Hey, Saw Lady!

Natalia Paruz came to the United States from Israel in 1989. She was 14, already a talented dancer, and she had been accepted as a student at the prestigious Alvin Ailey school in New York City. Two years into her training, tragedy struck. Natalia was hit by a taxicab as she crossed a city street. “The cab came around the corner and didn’t stop. It hit me at full speed,” she recalls.

Natalia would suffer permanent injury to her upper spine. Physical therapy, massage, and acupuncture helped ease the pain, but her nascent career was over before it had even begun. “I feel fortunate because I can walk,” says Natalia. “But I can’t turn my head all the way to the left and right. I can’t bend backwards. And I can’t dance.”

To cheer up their grieving daughter, Natalia’s parents took her to Austria for a tour of the countryside where her favorite childhood movie, The Sound of Music, was filmed. One night, the family attended a concert featuring a musician playing, of all things, a carpenter’s hand saw. Natalia was entranced. The saw moved as if it was dancing. “It was the first time since the accident that I felt excited about something,” she says.

After the show, Natalia went backstage and asked the man if he would teach her how to play the saw.

He said no.

“He told me to go home, pick up any saw for carpentry, and figure it out.”

When Natalia returned to New York, she borrowed a rusty saw from a friend. She was able to make it sing, just a little, creating six distinct notes. Encouraged, she went to the hardware store and tested a few saws until she found one that played a full octave and a half.

Just like Maria in The Sound of Music, Natalia had found her calling. Within a few years, she excelled at this instrument, which produces a sound eerily like that of a soprano opera singer. “It’s amazing that a piece of metal can sound so human,” she says.

“The accident changed my life for the better. When God closed the door on dance, he opened a window into a whole new musical world for me,” she says, alluding to well-known words spoken by Maria in the popular film.

At first, playing the saw was just a hobby for Natalia. She would play the saw while on break from her job selling souvenirs in Broadway theaters. She practiced at home but always worried that neighbors would complain about the peculiar sounds coming from her apartment. Ironically it was one of these very same neighbors who referred Natalia for her first public appearance, playing for senior citizens at a local Salvation Army center.

“I was still new to the saw and I really didn’t know if I was good enough,” says Natalia. But her performance was a hit, and the Salvation Army center recommended her to another center, which in turn led to more referrals. Soon, Natalia was fielding invitations from all over the city.

Photo by Rod Goodman
Photo by Rod Goodman

Since those early days, Natalia has played the saw with some of the world’s greatest musicians, including the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by maestro Zubin Mehta and the Westchester Philharmonic Orchestra. She has been invited to play at Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, and other New York institutions.

Natalia also works in the studio, recording music for television commercials, singer-songwriters, and movie soundtracks. She appeared as a saw player in the 2002 movie, Dummy, starring Adrien Brody. Garrison Keillor of the Prairie Home Companion radio show has named Natalia the show’s “official saw player.”

But her favorite venue is the cavernous New York City subway system, where she performs regularly. “It’s such an honor to fill the artery of this great city with my sound and provide the soundtrack to people’s lives,” says Natalia. [Visit sawlady.com for specific locations, dates, and times.]

In the subway, Natalia can see her audience and talk to them. Many people recognize her and call out, “Hey, Saw Lady!” when they stop to listen or pass by on their way to the trains. “I love the interaction you get in the subway,” she says. “I meet people that I would never get to meet any other way, from homeless to rich people.”

Natalia says it’s difficult to estimate the number of saw players worldwide—perhaps a few thousand—but more are emerging. When Natalia founded the New York City Musical Saw Festival in 2002, four saw players showed up. In 2009, 53 saw players from all over the world performed together at the annual festival and made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the “Largest Musical Saw Ensemble.”

“Most saw players are isolated from one another. The festival is the only place to meet others who share our enthusiasm for this art form, learn from one another, and be inspired by one another,” she says.

As for spreading the word, Natalia rarely teaches saw playing. Just as the Austrian musician told her to figure it out on her own, she encourages newcomers to start through trial and error. “If you succeeded in figuring it out, then you were meant to be a saw player,” she says.

Natalia not only learned saw playing, but she turned her life from tragedy to triumph. Second acts are possible. Just ask the Saw Lady, next time you’re catching a train in the City.

How to Play the Musical Saw

So you want to play the saw? Before you head to your local hardware store, keep these tips in mind:

• Any carpenter saw plays, but you want to find the longest blade possible, with a minimum length of 26 inches. Don’t forget you need a violin bow.

• Place the saw’s wooden handle between your knees for stability, and use your left hand (if you’re a righty) to bend the blade from the tip.

• Hold the bow in your opposite hand and run it along the non-serrated edge.

• Bending the blade creates different pitches. The more you bend the blade, the higher the notes you’ll achieve.

Visit the Saw Lady online at her official website, and check out this video of The Saw Lady story:

To watch more videos of Natalia, visit Play it Again, Saw Lady!