Violinist Michael Shulman plays for New Yorkers during their rush hour commutes
Name: Michael Shulman
Hometown: Moscow, Russia
Instrument: Electric violin
Occupation: Street musician, rocker
Affiliation: The rock band In Twilight
Quote: ‘It all started with the subway.’
Like the millions with whom he shares its crammed spaces each day, violinist Michael Shulman relies on the New York City subway system to get to work. But that’s his only stop. For the better part of a decade, Shulman’s stage has been the city’s subway platforms. Serenading commuters pays his rent and the grocery bill, provides artistic inspiration, and aids creation.
It even helped him find band mates.
But his is no mere street busker’s act: Shulman has reached a measure of modest fame in the city and on YouTube for a playing style known as “shred.” Some call it neoclassical, but it’s perhaps best described as “Paganini-meets-rock-guitar god Yngwie Malmsteen,” with Shulman providing his own backing tracks and a little spice, courtesy of two effects pedals.
His stage act also incorporates dance and kung fu moves while bowing.
And all this just a few years after standing on freezing subway platforms, playing scales on an acoustic violin, learning to finger and bow wearing winter gloves, and watching for thieves and subway police.
“It all started with the subway,” he says.
The original idea was to become a rock-star front man for a metal band when he arrived in the Big Apple from his home in Moscow, Russia, with—in true bohemian fashion—nothing more than a suitcase in one hand and his violin case in the other. He’d played violin since age six, but hated to practice and hadn’t played much prior to arriving. But when good jobs proved hard to find, and with no rock groups looking for a vocalist with little to no English skills, bringing the violin proved to be a lifesaver.
It was a music or death situation, he says, adding that he had noticed other musicians earning a few bucks playing tunes on the subway. “But I had forgotten even how to hold the violin properly,” he says. “Luckily I had some sheet music, and just started playing scales in the subway, trying to get my skills up.”
He did that for a few years while still nursing his rock ’n’ roll fantasies, before finally having a revelation: the subway was his stage, for good or ill, and if he wanted to be a musician, he needed to act like it was Carnegie Hall.
He became possessed.
Today, Shulman also gigs at clubs, art showings, and private parties, but the two or three sessions a week in the subway, all approved by subway authorities, are truly where it all happens for him.
“It’s hard,” he says. “I was afraid to put it all out there, playing on the subway. You don’t feel like opening up. But then I realized it’s now or never.
“If I want to make my mark on the world, this is how.”
Check out videos of Michael Shulman’s shred violin at blackviolin.com.