A graduate from the Queensland Conservatorium, with both a Bachelor of Music (Jazz Vibraphone) and Masters in Music studies (Performance and Conducting), and the Queensland University of Technology with a Graduate Diploma in Education, James is trained as a multi-disciplined percussionist, composer and educator.
Currently residing in Nevada Las Vegas, James is now the Music Director at Nevada Conservatory Theatre and can be found playing around Las Vegas and the world in various projects.
This interview highlights how James finds balance between work and study, earning a living as a full time musician and why he now resides in the United States.
Were you always interested in working in Las Vegas?
To be honest, Vegas was never really on my map until I started auditioning for U.S schools for my Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) program. When I was still in Australia, my sights were more positioned on New York City for the jazz and broadway scene. When it came to auditioning for my DMA program, I found Vegas had the right combination of all the things I wanted at the time – a flexible program to study percussion, jazz, theatre, orchestration, etc., a great performing scene (shows, conventions, gigs), and the style or quality of living.
How did you manage working in the U.S as an Australian Citizen?
There are always difficulties and red tape with working in any country other than your own – visas, work permits, etc,. One of the great things about moving here initially for my DMA program was that the international school in the University coordinates my visa and work permits. These allow me to work within certain rules.
How have you managed balancing studying and performing full time?
Balancing study and performing is an ongoing battle. During my DMA, I’ve had a diverse schedule from semester to semester, some with a lot of contact time, and others with little contact time. I guess I have a fair amount of experience in balancing study and performer, and/or teaching, from way back in my undergraduate days when I began teaching in my final year. Then when I was studying my Masters, I was on a full-time teaching load, so there was a lot of planning required a head of time to make sure any conflicts were resolved.
Did you find any significance between studying in Australia vs The U.S?
I need to preface this by saying, I love Australia. I love performing in Australia, and there are a lot of great things going on musically in Australia. However, the U.S has more opportunities in the industry. The major significance I noticed was the immediate opportunities available to [exceeding] students in the professional industry because there is more work available. The funny thing is that due to the lesser amount of opportunities in Australia, I’ve noticed that Australian’s living in the U.S are typically highly successful because they chase the work in a respectful way…. they don’t wait for the phone to ring, there is more initiative to get work because Australian’s have had to survive in an industry where there is a finite amount of work that is hard to get and easy to lose.
Of all your skills (performing, teaching, conducting etc) can you specify the order in which each of these skills pays relevance to your income. For examples, does conducing make up most of your income etc.
It varies year to year. Currently, teaching for the University is the bulk of my income, followed by a fairly balanced schedule of performing and conducting (Musical Directing). However, last year, performing was the bulk of my income, followed by teaching, and then conducting. That is the fun, and sometimes the burden, of freelance work in this industry – you need to continuously build it.
How do you divide your time to keep improving each of your diverse skills? Do you use a schedule, does work/life dictate what you focus on?
It is always about priority. There isn’t always time to get to EVERYTHING in one week… or two… or three. Therefore, I rank things on the priority such as there is a classical recital coming up in 4 weeks, and there is also a show I’m conducting in 6 weeks with far more content than the recital. I would split my time 60/40 with the recital being priority until it was under my hands, or was completed. Schedule is an ongoing battle, with the need for frequent compromises.
If you could simply create more time for your music/studies, what would you use it for?
Honestly, I’d spend more time practicing and building on my current skills, or I would put serious time into some areas that aren’t as strong as my “known skills.” (Known skills such as jazz vibraphone and music theatre.)
Regarding the digital world, how much time and energy do you invest in social media/online presence vs face to face meetings, networking and branding etc
This is an absolute beast. I always try to keep material happening on platforms such as instagram to maintain interest in my ongoing projects, and I have a website for various reasons. However, I don’t put as much FOCUSED time and energy into the digital things as I should. I think its extremely important to maintain relationships and networks in this industry – and face to face meetings, “hangs”, or whatever are always extremely useful for keeping relevant in the industry.
Do you spend time transcribing other musicians?
