Street musician is a frontwoman for God

by Julian Routh

On some days in Squirrel Hill, a soft classical melody can be heard traveling through the air.

It starts at the courtyard on the corner of Murray Avenue, across from the Manor Theater. The source of the sound is a Yamaha PSR-E413 keyboard played by a woman wearing a pink hat.

Her name is Laura Maria McCullough, an accomplished composer, chess player, poet and artist, and she plays for tips. Her accomplishments have been piling up since she first played a grand piano at age 10, yet she is humbled by being “economically challenged.”

It’s not easy to walk past her without giving a glance. Her vibrant pink clothes stand out against the dull courtyard, and her music blares louder than the birds’ chirps.

And if you get close enough to the keyboard, she will ask you “what’s your favorite instrument?” and play an apt composition.

She is not a beggar. She simply asks that if her music sparks a smile, you give her a few dollars. In exchange, she says she dedicates 10 percent of her music to God. Her second symphony, titled “Cello and Choral Symphony II for GOD,” is influenced by her time in church.

Laura Maria is very open about these aspects of her music. She will gladly reveal, without request, the structure behind the third movement of her 33rd composition. She just wants someone to talk to; someone to listen to her music.

She is less open about her age. It is quite possible that the number of people who know how old she is can be counted on one hand. But asking her for her age won’t bring her to clenched fists. She doesn’t get angry easily. Instead, she will look to the side, smile and mentally knock a few years off the number.

Laura Maria McCullough studies her original sheet music.  Photo by Kinardi Isnata

Laura Maria McCullough studies her original sheet music.
Photo by Kinardi Isnata

“I’m over 30,” she says, chuckling. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you not to ask a woman’s age?”

But one can assume. Laura Maria claims to have five college degrees, U.S. Marine Corps experience, 114 musical compositions and two symphonies under her belt.

A handful of her musical works can be heard on an old Radioshack recorder she carries with her, but she encourages listeners to be careful with the buttons because she once lost an entire composition.

But the live music sounds more authentic than the recordings, of course. Laura Maria started busking in Squirrel Hill in the summer of 2012. She appreciates the money, but also the conversation.

On one Thursday afternoon, an older woman named Vivian approaches the keyboard. Laura Maria asks her what her favorite instrument is, and Vivian says she likes classical music.

“Here we go,” the ageless pianist says. “Classical for you.”

Laura Maria is used to this scenario; her fingers dancing across the keys as a listener dances across the pavement. She has played in venues ranging from ice cream shops to a woman’s 100th birthday party, and each time, she enjoys the smiles.

Her music is inspired by a variety of experiences in her life. She calls one of her compositions her “own personal love story set to music.”

Upon request, she starts to play a love song for Vivian, who has tired herself out from swaying. Laura Maria says the song reminds her of her husband.

“My late husband was an Orthodox,” she says.

“My late husband was a thief,” Vivian jokes.

“My husband was just the opposite. He was my soul mate, my Prince Charming, my knight in shining armor,” Laura Marie fires back with passion. “The love of my life.”

She does not reveal the year her husband passed away, but does offer a glowing review of his personality. Her voice does not tremble when she gives it. She is strong.

Laura Maria has lived a tough life, but she is not defeated. Seven stitches were sewn into her lip from when she fell outside of her house in 1994. Shortly after, she was diagnosed with brain cancer. Since then, she has made a full recovery, and the only thing left is a patch over her right eye. She sometimes gets dizzy and has to take a breather, but it does not stop her.

The conversation with Vivian, which is starting to turn sour, doesn’t stop her either. Laura Maria tells the woman about her chess playing career, and how she won two state championships and put up a good fight against the international grandmaster.

“Stop bragging,” Vivian says.

“I’m not bragging,” Laura Maria says. “There are chess players that are better than me. I readily admit that.”

It is a rare moment of humility from Laura Maria. Her confidence forms a hard shell around her, but imperfections sometimes creep through.

One Thursday evening at Eat n’ Park on Murray, Laura Maria admits something else: she isn’t very good at incorporating guitar into her symphonies. In fact, it might be one of the only things she can’t do.

She has no plans on giving up, though. When life pushes her around, Laura Maria fires back.

“I don’t give up easily, after all I’ve done in life,” Laura Maria says. “I might not accomplish it, but I’ll keep on trying for quite awhile.”