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Busking In NYC: The Amazing Power Of The Musical Saw

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The Saw Lady. Photo by Dexter Wetmore.
busking in nyc
The Saw Lady doing her thing! Photo by Dexter Wetmore.

If asked to name your favorite instrument, it’s likely “the saw” wouldn’t be your first answer. It’s even more likely you didn’t know your everyday handsaw could be used as a musical instrument, though one listen to Natalia Paruz, more commonly known as the “Saw Lady,” would quickly change your mind.

Interestingly, Paruz didn’t start as a musical saw player, but as a dancer. She had an impressive career as a trainee at the Martha Graham Dance Company of Contemporary Dance, as a tap-dance teacher for Dance Masters and Dance Educators of America, and earning a living performing in musical theater.

Until one day everything changed. As Paruz was leaving a rehearsal at Lincoln Center she was struck by a speeding taxi, causing permanent damage to her upper spine and an end to her dance career.

While the injury devastated her at first, Paruz’s discovery of the musical saw likely wouldn’t have happened without it, a thought the musician can’t bear to consider since the instrument has become her true passion in life. It’s also been her tool for bringing different communities together and changing the conversation about street musicians, which she discusses below.

To see Paruz play you don’t have to buy a ticket (though tips are appreciated); instead, you just need to ride the NYC subway, where she plays three times per week (with MTA permits). There’s an incorrect stereotype the exists portraying subway musicians as homeless, jobless or not good enough to perform on a stage; however, Paruz plays her musical saw not because she has to, but because she wants to brighten the days of people who maybe can’t afford a theater ticket. She’s been doing just this for 20 years.

Beyond the subway you can hear this unique instrument at the annual New York City Musical Saw Festival, of which Paruz is the founder and director of. The event is now in its 12th year, with Paruz continually inspiring people by this rare art form.

Epicure & Culture caught up with Paruz to learn more about her work, the power of music, and how a horrible accident ruined and empowered her life all at the same time.

1) How did the transition from dance to musical saw happen?

To cheer me up after my accident my parents took me on a trip to Austria to visit the country where my favorite movie, “The Sound of Music,” was made. While there we attended a show for tourists which included… a musical saw player!

This was totally new to me, and it blew me away. I thought the sound was phenomenal – spiritual, angelic and different from any sound I heard before. What really appealed to me though was the visual; the whole instrument moved and the sawist’s upper body along with it. It was like a dance!

busking in nyc
Natalia. Photo courtesy of Takuya Kaise.

The musical saw is one of very few instruments where the entire instrument moves — unlike a violin for example, where only the bow moves but the body of the violin never changes shape — and changes shape constantly as you play it.

I went backstage to talk with the sawist and ask him to give me lessons. His answer was a flat and resounding ‘No’ even when I offered to pay him. He told me that I didn’t need a teacher. “Pick up a hand saw, hold it the way you have seen me do on stage, and you’ll figure it out” was his instruction. As a “bonus hint” he told me that the more expensive a saw I get, the better it would sound.

Armed with these instructions I borrowed an old saw from someone. It was rusty from time and woodwork, so it only had six notes left on it. When I aimed to upgrade the instrument, my trip to the local hardware store was interesting. The owner was furious about the “whistling” that somebody was doing in his store. He was very puzzled when he saw where the sound was coming from, but allowed me to test all his saws when he realized I was going to purchase an expensive one.

Indeed the Austrian sawist was right. I figured it out all on my own, and I’m very grateful to him for having given me the satisfaction of being able to say that ‘I did it all on my own.’

2) How has music changed your life? 

After the car accident I tried to get interested in different things, but nothing filled the void in my soul that dance had occupied. Until I came across the musical saw. I was so excited by this art form that it made me forget to be sad about not being able to dance any more.

I am actually glad for the accident in retrospect. If it weren’t for the accident I wouldn’t have discovered the musical saw, and I would have missed out on so much in life.

Did you know the hand saw is also an #instrument? #music #change Share on X

3) What inspires you to play in the subway even after you made it as a professional musician?

The people. When I play on a stage I have lights shining in my eyes, the audience is down in the dark and it feels as if there is a glass wall between us. In the subway the audience is right there next to me. I can see the transformation in their faces as they walk by and hear the music. They talk with me, ask questions about the music and tell me things from their lives. The music becomes but an excuse for communication. I see time and again how music brings people together.

