From Classical to Modern

NYC Subway Musicians Push the Limits

(For another look at street performers in New York, see “For the Love of Music: Busking in New York City,” by Simona Taver.)

By Timmy Leung

Under the streets of New York City, mingling with the sounds of the trains, music often can be heard from the platforms and passageways of the subway system. The musicians who perform play jazz, rock and hip hop as passengers scurry by.

Two musicians, however, have unique repertoires. Underground musicians Michael Shulman and Sean Grissom, who perform independently, modernize classical music by creating their own new styles of music.

Electric violinist Michael Shulman, 36, combines elements of classical, metal, rock, and Gypsy music to create his own style which he calls “Shred Violin”. The music he plays is very intense, with high energy and strong notes. While his audience is wearing Winter jackets, he has on a white t-shirt, black trousers, and black shoes. At average height, he has a slim body with curly, brown hair.

Not only does Shulman play the violin, he integrates his own unique dancing to his music. He brings extra shirts with him to change because he works up a puddle of sweat. “The dancing is just self-taught,” Shulman said. “I didn’t take classes for that. I just lobbed at it and incorporated it into my performance naturally.”

Born and raised in Russia, he attended a children’s music school, playing the violin at age 6. At age 17, he came to the United States and currently resides in New York. He passed by the subway and saw musicians performing for donations in subways. He saw this as an opportunity and followed their footsteps.

Shulman lugs around with him his violin, an amp, an equalizer, two large speakers on stands that fit perfectly into a carrying case, and a battery pack to power everything. His violin is a 5-string, custom-made electric violin with a wireless system. A black-colored head of a dragon is located at the pegbox. That is why his violin is named “Black Dragon.”

Video: Interview with Michael Shulman ‘Shred Violinist’

Shulman is a full-time musician. He generally plays in the subway at Union Square, Herald Square, and Penn Station. Sometimes, he gets hired to play at private parties.

Shulman composes original music and performs covers by other artists. “Originals have meanings because I wrote them, but covers are someone else’s so I try to understand how the original performer felt,” he said in an interview at the Union Square station.

Shulman plays many Michael Jackson covers. He said his songs were very unique. “They have a lot of energy. I like them because they’re melodic and very upbeat most of the time. It’s easy to dance,” he said “It’s inspiring because he’s one of my favorite performer. Michael Jackson makes me get better.”

While Shulman’s violin was custom made by a luthier, Sean Grissom built his own electric “Cajun cello.”

Dressed in a white-and-blue striped shirt with a purple bowtie and purple shoes, Grissom has a red handkerchief hanging out of his back pocket. An average height man with a blonde, frizzy ponytail. His music style can be described as a jazzy form of country, swing, and rock played in an offbeat, vaudeville manner.

Grissom, from Texas, started playing the cello at a late age of 9. He has performed since he was 19, now going on 30 years of being on stage.

Grissom is a full-time musician. In addition to his subway gigs, he plays in hospitals and has a few private students whom he teaches in public schools one day a week. He plays in the subway twice a week at Union Square, Grand Central Station, Times Square, Penn Station, and Staten Island Ferry terminals.

Grissom gives off a very positive energy when he speaks. He pours his heart into violently hammering away his music with a cynical smile on his face, almost as if he was playing without fear of breaking his equipment.

Both Shulman and Grissom love performing at subway stations because they meet interesting people, famous people, new friends, new fans, and future clients. Grissom says, “The biggest thing I did is, last January, I played for the mayor’s inauguration.”

Although the Metropolitan Transportation Authority does not pay the performers, they give permission for people to present their talents on a first-come, first-served time schedule. As part of its Music Under New York (MUNY) program, musicians are auditioned by playing their original songs; they are then evaluated by the judges they play in front of. Musicians performing as part of the MUNY program can be identified with a yellow banner. Performers call MUNY and negotiate when and where they would like to perform within at least a two weeks’ notice.

Classical or modern, old or new, these two musicians have successfully conquered their dreams of owning their own style. Styles that differentiate themselves from the rest of the sardines.

“Thank you for riding the MTA,” Grissom jokingly said “because if people don’t ride the subways, then I don’t get to play for them.”