Natalia ‘Saw Lady’® Paruz

Age: I’m as old as my tongue and slightly older than my teeth :)

Stage Name || Saw Lady

Job Title || Sawist (musical saw player)

Start Date || About 20 years ago

Years Living In New York || Most of my life

Social Handles || @TheSawLady, @SawLady, and Natalia Saw Lady Paruz

Website || Saw Lady

What did you want to be as a child?

When I was 7 years old I discovered the stage and I knew it is my home. I had no idea what exactly I wanted to do there, but I knew it was something on stage.

What’s the best piece of advice you were given when you started out as a saw player?

The inspiration for my saw playing came from a sawist I saw on stage in Austria. I went back stage to ask him if I could schedule a lesson with him and he said “no.” He wouldn’t teach me. But he did give me two pieces of advice, which turned out to be worth gold: “Go home, imitate what you remember me doing on stage, and figure it out on your own.” And, “the more expensive a saw is, the better the sound.” Now you may think that he was brushing me off, not wanting to teach me because he didn’t want competition from another sawist, but no. After doing much research into the history of saw playing I discovered that figuring it out on one’s own is actually the old time tradition of this instrument: if you can figure it out, it is a sign you are meant to be a sawist. If you cannot — don’t bother, this art form is not for you. I am so grateful to him today for enabling me to experience the art form in its traditional way. He gave me a connection to and regard for the history of the instrument and to the sawists who came before me this way. Not to mention also the satisfaction of knowing that I did it all on my own.

And as for the second advice — he was absolutely right! I experimented with 20 different saws and the most expensive one is indeed the best sounding one. You get what you pay for.

How do you define success?

To me success is not when people notice that you are there, but rather when people notice when you are NOT there. Sometimes I go away on tour and I am absent from playing in the subway for a while. When I return to playing in the subway it always amazes me anew when people, strangers to me, say “Hey, Saw Lady, where have you been? We missed you!” To have people regard your presence in the street to the point that they notice when you are gone and miss you — to me that is the biggest compliment of all.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned since starting out?

A long time ago I was a dancer/singer/actress, and I performed in the musical ‘Funny Girl.’ The lyrics to one of the songs in the show completely baffled me: “People, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world.” Really? I thought that people who DON’T need people are the luckiest people in the world. It took the NYC subway to explain this lyric to me. Playing in the subway taught me just how amazing people are. Sometimes I would get scared at the sight of what I perceived to be a menacing person approaching. I thought “surely he would give me a hard time, try to steal my money, bully me.” But 99.9% of the time these scary looking people turned out to be the nicest, sweetest people with a heart of gold. Witnessing people in the subway taught me how amazing people are and how inspiring the presence of people is in my life. I’ll give you an example:

While playing at the Times Square subway station, a blind man joined a group of passers-by gathered around me. The blind man’s face lit up to the sound of my music. It was clear he loved it. A lady from the crowd, unrelated to the blind man, saw his joy. She came over to me, bought one of my CDs, went over to the blind man, put the CD in his hand and said, ‘This is the music you are hearing now. This is for you,’ and she gave it to the blind man! For me, to think that in a small way, my music was the impetus for such an amazing, selfless, beautiful act of kindness between two strangers — priceless!

What is your go-to motivational quote?

Act, and let the world react.

Lets say you stay home and do nothing — then almost nothing new/interesting/propelling will happen to you. But if you get out of your house and do something — then half the time something will happen.

What made you interested in playing the saw?

I was a trainee with the Martha Graham Dance Company of Contemporary Dance, I was a tap-dance teacher and demonstrator for Dance Masters and Dance Educators of America, I earned a living performing in musical theater — in short, I was a happy dancer — until… One day, on my way home from Lincoln Center, I crossed the street and was hit by a speeding taxi-cab. This was the end of my dance career. I suffered permanent damage to my upper spine.

Needless to say, I was devastated. I dedicated my life to dance, and now what was I going to do?

