Friday, June 12, 2009

‘Passion is no ordinary word’

Natalia Paruz is passionate about the musical saw.

Passionate about playing it; passionate about collecting and preserving the instrument’s history, and she’s also passionate about telling people about it.

I watched her for an hour or so today at Union Square and she probably spent as much time talking to passers by as she did actually playing.

And the ‘Saw Lady’ always answers listeners’ questions – some of which she must have heard a hundred times – with a smile. Everyone seems to know her, and she says she never tires of watching people’s reactions as they hear the soaring notes fill the mezzanine level – fighting intermittently against the scream of the emergency exit alarm.

But the surrounding noise doesn’t stop her making a connection with her audience – particularly children who are drawn by the unfamiliar sound. “It’s about communication,” she says. “The station is like a canvas, and the people are the paint. Music gives you the brushstrokes.”

While not everyone will have seen a saw used as a musical instrument before, some might have heard from parents or grandparents about how when immigrants came to the US, traditional instruments were often a luxury, so they made do with what they had.

Natalia has about 20 different saws she has collected over the years: some made specially to be played but others come from ordinary hardware stores.

She first came to New York from Israel to follow a career as a dancer, but a traffic accident dashed those hopes. She fell in love with the saw after seeing someone playing one on a trip to Salzburg.

She told me how, traditionally, when someone approached a saw player to ask to be taught, they’d be told to go and figure it out for themselves – as a way of proving their dedication to the instrument.

But she wants to keep the instrument and its techniques alive through teaching. “That’s my retirement plan,” she laughs.

For the past 16 years, she has played everywhere from Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden to a store window at The Gap surrounded by mannequins. “Saw players have to take whatever gigs come along,” she explains.

As well as the MUNY spot at Union Square, she plays often in the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

This summer, she’ll be leaving her busking home briefly – “it’s nice when people notice that you’re not there” – to travel to Israel to work with a composer who is writing for the saw, and she’s also hoping to travel to Ireland. At the moment she’s organizing the 7th annual Musical Saw Festival bringing together players from all over the world.

“I used to be very shy,” she says, “and sometimes people in the subway can look intimidating, but you learn that you can’t judge a book by its cover. Everyone’s very kind.”

“Playing in the subway is like living in a little village where everyone knows everyone else.”

She finishes up her set with songs like ‘Edelweiss’ and ‘My Heart Will Go On’ that get looks of recognition and make people slow down to listen.

And when she blows on her hand to soothe her fingers, it looks like she’s blowing everyone a kiss.

It was so humid today I really didn’t want to get off the air-conditioned train I rode uptown. But I’m glad I did. It turned out to be the best session yet.

The Yamaha sounded great and I was lucky to find a corner of the N/Q uptown platform at Canal Street where the acoustics were perfect. I was just at the bottom of the stairs leading down to the tracks, and the trains weren’t too frequent. In fact, often the uptown and downtown trains would arrive at the same time, so there was less time to wait before you could play again.

But the best part of the set was when a waiting passenger played Little Steven to my Bruce, putting up some killer harmonies on ‘The Ties That Bind’.

Even if I hadn’t collected a penny, playing out today would have been worth it for that.

So I ended up playing for about an hour and a half; a couple of new songs got a run out, I broke a string (a G – I’m sure it was because of the heat), and – most gratifyingly - my fellow New Yorkers put $8.59 in my case, for which many thanks.

Have a great weekend.

Today’s songlist:

Hungry Heart – Bruce Springsteen
Lawyers Guns and Money – Warren Zevon
Bad Moon Rising – John Fogerty
The Ties That Bind – Bruce Springsteen
No Surrender – Bruce Springsteen
Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison
100 Miles – Catie Curtis
The White Hare – Seth Lakeman
The Times They Are A-Changin’ – Bob Dylan
Drift Away – Dobie Gray
People Get Ready – Curtis Mayfield
My Beautiful Reward – Bruce Springsteen
Tonight Will Be Fine – Leonard Cohen (the Teddy Thompson version)
Peace Love and Understanding – Elvis Costello
Lovers In A Dangerous Time – Bruce Cockburn
Johnny Strikes Up The Band – Warren Zevon
Waiting For My Real Life To Begin – Colin Hay
I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty (ironically, I broke the string on the first chorus, so I, er, backed down and packed up for the day)


  1. I remember seeing a "musical saw" act awhile back on television. A group of Asian men did it. I thought it was one of the coolest things ever. It was at least a few years ago, though, so I do not remember much about it.

    That is neat that this woman does it for people. I wish I was where you are.

  2. After I moved, one of the things I missed most about Manhattan is the musicians playing in subways. Thanks to you I learned a new word, busking. I'm so touched with your endeavor; I can't believe my luck that someone would take the trouble to bring these musicians to me again. I applaud your efforts.