Spontaneous musical combustion

January 6, 2019
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KerryErin Coats grew up in a family of musicians.


The first time KerryErin Coats played music in public, she was in Boulder, Colorado, in the Pearl Street Mall, a redbrick pedestrian street lined with hundreds of shops and restaurants. It was the perfect place for shoppers to unexpectedly become audience to the impromptu sideshow-esque performance.

Coats’ violin, however, was broken. She was traveling in a box truck with 10 other musicians and, between New Mexico and Colorado, the instrument had suffered intense temperature and humidity fluctuation, causing it to explode. The damage gave the violin a unique sound that wove in with the other performers (including a tap dancer) that drew smiles from the faces of witnesses, inspiring some to sing and dance along.

And they might tip a dollar or two.

Since then, busking, or performing in public for voluntary donations, has evolved from just a really neat way to make money to helping Coats find her musical voice. She can be found serenading nighttime passers-by on the streets of downtown Huntington when the weather is warm enough and after the sun goes down.

Coats, 29, grew up in Huntington and started playing music while attending Catholic school, in which all students were required to participate in band, orchestra or choir. Coats said coming from a family of musicians, it was pretty much decided that she would be one as well.

“Your name’s KerryErin, you’re Irish, you’re playing violin,” she was told by her family.

She used her fiddling talents in acoustic folk-punk band The Disappearing Man and has recently taken up the banjo, which is usually what she can be heard playing in downtown Huntington.

“With the revamping of downtown Huntington, you’re getting more people walking around,” Coats said. “There are good acoustics downtown so it’s nice to have some music resonating in the background.”

Coats is usually seen in Huntington performing solo, but occasionally other performers will jump in with her.

Once, while she was visiting Florida during the winter, Coats and a guitar player decided to put on a collaborative performance. What began as the two playing their instruments and singing eventually escalated into a full-blown production as others joined in, including a trombone player, an old man who ran home to retrieve his tap shoes and an opera singer who had just finished performing and was still in her gown.

She said this sort of impromptu improvisation is what can make street performance a raw, magical experience.

“You get all these people who wouldn’t have crossed paths or probably wouldn’t have even looked at each other twice walking down the street, through the beautiful connection of music made this beautiful improv,” Coats said.

She said a lot of what makes this spontaneous musical chemistry work is a mix of free-spirited attitude and a forced vulnerability that comes with performing for an audience.

“It’s a lot of being uncomfortable,” Coats said.

Coats, who works in housekeeping at Project Hope while pursuing degrees in health science and public health, hopes one day to apply her passion for nutrition and health to pursue community outreach and health education. She said the discomfort that she has gone through in performing has not only helped her work through stage fright, but it has spilled over into her professional development.

“Whenever you’re going into a setting to do health education and talk about health disparities, you have to have the same vulnerability and confidence,” she said.

Casting her songs into the night air has also helped Coats find her voice and develop a music project that is all her own, and encouraged her to take the stage at venues and open mics around the area.

“I wouldn’t have gotten as passionate about this or made this a priority if I hadn’t gone out and gotten good feedback,” Coats said.

Coats’ music can be found resonating among buildings in downtown Huntington or at www.kerryerincoats.bandcamp.com.

Follow reporter Megan Osborne on Twitter and Facebook @megosborneHD.

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