To cheer me up, my parents took me on a trip to Austria. You see, as a kid I loved the movie ‘The Sound of Music.’ I watched it 14 times! So, my parents took me to the country where this film was made. While there we attended a show for tourists. One of the acts was… a musical saw player! I have never seen nor heard of a musical saw before. This was totally new to me, and it blew me away. I thought the sound was phenomenal — spiritual, angelic and different from any sound I heard before, but what really appealed to me was the visual — not the fact that it is a tool, but the fact that the whole instrument moved and the sawist’s upper body along with it. It was like a dance! The musical saw is one of very few instruments where the entire instrument moves (unlike a violin for example, where only the bow moves but the body of the violin never changes shape) and changes shape constantly as you play it.

Courtesy of Natalia

Courtesy of Natalia

Do you play other instruments as well?

I ring bells: I started by ringing pitched cowbells but advanced to handbells, which can be better controlled. Much like the saw bells are a very visual instrument, involving a lot of movement. It therefore enables me to incorporate dance-like dramatic moves into the playing.

Do you have a personal motto?

It is better to light a candle than to curse at the darkness.

Which women inspire you?

I love strong women. As a child, all my friends loved Snow White and I loved the wicked stepmother because though she was evil she was the more interesting character — she knew what she wanted and went for it, while Snow White was sweet but she basically just existed. I live by example of the strong women in my life — my grandmother who supported herself and her young daughter by singing at cabaret shows, my mother who returned to a musical career despite severe illness in her hands, my ballet teacher who was told there is no need for this art form in a blue collar town yet she succeeded in having a successful school and dance company. Also, theremin player Clara Rockmore who proved to the world that the theremin is a real musical instrument and not just for sound effects.

What is the most common misconception people have about the saw as an instrument?

Most people who actually know of the musical saw think it is only good for spooky, Halloween type sounds. People think it is a mere novelty and not a serious musical instrument. People who have never heard of the musical saw think that it would sound like wood being cut. Because of this I have a hard time convincing classical musicians to check out the instruments’ capabilities. But, once they agree to take a listen, everyone’s response has been the same so far, saying “wow, it doesn’t sound anything like what I imagined it would.”

How do you overcome moments of self-doubt?

I go play in the subway. The energy and response from strangers and acquaintances who pass by me when I play and stop to talk with me is strongly uplifting. Performing in a public space builds self esteem and confidence like nothing else I’ve ever encountered. When in self-doubt I find that communication with people is the best therapy.

What is the hardest part about being your own boss?

Managing your time efficiently. It is so easy to say “why don’t I take a break today and postpone work to tomorrow.”

How do you handle situations where you feel overwhelmed?

I used to think that being self-sufficient and self-reliant is the biggest triumph. I have learned that asking for help in grave situations is actually empowering, because you get a different perspective from people, and then you realize that what scares us is not reality, but reality as it is perceived by us.

What has been the most rewarding thing since starting out as a saw player?

When someone says they were inspired to learn to play the saw by having heard me play.

What advice would you give to other women trying to enter your field?

In the 20th century most saw players were men. At the two Saw Festivals in France I was the only woman. Today, I am happy to say, the gender division in the art form is equal. So the advice I would give a novice would be the same no matter the gender: application, diligence and cheerful persistence pays off!

What is your creative process like?

I am inspired by spaces. Whether an old house, a cemetery, a concert stage, a garden or a church, I try to visualize myself integrated with the space. I get to know the space well until I feel as if I belong there, that I am part of it. The visual image brings on ideas for a story to tell. What character am I in this space? The sound I would create in the space is derived from that. My aim is to create a bubble of beauty that will invoke a story and would leave people with a taste of wonderment.

What are some of your goals moving forward as a musician?

I have developed a technique of snapping the blade to forego the inherent sliding effect the musical saw has, so that more complicated music might be played with this amazing, angelic, other worldly sound. My goal is to push my playing abilities to the point where the musical saw is regarded as a “regular” musical instrument, meaning as capable and respected as the flute or violin.

I would also like to do more film soundtrack work because I find this medium to be the best one in introducing the sound of the saw to people at large.

I am also expanding my creation of situation/spaces oriented music-videos and writing stories that would benefit from a soundtrack played by a musical saw.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Sarah Fielding