Why I Busk

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—by Sam Hickman

You know how when you leave college all your friends are waiting tables and bartending until they get to do what they really want? This is that for me, but so much better. I’ve been busking for almost five years, and I’ve been full-time freelance for the past three. Busking has been a fundamental part of my life as well as my income, making up over half of my earnings. It pays well, and I get additional work from the exposure. Busking has allowed me to really practice my art and hone my craft in a way that playing by myself in a practice room can’t. Playing on the street for an ever-changing audience gives you a completely different experience of the repertoire you play every day—you can usually see what works and what doesn’t within the first four bars of a piece. Not only are you basically being paid to practice, but you get nearly instant feedback on your music.

Busking isn’t just enjoyable, it’s important. Where I live in Cardiff, Wales, as with other places, music and the arts are being slowly squeezed out of the curriculum in schools. Music is increasingly seen as optional, expensive, and inaccessible. Defying those labels by sharing harp music with people is really important to the future of the arts. For many children who see me busk, it’s the first time they will have seen a harp played live. It’s even the first live harp experience for some adults, which is remarkable considering the harp’s place as a valued cultural symbol in Wales.

Quite often I will let children play my harp. I’ll show them how to  play a glissando and let them try their hand at “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,”  because when else will they have the chance to try the instrument? I didn’t start playing harp until much later in life—I’m only 24 so “later in life” means “in my teens.” Perhaps if I would have had an up-close-and-personal experience with a harp early on, I would have started playing sooner.  You see harps at the back of orchestras or in the pit, but that audience experience doesn’t show how versatile and fantastic an instrument it is. Harps can do anything! Busking with my little harp shows people young and old that a harp isn’t just this expensive gold object you are not allowed to touch. It can also be a tiny red object that you are more than welcome to touch, play, and explore.

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