Arts Desk

Midnight Train to Georgia Avenue: Musicians Audition for Metro

Minister D was sitting on a bench, next to a sketch of Rihanna leaning against the wall. Around him, his fellow musicians tuned their guitars and took deep breaths, preparing to audition for a chance to perform at the entrances of Metro stations. Like many of his peers, he didn't seem to mind that winning came with no cash, nor even the opportunity to pass the hat. “Exposure is exposure,” said Minister D, 59, whose real name is Daniel Allen.

Despite the heat, dozens of musicians turned out at Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority headquarters last night. They passed through security and waited in line for their chance to perform in front of four judges, including Michael McBride, the manager of the MetroPerforms! program; Aisha Davis of DESHO Productions, an event-management firm; Diana Ezerins, a programming coordinator at the Kennedy Center; and El Weatherspoon, a Metro employee who also plays in the Mass Transit Band.

Terence Hope, 47, harmonized with his a cappella group The Light in the far corner. He works at the National Institute of Health. The other two members of The Light are Herbert Johnson, 37, who works at State Farm and Nels Olson, 37, who works at the U.S. Department of Education. The three of them sing in their church's choir.

“It’s about making people feel good,” says Hope. The fact that performers wouldn’t be paid by the WMATA didn’t bother him.

Also in the room: Christopher Naoum, a co-founder of Listen Local First, an advocacy group that works to expand economic opportunities for local musicians, which isn't too pleased with MetroPerforms!. Yesterday, Naoum sent a letter to McBride and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, who helped conceive this iteration of MetroPerforms!, which will also include a performance series on the National Mall.

Naoum was there with two musicians, Gordon Daniels and Jonny Grave, who also aren't fans of Metro's performance initiative. “If you can’t collect tips and you can’t sell merchandise when you’re out there, what are you doing?” said Daniels, 27, who plays in the group Lucky Dub.

Grave, 24, showed me a Metro Transit Police warning notice he received for panhandling after performing in 2009 at the Cleveland Park Metro station. As for why WMATA would be holding open auditions, Graves said, “It’s a boost in their image. To have performers on their property playing music, singing, dancing possibly, to have them do this is boosting their public image and their public image has been fairly down as of recently.”

The walls continued to pulsate from the sound of voices and instruments. As they arrived to wait in line, musicians were obliged to fill out a form and sign a code of conduct for performing.

Laura Mills, 24, sings in the band Soul Kitchen Collective. She has a B.A. in vocal performance from Penn State and has lived in D.C. for six months. She didn't realize MetroPerforms! did not come with a stipend. “I waitress, too, but this is my main kind of thing, you know,” says Mills. “It’s frustrating that there’s not more money involved in the arts.”

Walking the room to talk to other musicians about their reasons for auditioning, Grave found Denny Ballard, 60, sitting on a bench and strumming his guitar. “I actually agree with [Grave] that you should get paid," Ballard later told me. "I feel like if a company or a bar is making money on you, you should get paid...I’m not sure the Metro is making money on me, although it helps their image.”

Ballard, who got his first guitar when he was seven, has been unemployed for last two years. His wife works part-time and he says his retirement fund is drying up. “I’m still applying for jobs but you know, life goes on,” he says. “I’m a musician. I sit in my house and play. I might as well perform for people. It’s an outlet for me. It’s a stress relief, and I like to do it.”

When it was Ballard’s turn to perform, he headed into the next room and strolled over to the microphone with his guitar slung over his shoulder. The judges asked him his name and told him that he had up to three minutes to perform, and that they could stop him at any moment during the performance.

Ballard nodded, placed his hands on his guitar, and strummed. His voice came in after a few chords, bluesy and weighted by memory. When he finished, the judges complimented him on his guitar work and asked him about his experience. Ballard told them what they needed to know, and thanked them.

“We’ll certainly be in touch,” said McBride with a smile.

Ballard nodded, thanked them again, and walked out through the clatter of guitar strings and violins. The next musician stepped into the room.

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