How to be an underground music star

How did they get this prime (and lucrative) subway performance spot anyway? Photo by Arianys Wilson.

As a professional musician, I am usually listening to music on my iPod while running to and from gigs. I often notice musicians playing throughout the subway passages, but a certain group is always worth removing my ear buds for: the musicians playing in front of a banner that reads “Music Under New York,” and usually playing behind a bucket or case brimming with cash.

These musicians span a wide range of talent, from the man playing “Penny Lane” on a saw at Astor Place, the old-time porch band featuring a washboard player on the L platform or the funky brass band jamming to a large crowd at Union Square station. I was curious to know how these talented folks were “discovered” and got such prime performance locations. It seems like a fun venue for my oboe trio Threeds to play, so I did some research.

Why we would chose to tryout for the official MUNY permit vs. just opening our oboe cases somewhere? You need this permit in order to play in 25 of the nicer “venues” including Grand Central, Penn Station Union Square, Grand Army Plaza, Court Street and Atlantic Avenue. Plus, with the permit you can (legally) sell CDs, which is important to us as we have a new album coming out this month. I don’t think playing in the subway is going to allow us to buy a tour bus, but I do think it is an excellent way of getting exposure and playing for new audiences. As a crossover group (meaning we were classically trained but now experimenting with jazz, pop and improvisation) we need to get the word out and playing in the subway could help us to do so.

I found the application on the MTA’s website just in time: the auditions are held only once a year and the application was due March 18. It’s free to apply and the auditions are open to anyone, professional or amateur. The application process was fairly simple: they require you to fill out a short form, submit a CD or DVD and any group bios/reviews you have. Since we just finishing recording a new album this spring, I sent a demo with about five different tracks from the album, including a few jazz and pop tunes.

Threeds oboe trio; The author on the right.

A few weeks later, I received a letter in the mail inviting us to audition. We were asked to come to the Northeast Passage Balcony in Grand Central for a 3-5 minute audition on May 17 between the hours of 9am-3:30pm. We took an early slot (yawn!), arrived at about 8:45am and were greeted by several friendly MUNY representatives, who showed us where to warm up and put our things. There were several other musicians in our hour: a tap-dancing banjo player, a female a capella group and a few singer-songwriters. It seemed like the judges really enjoyed the more unique performs (the press in attendance went nuts over the tap-dancing banjo player). They seemed to be looking for groups that could offer something different. They also liked energetic groups that were loud enough to be heard in a busy subway passage.

When it was our turn, I thought that there would be a few judges with a large audience made up of commuters and tourists. As I looked out, I realized that it was quite the opposite! There were about 30 judges, made up of MTA workers, music business professionals and more. We started our audition playing Bjork’s “Joga,” which is a gorgeously moody tune, then picked up the pace with the Door’s “Light My Fire.” The judges were warm and receptive and seemed to enjoy our performance.

We spent a few minutes after our audition listening to the other groups, along with several cameras from local news channels and papers capturing the event. We were even interviewed by the Post! Overall, it was an easy and enjoyable experience. I’m not quite sure how many artists are selected but I hope we are chosen when the winners are notified in about two weeks. It would be great to play for a new audience, perhaps people who are not familiar with the oboe (believe it or not, these people exist!). As I previously mentioned, our new CD, “Unraveled,” will be out in a few days (I’m actually waiting for the UPS truck as I write this) and would love to share our music with the people under New York City! [UPDATE 5/29: They made it!].

Threeds oboe trio, which includes Kathy Halvorson (oboe), Katie Scheele (English horn) and Mark Snyder (oboe), has been jamming to pop, jazz and world music tunes since 2008. The trio has played several NYC venues, including Joe’s Pub, Rockwood Music Hall, Trinity Church Wall Street, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and the Living Room. Their debut album “Unraveled” will be coming out in June: look for it on iTunes, CD Baby and on their website. You can also like them on Facebook, or download a free single.