The title of a famed 1964 Broadway musical borrows from an old saying, that life amid changing times can be as precarious as a “Fiddler on the Roof,” scratching out a tune while perched atop a gabled house.
One San Antonio fiddler proves that consistency can be achieved no matter the circumstances.
Nearly every day for four years, musician Nathan Bibiano has taken to the River Walk to play his violin for passersby, not only honing his “chops,” as musicians refer to practiced skills, but bringing joy to downtown residents.
Bibiano frequently sets up under the I-35 overpass, a popular spot for viewing the F.I.S.H public sculpture by artist Donald Lipski, and home to a summer population of 50,000 freetail bats, which Bibiano said helps keep mosquitoes at bay while he plays.
Violin is only one instrument Bibiano claims to be in process of mastering; he said he’s also practicing piano, viola, cello, contrabass, the harp, guitar, bass guitar, and drums. For sessions on the River Walk, he packs up the easily portable violin, along with a set of speakers, to practice a repertoire ranging from heavy metal songs by Iron Maiden to pop tunes by Shawn Mendes and Lindsey Stirling.
Bibiano said he likes the acoustics under the bridge, his music echoing around pillars and planted slopes even as a steady rumble of traffic sounded overhead.
“In all the years of practicing … one of the things that will help you get better is focusing on the notes. Focus on the song you’re working on, and nothing will bother you,” he said one recent evening as the occasional solo jogger ran past, gaggles of ducks silently rippling the river’s surface.
Runner Andrew Velis lived at 1221 Broadway Lofts for five years but has since moved to Austin. Bibiano popped up one day, Velis said, then became a regular part of his weekly running routine.
Each Wednesday, as sure as the Lipski fish sculpture would light up, “he was always there, he was always playing.”
For Velis, Bibiano functioned as motivation to stick to his running regimen no matter how tired he was or how hot the weather became. “He was very much an indirect running coach because you can count on him to be there.” The thinking was if Bibiano can be there like clockwork, then Velis should also be there running.
“He always was playing no matter who was around. It was just consistent. And it just added to the conversation at the River Walk,” Velis said.
For current 1221 Broadway Lofts resident Jessica Rodriguez, Bibiano’s presence represents San Antonio’s maturation as a city. Seeing the violinist at work “added that whole downtown vibe; that San Antonio is finally coming to fruition, slowly.”
Bibiano’s music also has the benefit of helping soothe Monkey, her terrier-poodle mix, on his walks. “He’s very hyper, but when he hears the violin, he’s very at peace,” she said.
Bibiano also brought peace to Christina and Pedro Olivarez on an unusually lonely Christmas Eve. Pedro’s job had him working on Christmas Day, so the couple could not travel to the family home in the Rio Grande Valley as they had every holiday prior.
Searching for ideas of how to celebrate alone, the Olivarezes decided to walk to the Pearl, where they got engaged years earlier. Christina did not expect to see anyone outside, but Bibiano was there playing.
“That moment, just seeing someone out there spreading joy on Christmas Eve really impacted me, especially since it was very emotional and sentimental for me that I wasn’t going to be able to see my family,” she said. After that he became a part of their date nights, Christina said.
The couple expressed their gratitude regularly by giving Bibiano a tip, as do other residents of the apartment complex, but Christina said she has been cautious about going out during the pandemic and hasn’t seen Bibiano in months.
Still, he is out there night after night, week after week, sometimes switching up to play in front of the Tobin Center. One day, he said, he’d like to play inside, alongside the musicians of the San Antonio Symphony.
Meanwhile, he will practice and practice, hoping to get good enough at his instrument to win competitions and use the prize money to open his own music school.
For now, Bibiano seems content teaching indirect lessons to people he doesn’t know, even during a time of cautious isolation.
Continuing to fill the underside of the F.I.S.H bridge with sound “shows his dedication and his ability to bring joy to random strangers, which is something that is so hard to find in 2020,” Olivares said. “Just seeing him out there always brings a smile to my face, and it always makes me feel like there’s still great people in this world.”