Home Opinion How six strings and a harmonica help me succeed

How six strings and a harmonica help me succeed

Busking is simple. It’s street performing. Since medieval times, musicians and poets have taken their art to the street corners and plazas, playing for money or just the chance to share their talents. The American folk music tradition is interwoven with a history of busking.

Busking is a hobby of mine. It’s fun in a freewheeling sort of way. It’s also wildly out of my comfort zone.

A week or two ago after class, I followed a beatnik urge to hit the road and caught a ride south with some friends of friends. I brought nothing but a backpack, a wallet and my guitar. As we drove down I-15 in a brown, beat-up Toyota, we laughed and I brainstormed the best places to play.

Now, I’m no rock star. I just like to play. When the world closed down in 2020, I decided, like millions of other bored people, that it was time to learn the guitar. I didn’t have any expectations for it. I have a horrendous track record of well-intentioned hobbies that fell by the wayside after a week or two. I never thought it would stay very long. But, somehow, guitar stuck around.

A building reflects off of Jake's guitar and harmonica
A building reflects off of Jake Hess' guitar and harmonica Photo credit: Jake Hess

In the morning, I caught a train to Salt Lake, nervously tapping my fingers together the closer I got. In the past, when I got nervous, I’d shut down or just turn on my heel and run. Now I only smile.

When I arrived, I was surprised to find a comic convention going on, flooding the area with hundreds of more people than I was expecting.

I found a security guard. There’re always rules to playing on private property, and I didn’t want to step on any toes. We became friends, and she showed me some great spots. I picked one in the shade between the mall and the convention center.

I tuned my guitar and took off my shoes. I got out my harmonica and gave it a testing blow. I squeezed it into a metal holder that rested against my chest and held it close to my mouth. The whole harmonica combo makes a nasty piece of headgear that would make any science-fair-winning middle schooler jealous.

I started to strum, sing and wail on my harmonica. Genuinely, it was pretty awkward at first, but I played a lot. Bob Dylan. Creedence Clearwater Revival. Caamp. Things that really spoke to me and that I hoped would speak to others. Sometimes people stopped to listen. I talked to them if they had time. We had fun glimpses into each other’s life stories.

In the end, after a few hours, I got enough to buy dinner and to cover some other costs of the trip — a plus I wasn’t expecting but was grateful for.

It was a fun afternoon, but I felt pretty dang uncomfortable the whole time, as playing around people stresses me out. I don’t think I’ll ever completely get over it. As a kid, during piano recitals, I would get so nervous that I could hardly play without messing up. But here in Salt Lake City, even though I felt some of the same old feelings, I was in complete control.

I think that’s really what’s important to me about busking. It makes me uncomfortable.

Life is challenging, especially for young adults. Money. School. Friends. Love. Most college students can’t even go a day without getting stressed by some unavoidable thing.

This might sound crazy, but putting myself in a safe — but, ultimately, challenging — environment like playing music for a couple of hundred busy strangers is healthy for my self-confidence. It’s a tough thing that can I do on my terms, succeed in my own way and apply to any other challenge life throws at me.

A hobby that brings someone outside of their comfort zone is something that gives them a great opportunity to grow.

The word “busk” comes from the Spanish word, “buscar.” It means to search. To look for something. That’s what I do when I go out to play. I like to think I find a little more of myself every time I do.

Jake Hess and his brother, Joey, playing on a pier in California.
Jake Hess and his brother, Joey, playing on a pier in California. Photo credit: Jake Hess

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