Piano Man on a Mission
This past February 27 would come to be known as Kristopher Hull's Worst Day Ever. Armed with a full-size upright piano, a repertoire of Chopin's etudes and nocturnes, and his nerves, the 33-year-old pianist planned to storm Lincoln Road, guerrilla-style. He was going to bring classical music out of the concert hall and into the streets.
Inspired by his fictional role model, Don Quixote, Hull was in the early days of his quest, which he called "pianist errantry." He was accompanied by a pal, Swedish-born photographer Victor Staaffe, who was documenting the whole thing. Together that sunny afternoon, they unloaded Hull's piano from the back of his aquamarine pickup truck. Setting up a metal ramp from the edge of the truck bed, they used the electric winch specially installed in the back to carefully roll down the piano, which was custom-mounted on a steel brace and a set of four pneumatic casters. They loosened the straps that connected it to the winch and removed the piano's heavy black slipcover. Then Staaffe left with the truck to buy a bicycle in Coral Gables, and Hull was alone with his instrument near the corner of Lincoln Road and Pennsylvania Avenue.
"When I'm about to go play, I actually get really, really tense," he says later, over pan con lechón at the Latin Café on Biscayne Boulevard. "You don't know what's going to happen. You don't know if you're going to make any money, if people are going to like it, if you're going to play well."
Steeling himself, Hull pushed his piano into an empty corner in front of the New World Symphony building. He set up his card table with his self-produced CDs and a placard bearing his name. Then he began to play. Relaxing, he lost himself in the rapture of giving flight to the notes. A few people gathered, then about 30, then more.
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Opening his eyes for a moment, Hull noticed two men charging down the pedestrian mall, wearing matching, logo-bearing polo shirts. They were Miami Beach code enforcers, he learned when they interrupted him, mid-etude. Because Hull was permit-less, he had to go. "If we weren't just doing our jobs," they told him, "we'd be out here listening to you play too." He was free to play on Washington Avenue, they said.
Mustering his pluck, Hull wheeled his piano down Lincoln as evening approached. He stopped on the east side of Washington, on the corner outside Walgreens. He began to play again, and was mostly ignored. A young woman asked to play, and as she pounded out a rudimentary rendition of Beethoven's "Für Elise," a crowd gathered. Then her boyfriend quietly offered to sell Hull his choice of coke or weed. Luckily, Staaffe soon returned with the truck.
Recalling his hero Quixote's multiple forays into the world, Hull remained undeterred. He loaded the piano back onto the truck bed and remembered that an acquaintance had told him to call on a friend's "expensive sneaker store" on lower Collins Avenue. He and Staaffe set off.
The store turned out to be Kidrobot, the Southeast outpost of a small chain based in New York that sells limited-edition clothing and collectibles — all sleek, high-design urban skate-kid couture. That night, Kidrobot was in the full swing of an opening party. Thanks, but no thanks; they had already booked a DJ, an employee told Hull.
And still, Hull rolled on, across Fifth Street and back onto the lower stretch of Washington. Hearing music through an open bar door, he stopped. It was Love Hate, the upscale retro-tattoo-art-themed bar owned by the stars of Miami Ink. Kitted out with stripper poles and low banquettes, it's an elegantly rowdy spot that throbs to old-school hip-hop most nights. But tonight there were live bands, and Hull thought he should take a chance.
He introduced himself to a manager but was met with skepticism. Suddenly there was an almost audible pop and a collective gasp. The lights blacked out in the bar — as they had done earlier that day throughout most of South Florida.
"So that's when I really turned up the heat on the guy," Hull recounts. "I was like, 'Don't be a fucking idiot, man. You'll be the only place on South Beach that has any music. It's Chopin; it's fantastic stuff. It's free.' I just pestered him until he finally said okay."
To the manager's open-mouthed surprise, Hull dutifully rolled in his piano, positioning it near the back of the bar. He sat down, stretched, and raised his arms to play.
Then the lights came back on.
"Sorry, guy! Gotta get the piano out of here," the manager told him. "See ya later, Elton John!"
