Subway musicians battle the winter cold

Kayhan "Lefty" Baratali
Kayhan “Lefty” Baratali

—Sitting in a subway corridor with his back against the wall, a small battery-powered amplifier next to him, Kayhan “Lefty” Baratali, 20, a one-handed six-string bass guitar player strums the strings of his instrument with the end of his left arm stump. At the same time, he presses the strings on the neck of the bass with his right hand, holding it the same way left-handed guitarists do. Hence his nickname, “Lefty”, which, for a musician without a left hand is a paradox that he likes to point out with wry humor. Outside the subway, the winter wind howls.

During the first two months of 2014, New Yorkers have experienced record low temperatures. The words “polar vortex,” hitherto used only by meteorologists, became a household term. The cold did not spare anyone—even subway performers.

“Any musician would be crazy to play outside in this weather,” says Lefty.

Originally from northern Rockland county, Lefty says that he has been living  in the city for three years. He started playing in the subway last November, and has only experienced playing during the cold season so far. He says he studies computer engineering at Manhattan College in the Bronx and does not earn a living as a musician. But he is considering applying to the MTA’s Music under New York program, which focuses on presenting quality music to commuters in subway stations. The program holds auditions each year in May and typically receives hundreds of applications between January and March. Performers can be easily identified in subway stations by a sign with their name or band’s name and the program’s logo.

According to Lydia Bradshaw, manager at the program, over 350 individuals and groups participate, Among them, they perform 150 times a week and over 7,500 times each year. Musicians call the program’s office and schedule their performances every two weeks.

“There are other musicians who perform in the system and they are allowed to perform as long as the [MTA] rules of conduct are abided,” writes Bradshaw in an email.

The number of underground performers, therefore, is typically greater than the number of  those that participate in the program, especially in the winter. The exact number performing underground at any one time is not known, however, because Music under New York does not keep statistics about how the weather affects the number of musicians in the subway system.

Still, there is no question that the cold can have an effect on musicians and their instruments.

“If it’s too cold, it affects the tone,” says Frank Lam, 28, son and helper of Peter Lam, a violin maker with an eponymous shop on the Upper West Side. “A room temperature would be perfect for a musical instrument.”

Musicians, like Geovanni Suquillo, 35, a guitarist with a Latin ensemble that often plays at the Times Square subway station, say the cold makes playing music more labor-intensive.

“We have to be tuning almost every song that we play,” he says.

Geovanni Suquillo
Geovanni Suquillo

The same goes for wind instruments such as the Andean flutes that Luis Vilcherrez, 46, a folk musician, plays.

“They’re made of bamboo or wood, so always the pitch goes down,” says Vilcherrez.

The musicians feel the effect too.

“When we play the flutes, you know, we need to move the fingers,” says Vilcherrez, “but, for the winter we get a little cold.”  He says they drink hot coffee or tea to warm up.

Luis Vilcherrez (right)
Luis Vilcherrez (right)

Meanwhile, in a corridor of the 34th Street/Penn Station subway stop, Lefty plays riffs that he taught himself. He wears a scarf around his neck. He has just moved there from the Times Square station, where he had to free up a spot for a Music under New York performer who had reserved it. Outside, the winter wind still howls.

“It’s way too cold to play anywhere else,” he says. “You go upstairs and my hand will freeze off, and I’m already down to one; I can’t lose the last one to frost-bite.”

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