One example is when I was playing at the Herald Square subway station. On one side of me was an Orthodox Jewish family, on the other side was a Muslim family and in front of me was a man with a big cross around his neck. At first they avoided one another, but they were all drawn to the same music. One of them asked me a question about the musical saw and when I answered, the others drew in to hear my answer. I made a point of looking at all of them while talking in order to participate everyone in the conversation.

They found they all had the same questions, the same curiosity, the same reactions and the same appreciation of the music. In a few minutes they were not only talking with me, but also with one another. They discovered they actually shared connections, even with people they were “supposed to” dislike and stay away from.

busking in nyc
Natalia Paruz. Photo courtesy of Jinyoub Kim

4) What has your personal experience with the misconception that subway musicians are homeless, jobless or less talented?

Here’s an example. When I was hired to perform with a big orchestra the other musicians knew I played in the subway, so during rehearsals they looked down their noses at me and were snobbish and unfriendly. The day of the performance the playbill was distributed and the musicians read my bio — discovering it was better than all of theirs combined. All of a sudden they treated me with respect and wanted to be friends. It’s funny how people judge you not according to how you play, but according to where you play.

The interesting thing was that some time later some of these musicians happened to walk by me in the subway. They all said a very nice ‘hello’ to me. They learned not to judge by the location of the performance.

I think that if you love music and you love people, any place is a good stage to combine the two. On the street you get to reach people you wouldn’t be able to otherwise, including a group of teenagers who huddled around me at the Times Square subway station. They were so surprised to learn that the music they just loved was classical music. They would have never given classical music a listen if they were made to listen to it at school; but because the street is free and because it was a chance encounter, they listened and didn’t have a pre-conception of whether they should enjoy it or not.

The street has such potential for bringing people together through music. All we need to do is dispel the stigma.

busking in nyc
Natalia in action. Photo courtesy of Oscar Durand.

5) What are some of the most interesting reactions you’ve had to your music while playing in public spaces?

A funny reaction is when people start asking one another if the sound is coming from the saw or if I am singing. The sound of the saw is very similar to an opera singer singing without words, and they’ll debate the subject until I demonstrate that I’m playing with my mouth shut or that I’m playing while talking to them. They all want to touch the instrument for some reason.

Some reactions are not funny. Music makes people open up. I was once playing at the Union Square station when a lady told me how she loves the music, and that her son also loved music. Then she said: ‘You know how I got my son?’ and went on to tell me in detail how she was raped. She might have been holding this story, with all its pain, secret for a long time. Because of the music she was able to open up and let go.

In #NYC, one #woman brings people together with her #musical saw Share on X

6) What is one of the most beautiful ways you’ve seen your music bring people together on the street?

My favorite story is when I played at Times Square:  There were a few people standing around me listening, including a blind man on my right. As I played his face lit up, and it was obvious he was enjoying what he heard. On my left there was a woman who had nothing to do with the blind man. They were two strangers who happened to walk by me at the same time. She, too, noticed the joy on his face. She came over to me, purchased one of my CDs, went over to the blind man, put the CD in his hand and said: “This is the music you are listening to now. This is for you”.

She spent her own money to buy a present for a stranger! To have my music be the impetus for such an extraordinary act of kindness – that was a priceless experience for me.

busking in nyc
Natalia Paruz. Photo courtesy of Rod Goodman

7) What other ways do you make music publicly accessible?

Putting on the Saw Festival is costly, so I have to charge admission; however, I keep the price to a minimum — $10, because I want it to be accessible to all.

Richard Gere’s latest movie, “Time Out of Mind,” is about a homeless person. When he walks through Grand Central Station you hear my playing on the soundtrack. This was director Oren Moverman’s way of keeping it real. I actually play for homeless people in the subway, including at the spot where this scene was filmed. And let me tell you, when a homeless person gives you a penny, because he really wants to show his appreciation for your being there, this penny becomes more precious than the thousand dollars you get for playing a stage gig.

In terms of busking in NYC, what performances have moved you in some way? Please share in the comments below! 


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Scratch My Back: A Pictoral History of the Musical Saw and How to Play It [Great Reads]


Katie Foote

Katie Foote may be a physicist by trade but she spent several years travelling the world as much as possible. After four years of semi-nomadic life, she spent a couple years in Auckland, New Zealand and recently moved to Vancouver, Canada. Despite living more traditionally, she has insight on how to travel the world on a graduate student budget (cheap!), explore off-the-beaten-path destinations and authentically experiencing new places by connecting to locals. When she's not doing physics or globe-trotting, she likes kickboxing, yoga and exploring her extraordinary new backyard of British Columbia.

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