Not as much DEVOTED to transcribing for purposes of learning, like I did specifically in my undergraduate degree. However, I spend plenty of incidental time when working on projects, specifically music theatre, where there is an inclination from the producing partners to a particular recording (e.g. original broadway cast recording) of the music and the score is not notated the same way. Therefore, I will have to transcribe it (usually on the spot, or very quickly). Over time, I have worked to get my ears to a point where I can identify things quickly for those such scenarios. From what I remember of my undergraduate experience in ear training, aural identification strengthens quite rapidly with practice (just like anything else).
How often do you get to visit Australia in between work?
I try to get to Australia once a year if I can, and I generally work when I do make it over. As anyone who has done the journey from Australia to US (or reverse), it usually is an expensive flight… or a REALLY expensive flight, and therefore I do some clinics, masterclasses, guest performances, etc, to subsidise the travel costs, or cover them completely. It just depends what the “purpose” of that particular trip is. Last year I went to Australia for a week specifically to do some maintenance of percussion equipment I hire, and surrounding that job with teaching for subsidy, and of course spent time with friends and family. This year, I will be back in Aus in May/June for a recording session, gigs, and teaching, and to get some leisure time in from being in the desert (vegas). And then I’ll be in Melbourne in August to adjudicate the Australian Marimba and Vibraphone Competition.
What’s the most valuable career investment you’ve made to get to where you are now?
Being diverse. My undergraduate major was in jazz vibraphone. I KNEW that this world doesn’t have a fully sustainable career as a jazz vibraphonist, so I made it my main identification point and maintained my skills in drumset and classical percussion for other work. Across time, I also improved my piano skills, and my composition/arranging/orchestration skills, as well as a degree in conducting. Now my career including work in all of these fields. That is ONE way to be a sustainable freelance artist. Be diverse. And just as important, be a good person. Be a great a hang. People have to like working with you to keep booking you, particularly if its any long-term gig (touring production, cruise ships, semi-permanent theatre productions).
Is there anything you wish you did differently that in hindsight you feel would’ve positioned you better?
There are always things I wish I did, or didn’t do. I wish I took piano lessons in school. Sometimes I think I might have been better off doing my undergraduate as a percussion major (purely for the connection to orchestral work) rather than jazz vibraphone… but then I wouldn’t have my identifying mark as a jazz vibraphonist. There are times when I wonder if I should’ve moved to the U.S.A earlier than I did for other various reasons, but then again, when I did move it felt right. I reached a point a year before the move where I had a reality check with myself and said “I think its time to check out somewhere else.” And thats a difficult discussion to have with yourself, and your loved ones.
Did you ever have an 8 hour a day practice schedule before working full time?
Honestly, no. Not 8 hours. Maybe 6 broken up through the day. I’m not someone who can lock themselves in a room for hours on end and just get to it. I need breaks and to step back from it to see the big picture. Even when I am cramming a lot of material e.g., learning a sonata or concerto, I will do my practice in 20 – 30 minute slots AT the instrument and when I step away from the instrument I am still thinking about the music and in a way learning it. Across the day, those 20-30 minute session would add up to several hours. I found when I learnt a Bach concerto for one of my Doctoral recitals that I was able to memorise the music more when I was away from the instrument just running it and picturing it in my head. There are a few books out there that talk about mental preparation in this manner; Top Dog, Talent Code, and Performing in the Zone.
If you could only practice three things what would they be?
Sight-reading, time/groove, and humility. I believe this a sort of trifecta for being successful as a musician.
Where would you like to be in 5 years?
I’ve been picking up session work here in Vegas… and L.A is a stones throw away. There are a lot of musicians who are based in either city, but work in the other at times. I would consider moving L.A for studio, film/TV work… or stay in Vegas and continue what I’m doing.
If you had to play in one band only, who would it be?
Toto. Hands down.
What would you say to up and coming musicians who wish to have a fulfilling career as a full time musician?
Work hard. Be humble. Take on every opportunity you can that is within your skills. Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
Have you ever wished you weren’t a musician or felt stuck?
Many times. I’ve wondered if life would be easier doing a job with set hours. But then I think maybe that would get boring.
What drives you to work on your craft/skills everyday?
A bunch of things: The WANT to be better and continue moving forward. The inspiration from seeing other people kick ass. And honestly, to keep a roof over my head and food on the table.
For more information on James and his music, head to his website: