Bill Hassay Uses Music to Make a Living

Busking violinist Bill Hassay plays the violin on the corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue

Zhou Zola

The man is there again.

In Georgetown, at the corner of M Street and Wisconsin Avenue near the golden dome of PNC Bank, the man stands tranquilly, playing a violin. He is wearing an orange washed-out T-shirt with “Help the Homeless” on it, crumpled black jeans, and sneakers with dirt on them. His eyes are staring at the void, and he ignores all the passers-by. The man looks at the ground and his body moves a little along with the melody.

A few people toss some quarters inside the bucket besides the man’s feet. A few others stop and listen, their eyes expressing curiosity and surprise—the man plays as if he is a master violinist. Most people just glance at him and cross the street. This man is Bill Hassay. He grew up in Rockville, Maryland, and he has been playing the violin since he was nine.

After the PNC Bank closes Hassay comes under the dome, usually playing every day until around 9 p.m., when the darkness of the night covers the city despite the little illumination from the streetlights and passing vehicles. Hassay plays his violin as loud as the crowd. Sometimes he plays a trumpet as shiny as the golden dome. In spring, he goes to the Ocean Park doing the same thing, as the weather gets nicer.

“It’s how I make a living,” said Hassay, 64, who had played the violin in a symphony orchestra as a full-time professional for 20 years. He was the concertmaster in the Alabama Symphony Orchestra. Now he is a substitute music teacher in Anne Arundel High School and teaches other subjects if needed.

“I didn’t quit,” said Hassay with something in his eyes. “The orchestra I played went bankrupt.”

After the orchestra closed, he moved back to Maryland and found part-time jobs in areas like the telecom business and substitute teaching.

He sometimes runs into surprise visitors. Once, Billy Joel went to Georgetown and hung around for a few hours and Hassay was told that Joel really liked his music. A famous jazz violinist, Stephen Grapelli, walked by one time, listened for a few minutes and gave Hassay some money. “You meet all kind of people on the street,” said Hassay.

Hassay says that the best part of being a street musician is watching people’s reaction, rather than making money. When he played the violin in the symphony orchestra there were concerts for children. It is the same on the street. He loves to play music for the children, especially babies in strollers. They are so young that they cannot talk, but they get the music. Their feet are dancing and they are clapping, and their eyes are filled with joy. As their parents push the stroller down the street, the babies and toddlers try to turn around, and climb up a little to see Hassay and smile at him.

“I wish I could afford to have future plans,” said Hassay. “I can’t afford to spend a couple of years to practice my skills to get back to an orchestra, maybe when I retire.” A young mother and her son pass by, drop a ten-dollar bill and walk along. The little boy looks back with curiosity when Hassay winks at the boy with a smile.


Region |Georgetown|Northwest|Ward 2|Washington DC

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