November/December 2004
Volume 12, No. 6

Where are they now? a series about Grown Homeschoolers by Peter Kowalke

Musician or Bust! by Peter Kowalke

Nate Bellon grabbed his acoustic guitar and hit the streets of Chicago as a street musician when he was 18. At the end of a good day, his hat would contain $30 in dimes and quarters. But only if Nate played all day. The homeschooler from Harvard, Illinois had earned more as a street musician in the Chicago Jazz Festival—and when he played in bars. Playing on the street wasn’t about money; income barely covered license fees. Performing for passersby was another excuse to play music and jam with fellow musicians.

Multitalented and alarmingly affable, Nate performs at every opportunity. He plays blues in Chicagoland bars as trumpet player for the Gary Smith Band. On weekends, Nate drives an hour and a half to play the harmonica or base guitar with childhood friends. He plays graduation parties and events, performs at festivals and jam sessions, and is a member of the community college concert jazz band. Nate would like to be a career musician. “Being paid for entertaining is the main goal,” he says. “I don’t care if it is singing, playing the trumpet, or playing the bass.”

The primary challenge for most budding musicians is exposure. Gigs are booked and invitations to play with bands derive from a musician’s reputation. In turn, frequent performance spurs musical growth and the reputation needed for gigs in the first place. That is why Nate, already busy as a sophomore at McHenry County College, takes advantage of every opportunity to ply his craft. If he is to earn a living as a musician, he must play to as many crowds and with as many musicians as possible.
Nate’s musical versatility is a potent aid in finding opportunities to play. Rather than focus on a single instrument, like many young musicians, Nate does not specialize. His repertoire includes trumpet, acoustic guitar, bass, keyboard, harmonica, voice—even banjo. Versatility allows him to fit in almost any musical situation, which helps his exposure. But, does being a jack of all trades make Nate a master of none?

John Tetzlaff, a 20-year-old grown homeschooler who jams with Nate, doesn’t think versatility hurts his friend—it indicates a total devotion to music. “Part of the reason for Nate’s versatility is purely practical,” he says. “With the jamming we do in my friend’s basement, there are three or four bass players.” He notes that Nate joined the group playing bass guitar, but could rarely gain access to the bass amp. “So he branched out. He just wants to get out there and play music any way he can.” Nate is drawn to an essence in music more fundamental than mastering a particular instrument, says Tetzlaff. That is why he will succeed; there are many avenues he is willing to take to reach his goal.

Music was introduced early in the Bellon household. By age five, Nate was learning guitar and ukulele. By eight years, he was a student of piano. Nate found the lessons dry, however, and lost interest. It wasn’t until he discovered jazz and the blues, at age 16, that he realized music might be his calling. The complexity and improvisation made jazz a favorite activity. As a homeschooler, Nate was able to experiment with the genre and practice whenever he felt the urge—and he often felt the urge.

“He is great at improvising,” comments Mike Hallagan, who has known Nate since kindergarten. Hallagan, 18, is among the group who jams with Nate on weekends. “Nate definitely has a talent—especially with blues. He can write a blues song out of nowhere,” says Hallagan. “He definitely could make a career as a trumpet player.”

Even with talent, musician is a risky career choice. Of his group of musician friends, only Nate dares try music as a vocation. “My dad always told me to pick a profession I love,” Nate recalls. His father was a trumpet player and enjoys working with his hands, but chose computer programming instead of music and openly regrets the choice. So when Nate began college two years ago, he listened to his heart. “Unless you have a family to support,” he says, “there is very little reason to do something you don’t love as a career.” For Nate, that philosophy is the impetus to pursue a career that others often dismiss as unrealistic.

His family is supportive, if pragmatic. “I think it is great,” says Nate’s father, “partly because I know I never would have had the nerve to do it.” His only caveat is that Nate should cultivate a backup career in case financial security is unattainable. “He has to know something that will pay the bills while he is making his mark,” says the proud father. “It is very hard to break into the music field to where you can actually support yourself.”

Nate’s fallback career, and primary source of income as an amateur musician, is computer graphics. “The graphics field would be my first choice, but I could go into a service field, the IT field, or anything dealing with the web,” he says. “I hold all of those titles at Jim’s, anyway,” he continues, referring to his part time job at an advertising agency. Despite an already high degree of proficiency with computers, Nate says he will probably finish college as a computer science major. In the meantime, he works three jobs in addition to music and college classes.

Of late, finding time to practice and perform has been a challenge. Preparing a fallback career and earning money consume most of Nate’s time, often superceding music. Nate is uncertain how he will balance music and work, and admits that it is hard to play gigs while in college. He looks to summers for time to perform. A few more steady gigs also could allow him to quit one of his part time jobs. At best, the balancing act is tenuous.

Somehow Nate finds time to practice. “I only see him once a week and figure that he is working the whole week,” says Aaron Beharelle, a jam buddy. “Then he comes the next weekend and it seems like he has been practicing for two weeks in that one week span. It is like he lives on a 48 hour day!” Beharelle speculates that Nate finds time because playing music is his primary method for venting frustration and having fun. “Some people get off work Friday night and watch baseball games with friends,” says Beharelle. “He plays music. That’s his weekend.”

Nate Bellon needs to make music. That is why he will play any instrument and accept nearly every opportunity to perform. That also is why he must try a career in music. As a homeschooler, he understands the value of following his own inner compass.

Nate gives himself until age 30 to reach his goal. “I need to get out there and either make it or fall on my face trying,” he says. “I don’t want to be questioning myself the rest of my life. Could I have played trumpet with this big band?”

About the author: Lifelong unschooler Peter Kowalke, 25, is producer of Grown Without Schooling, a documentary about grown homeschoolers and the lasting influence of home education. For more stories about grown homeschoolers, visit Peter’s web site at or e-mail him at This article originally appeared in the September-October, 2001 issue of -Home Education Magazine

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