"That's when it started to sort of dawn on me," Hull says, "that maybe this pianist errantry is a lot more difficult than I thought."
"Where this piano thing came from is one of the great mysteries of life," Dawn Hull, Kristopher's mother, laughs by phone from the family's winter home in rural Maine. Kris Hull was born in 1974 in Washington, D.C., but was soon transplanted to rural Kenya as he and his mother followed his father, Jon, a wildlife photographer. His first brother, Ryan, was born two years later, and his youngest brother, Troy, followed three years after that.
The family was not especially musical, Dawn recalls, though they listened to some classical at home. "I happen to be more or less tone deaf," she says. "And going back a number of generations, I've never heard of anyone in my family playing anything."
Television was nonexistent in their village in Kenya, and still rare, she says, in Greece, where they moved when Kris was about age seven. The brothers mostly entertained themselves outdoors.
"We were just always looking for mischief," Troy says. "We'd get home from school and ride our bikes around, down to the park, and explore abandoned buildings. We had a great time in Greece."
During the family's time there, Dawn enrolled Ryan in piano lessons. Kris, meanwhile, was signed up to learn guitar, a project that was short-lived, Dawn says, for he "absolutely loathed" the lessons.
But Kris had already demonstrated serious intellectual curiosity, manual dexterity, and an ability to focus deeply. After receiving a how-to book on juggling one Christmas, he spent a year fixated on the craft, eventually able to keep five items aloft at once. His mother also remembers him enjoying jigsaw puzzles.
Troy remembers Kris hanging around Ryan's piano lessons. "He didn't want to have lessons, but he wanted to play the piano as well as Ryan or better, so he did," he says. "Everything that we did was competitive and focused. Kris has always been pretty intense."
One day, Dawn heard a practiced version of a Scott Joplin ragtime coming from the piano room. "I said, 'Who's that? Is that Ryan?'" she recalls. "And I went in and it was Kris. I couldn't believe it!"
"I'm not sure how he came up with the ragtime or where he found it," says Troy.
But that was just a party trick, it seemed, and as soon as Kris had picked it up, he put it aside. When Kris was 14 years old, his family was set to move to Indonesia. He was given a choice: go with them or return to the States for boarding school. He chose the latter, and enrolled at the prestigious Deerfield Academy, in western Massachusetts.
In an attempt to embrace the new culture head-on, he tried out for junior varsity football. "He decided he wanted to become a real American," Dawn says. "And I think it lasted about three weeks, because in some game or another, he ran the ball towards the wrong goal post, and that was the end of that!"
Remembering his leisurely childhood bike rides, Kris turned to cycling, taking it on with typical intensity. "Off the bat, he was doing 60-mile rides," Troy says. "That was the usual for him."
After graduating, Hull went to Rice University in Houston on a full scholarship to study architecture (he was also a preternaturally gifted draftsman). Still, though, he planned to become a professional cyclist, until those dreams were cut short when he contracted Lyme disease. Usually passed through tick bites, the chronic illness causes a number of recurring physical symptoms, including arthritis. For Hull, it was nearly debilitating. Depressed, he remembered the piano in his dormitory rec room and wandered down to sit in front of it.
He still knew how to read basic sheet music. And he was developing a nascent interest in, and a CD library of, classical music. So just as suddenly as he had decided to become a pro cyclist, at age 20 he decided he would become a classical pianist. By teaching himself, of course.
"When I first started playing, I sat down and I plotted and I schemed and I had a few weeks where I devised my life plan," Hull recounts. "I thought lessons would just be a waste of my time. The technical stuff, especially, I thought I didn't need help with."
Instead, he just played — up to 10 hours a day. He carefully listened to recordings by favorite 20th-century pianists such as Vladimir Horowitz and Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli. After a brief love affair with Liszt, he settled on mastering his current repertoire: a dash of Rachmaninoff, but mostly Chopin's nocturnes and etudes, the latter having been specifically written as a series of technical exercises.
