While exploring the city of Bath, England, I came across a man with wavy bleached hair and a rainbow-coloured sweatshirt sitting at a piano. The instrument was painted colourfully in blues, whites, oranges and yellows that resembled stained glass. Pasted on the backside was what looked like a map of Europe, but it was hard to make out from the many sticky notes pasted on top with messages written on them. Leaning on the ground was a painted sign that read, “PIANO around EUROPE.” I then noticed the small wheels that the piano rested on.
Pedestrians stopped in their tracks to admire the emotional renditions of popular tunes. There was an added layer of depth and humility with each note. Some even stopped to paste a message on the piano before resuming their exploration of the city.
I soon discovered that the pianist’s name is Jonas Hirschler, and I had the pleasure of talking with him about his experience travelling through Europe with his piano.
28-year-old Hirschler is from the town of Aachen within North Rhine-Westphalia of Germany. The town is about an hour’s drive away from Cologne and lies right by the border of Belgium and the Netherlands. Hirschler first picked up playing at 12 years old when his parents got him a piano as a birthday present.
“Originally, I picked it up because of my parents because they wanted us to learn an instrument, and I never liked the lessons because my teacher was a very traditional way of teaching […] and I learned to read notes which is useful today. But I was always told to play this piece and play it this loud or this fast and slowly as it’s given in the scripts. And I never really liked it and I didn’t find passion in it. And when I found passion was when I started again when I was 19. I had like a more freestyle to it, like I was playing with a guitar app, which is just giving you the chords of a famous song and so I learned some basic chords and improvised the melody over it,” said Hirschler.
“And this is when I started to be passionate about it and also, I could connect my feelings better through the music that I do.”
Hirschler’s inspiration for the idea of travelling around playing in different cities and countries came from Dotan Negrin, a pianist who travelled around the United States and eventually the world playing his instrument.
Taking a shot at street performing for the first time, Hirschler brought his piano to a small town by his hometown. He was understandably nervous to play in front of strangers for the first time as he considered himself an introverted person.
“I was pushing the piano up a bridge and was shaking and thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ And when I sat down to the piano, I tried to imagine, just to be in my room and just letting my emotions flow through my fingers just like how I do for a couple of hours every day the last few weeks,” said Hirschler. “And so I just did that and it felt like it reached people. So, people came to me and said, ‘Okay, I could feel this when you play,’ and I didn’t even have to talk with them like that. And so I skip like all that talking part and reach the people on an emotional level directly so it’s also why it was possible as an introverted person to do that.”
“Through playing music, I get to talk with people much more because they are interested in what you do and they want to get to know you. So you get a lot of small talk experience when doing street music. And that helps your […] extroverted person growth.”
Once he got this kind of positive feedback, he went on his first month-long trip to France in 2019. Visiting places such as Paris, Lyon and Dijon, he described it as a “very magical experience” because of the amount of positive feedback he received.
Since that first trip, Hirschler is on his fourth trip and has charmed 30 countries with his musical talent.
“I did an Italy trip. Then I did a trip through the Balkan countries and around the Baltic Sea, which was last year for three to four months. And now this trip is going since the middle of April and I went through Spain to Morocco, and then back through Portugal and France and now I’m doing a trip around the UK and Ireland with a friend. And we are ending in the middle of August.”
When planning out his journey, Hirschler said that he has a rough plan of which countries he wants to perform at, but his decision of where to go within the country is decided very spontaneously.
“You don’t know in advance how good the city will be for busking. For example, we went to Galway in Ireland last weekend, and we just had like two days there until we had to move on. But turns out it’s like a great city for busking and we could have spent two weeks there easily,” said Hirschler.
“We go with the flow. We have more like a go with the flow travel style.”
Hirschler recalled one time he stayed somewhere for a lot longer than anticipated.
“I had a really great time in Montenegro last year, but I wasn’t doing much music there because it was not really densely crowded area […] But I get to know some local guy who was showing me around his village for one week and I worked in his garden, and we had a really nice week there. And I get to know the country and the people very well, so it was an intense time in another way.”
So how does one travel around with an instrument as big and clunky as a piano? Driving a VW van with a high roof, Hirschler had to construct a platform for the piano to rest on for transport. He said that it took a few tries to get the platform right. There is also a small kitchen and an “upstairs” compartment where he sleeps.
When asked about the idea to let passerby paste messages on his piano, he said that he came up with the idea as another way of communicating with his audience. Hirschler plays piano for about two hours at a time, and oftentimes he will blend songs together creating about 15 minute runs.
“People, maybe they want to say something to you, but they don’t have 10 minutes time to listen until you make a break and then come to you and talk. A lot of people also they don’t have the courage to talk to you, but they still maybe want to say something. So I just started to put out some small letters,” said Hirschler, “So I just kept it going and it’s very nice. I collect every message and maybe make like a big poster out of it one time, and it’s also very profitable because it creates a lot of attention because it’s colourful and people read the messages in different languages.”
Oftentimes too, other musicians will join Hirschler, whether it is singing, playing an instrument or even playing his own piano.
“I always welcome them because I love to take a step back from my piano and see others playing there. I know that it was for me a very unique experience playing piano on the street. So if people even look like they are thinking about playing on my piano, I go to them and say, ‘Hey, do you want to play something?’ And most of the cases I’m right, and they’re like, ‘Ah, yeah.’ And then they have three friends behind them cheering […] And then they play something and it’s a good experience for them.”
Reflecting on his time travelling, Hirschler noted how his experiences have given him a better impression of the world.
“For example, when we went through Morocco, it was like a total culture shock and different religion, different culture, different language. Everything was so different and when you come back to Europe then, you learn to value some basic rights that you have. […] And I think this is something special that you can make this perspective switch when you travel to countries for a longer time.”
Hirschler emphasised his appreciation of the immersion into different cultures that playing street music provides.
“When you travel by doing street music, you are like head diving into a different culture. Because you get to connect to the people through music and you can talk with them on a personal level. And you get to know the country differently like when you travel as a standard tourist for example.”
Of course, I had to ask how his family felt about him travelling around Europe for months at a time. And he said that his parents saw the positive impact it had on him and were very supportive.
“My family, they maybe think that at one point I will have enough of traveling and I come back to Germany but I don’t see that coming yet.”
Once this trip comes to an end, Hirschler will make his way back to Germany where he will find a job in IT and save up for another summer on the road with his piano.
By Jack Underhill, You Press Intern