new tires. They loved my story of traveling to go after the thing I love in life, and we collaborated on a 60-second commercial that aired in Latin America. They flew me to Costa Rica, Peru, Miami, and Mexico to perform in front of thousands of people.  It was a great experience. The commercial was filmed during 4 days in Costa Rica.
Those who are most successful have failed the most. So its important to keep your head up and stay focused on achieving your goals. Don’t let anyone or anything get in your way. Risk, Fail. Risk Again.
PPM: Here is a boring, technical, down to earth question: How do you support yourself while traveling?
DN: I support myself while traveling in a number of ways. Normally, I don’t stay in hotels, so I’ve eliminated a huge expense. I do performances on the streets of cities and in venues. I also do live streams through an app called Periscope on Facebook, which have opened up doors to new ways of making money.  Social media and Youtube have also been a great way for me to support myself. I also sell merchandise and music on my web site at: pianoaround.com/store
PPM:In life, at some point, each person is faced with the 2 ultimate questions: “Who am I and why I am here (on this Earth)?”  Who is Dotan Negrin and why is he here?
DN: I am a Storyteller. I am here to inspire and to remind the world that we are all here for a reason. I am here to inspire people to let go of fear and grab onto life and do what you love.
I am a Storyteller. I am here to inspire and to remind the world that we are all here for a reason. I am here to inspire people to let go of fear and grab onto life and do what you love.
PPM: You have been an inspiration to many who live in a closed box world doing the “shoulds and musts” wishing they had the strength to break out of their boundaries and limitations and follow their dreams.  Can you share a few thoughts on the “how to’s”?
DN: Your biggest enemy is yourself.  You will talk yourself out of everything that is difficult. You can settle and spend your time doing something that you are not passionate about or you can take the leap of faith and go after what you love. You must realize that you get what you put into it.  It’s the same with learning piano. The ones who are really talented have put more time into it and have spent more time practicing. The same is true with Life.
Those who are most successful have failed the most. So its important to keep your head up and stay focused on achieving your goals. Don’t let anyone or anything get in your way. Risk, Fail. Risk Again.

One thought on “The Art of Piano Performance: Dotan Negrin

  1. Awesome article. I stumbled across this magazine and really enjoy it. I am a devoted amateur pianist and thoroughly subscribe to the view that you should incorporate your passions into your life. I look forward to future issues of this magazine.

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