Hull took a leave of absence from Rice to prepare for an audition for the school's esteemed music conservatory. He was rejected, but a professor offered to take him as a private student if he returned to school to study another subject. Hull just couldn't. "After that year of playing like eight, ten hours a day, I wasn't prepared to give it up to spend six hours on philosophy homework or something," he says. After a couple of attempts to resume school, he left again, never to return. Instead, he informed his parents he was going to become a concert pianist.
"I was a little taken aback. This is not something that one just springs on their parents when you've had no musical background," Dawn says. "I think both his dad and I were somewhat stunned, but then we said, 'Well, that's Kris. He's just going to do his own thing.'"
On a weekday afternoon in late February, Kris Hull is cheerful. The Worst Day Ever is still a few days away, and his spirits are high. Miami seems full of possibility.
Having played one day on Lincoln Road, he has decided to try a new location: the boardwalk-like promenade along the beach behind the Delano hotel. As he pushes the black-covered piano up the walkway ramp, accompanied by Staaffe, bathing-suited passersby do double-takes.
Hull comes to a stop at a wide, circular concrete part of the path. He uncovers the piano and stacks a few of his CDs on it. He unfolds his little table and atop it places a placard that reads, "Frederic Chopin CDs, 10 dollars."
He sits down, stretches his arms and fingers, and begins playing Chopin's etude Op. 25, No. 1. It's a bright, rolling, airy piece, instantly recognizable to anyone with a cursory knowledge of classical music. Hull plays with a measured intensity and finesse — eyes closed, head periodically rolling from side to side. Somehow, on this overcast and placid day, it hardly seems incongruous that he's here, as tan young things walk by with their purse dogs.
In fact the only comments he attracts are positive, if sparse. "Awesome, awesome!" yells a woman as she whizzes by on a pink bike. "Whoa, nice!" says another on a stroll. A few people sit down for a while. A rollerblader presses a crumpled, sweaty $20 bill into Hull's hand as he skates by. Even a couple of cops roll by on ATVs, stare for a bit, and move on without a word. Who, they must figure, would be playing a piano on the beach if he weren't technically supposed to be there?
An hour or so later, Hull is up $40 or $50, and he's satisfied with this early, tentative foray. He's unbothered when, while packing up, there's a technical snafu as he pulls the piano up the ramp into the back of the pickup. The winch creaks and groans. "Usually this is a very smooth operation, but the cover keeps flying off. I never had an error with the ramp itself," Hull says as his shaggy, wavy brown hair flies in the wind. In no time, he has the piano successfully packed up. "This is it, Victor!" Hull cries to his Swedish friend. "Yay! We did it!"
Fate, however, wouldn't allow Hull to immediately delve into piano playing. In early 1997, he developed excruciating pain in his fingers whenever he tried to play, and soon couldn't do so for more than half a minute at a time. "I went from cycling eight hours a day to playing piano ten hours a day, and my body just couldn't handle it," he says.
On the advice of a friend, he went to Thailand in search of alternative healing. Thus began a dizzying period of expatriate wanderlust in Hull's life, a cross-continental journey that took him from Bangkok, back to the States, and then to Fiji, Tangiers, and Berlin.
After a couple of months of rigorous, two-hour daily yoga practice in Thailand, he says, he regained use of his hands. During a short trip from Morocco to Spain, he reconnected with an old friend from Deerfield Academy, Tra Bouscarian, who recommended that Hull read Don Quixote. Miguel Cervantes's 17th-century classic, a picaresque tale of a man who reads too many chivalry books and wakes up deciding to be a knight-errant, struck a chord.
"It changed my life," he says. "Don Quixote had these delusions. I was so delusional, convincing myself I was going to be a concert pianist, even though it was, like, totally impossible. Don Quixote just woke up one day and had read so many damn books about chivalry he decided he was a knight. I was so bananas about piano, one day I just said, 'I'm a concert pianist.' And people would ask, 'Well, where do you play?' And I'd say, 'Nowhere. Well, not yet.'"
Thus was born, as Hull came to call himself, the pianist-errant. He would become not only a classical pianist but also a traveling one, playing, literally, in the streets, for the masses. How to do so, then, was just a remaining technical puzzle.
After a couple of years in Morocco, Hull and Bouscarian shuffled off to Berlin, where he met Victor Staaffe at a mutual friend's poker party. Hull had begun devising a mobile piano, and he was itching to take on the United States.
In the fall of 2007, Hull headed to his family's winter home in Dunedin, on Florida's west coast. He acquired an Eighties Chickering upright piano on a lease-to-own payment schedule, not mentioning his travel plans during negotiations with the dealer. With his brother Troy's help, he built a steel brace to go around the bottom, on which he mounted four pneumatic casters that could be refilled using a bicycle pump.
"We stayed up all night, hacking the steel, bolting the thing onto the piano. Then it didn't fit out the door," Troy recalls. "So we had to hack off two inches more steel. You figure he'd measure it before we did all that work."
This past December, Hull launched www.pianisterrant.com, and in January, it was time for him to test his idea. He invited his family to accompany him to the neighboring community of Crystal Beach. A small crowd quickly gathered as he played on an oceanfront promenade. His family looked on, flabbergasted but not entirely shocked. Soon he arranged through the community association to give an official free public concert.
"That was the first time I'd ever seen him play for a large crowd of people," Dawn says. "I thought he was fantastic. And ... his strength of will to actually accomplish this thing was just stunning to me."
"I believed he would do it, because there was no way that he couldn't," says Troy. "His whole life was in that direction for so long, and it came down to the point where all he had was his piano and his truck."
A hit in Crystal Beach, Hull was invited to perform at the community association's annual charity auction, where a bidder would win a private concert by him. As he played, he was suddenly roused from his "pianistic ecstasy" by a hand grabbing his shoulder.
He wheeled around to see an unfamiliar woman, who was hysterical. "I think that's your car!" she sobbed. Looking beyond her, through a set of glass doors, Hull saw what she meant. The emergency brake on his pickup truck, parked on an inclining street, had somehow disengaged and the truck rolled into the side of her brand-new 2008 Saturn Sky roadster.
The police were called, but nobody was injured, and Hull's insurance took care of the damage. Shaken, he returned to his piano and finished the concert. But when Staaffe showed up, more or less on a whim, to meet him shortly afterward, they agreed it was time to go south and try their luck in Miami.
Arriving in the Magic City in late February, Hull and Staaffe stayed in a series of low-rent motels around Biscayne Boulevard, from the White House Inn on NE 123rd Street down to the Best Value Inn on NE 52nd Street. They decided to stick around. Hull would cut his teeth on pianist errantry while the cold weather everywhere else subsided, and Staaffe would try to find work in his trade, fashion photography.
They found an unfurnished one-story duplex on NE 26th Street. It was mostly raw concrete and exposed wiring on the inside. But it was large and cheap and, most important, boasted a gentle concrete slope up to the door, perfect for getting the piano in and out.
They lucked into a sympathetic landlord named Richard Strell. A man about town and proud occasional political gadfly, Strell founded the Neighborhood of Edgewater Association of Residents. He introduced Hull to local singer-songwriter Jesse Jackson, who also got his start here a few years ago busking on Lincoln Road. Jackson was performing at his Tuesday-night residency at Amendment XXI, in the Design District, one night in March when he noticed Strell "with this scraggly-looking dude with crazy hair."
"Kris introduced himself, and I said, 'Dude, do you have your piano on you?' And he did. We walked out to the pickup truck, and he pulled it out and played it right there on 46th Street," Jackson recalls. "Then we wheeled it into Amendment XXI, miked it up, and had him play. And it was a hit. It was a fucking hit, man."
The two quickly became friends, especially when they realized they lived only a block apart. Jackson invited Hull along to his occasional Friday-afternoon gig — at the Skipping Stone children's activity center, off Biscayne on NE 71st Street. "I had brought a full band once, and I was playing my tunes, and the kids were a little bit — it was very difficult to keep their attention," Jackson says. "So Kris wheels his piano in there, and the kids — you could not peel them away. They were like, Oh, my god! They didn't know how to react — because of the music, and because it was a piano and it was huge. They were like, What is this thing? They had never seen or heard anything like that before in their short little lives.
"It was awesome. I like to think the measure of a good artist is one who can maintain the attention of children and drunks."
It was also through Strell that Hull would meet one of his staunchest local champions, one who would help legitimize his talent as an autodidact: Ruth Greenfield is a concert pianist and former chairwoman of the music department at Miami Dade College.
In 1972, Greenfield started the Lunchtime Lively Arts series, which ran for 18 years. "We'd have a concert, theater, or dance every Wednesday at noon," she recalls. "We began by going all over the city, which is what he's doing. We had the symphony orchestra at the courthouse; we were at Bayfront Park a lot." Hull's project, therefore, struck a personal chord.
"I had never heard of anything like it before — and I have met a few strange ones, including myself! But I must say I was tantalized by the idea that he had put so much work into Chopin, and that he wasn't just one of those kids on the block who was playing a little bit of jazz and rock," she says. "And I was taken with his personality.... He's not afraid to play; sometimes he has to stop a few minutes because he gets so passionate."
She was impressed, too, with his technical skill: "I don't know how he can do it so well. He has arpeggios, glissandos."
Hull asked her about what seemed to be a perfect location: Chopin Plaza, the name of the concrete expanse along the waterside in Bayfront Park. Greenfield knew Tim Schmand, executive director of the Bayfront Park Management Trust, who granted Hull a permit to play anywhere on the grounds. Hull had finally gotten the ball rolling, it seemed. He would establish a regular time and day to play in the park, so people would come to expect him and spread the word. The rest of the time, he'd maybe try hitting other locations for fun, and work on getting private gigs as well.
A couple of weeks later, on a windy afternoon in late March, Hull's mood is more subdued.
He has played a couple of times at Bayfront Park, but it's been more than a week since he's done so, and he doesn't think he's found the right location on the grounds. He's down to his last five dollars.
So Hull heads back to the park in the late afternoon and finds a private spot near the water, just beyond the casino boat. He decides to survey the scene, though, before going through the trouble of getting the piano off the truck.
A smattering of homeless men and relaxing office workers lounge in brightly colored plastic chairs in a palm-studded faux-beach area. The Miami SkyLift balloon sits unused atop the Isamu Noguchi-designed fountain. A standing sandwich board advertises a free yoga class at 6 p.m., but only a few people float past it, like specters.
Hull decides it's not a good time to bother with the piano, and heads back to his truck. On the way, a frantic man in too many layers stops him in his path. "You know what's happening?" he demands, waving his arms. "It's going down — and under the earth! The clouds, that is!"
"No wonder they gave me a permit to play here," Hull mutters.
Sounding defeated, he figures he'll try Lincoln Road again, even though he's not sure if he has enough gas left for the return trip. But walking toward Lincoln a little while later, he sees there aren't many people milling around there either. Again, it's pointless, he decides, and he stops at the Starbucks Hear Music store to escape the heat. The mood is resigned, even glum. "Maybe," he concludes, "I should just get a job."
But Hull is nothing if not unflappable. Just a few days later, his mood is again buoyant. He's been hired, he says, to tend bar at Mark Soyka's new restaurant at 55th Street Station. He's pleased about the prospect of steady income.
"I am sort of happy, just because it takes the pressure off the piano and financing my life being part and parcel, you know? Because it was really starting to get annoying and detract from my relationship to music as an art form," Hull says. "It's tiring, the whole thing of hustling and trying to make a buck."
His focus now is on earning enough that he doesn't have to worry about making money off his piano playing. " I know that with time, I'll make plenty of money with the piano. But right now, I'm just getting started with this thing," he says. "Even Don Quixote himself had three sallies into the world. The first one didn't work; then he went out again. Right now I'm somewhere between number one and two."
Visit Kristopher Hull's website: www.pianisterrant.com
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