During my final year of my Bachelor of Music, I had the pleasure of studying one on one with James. The impact he had on my relationship to music can not be understated. He opened my eyes to some fundementals I had overlooked and to the value of really exploring what it’s like to have a good sense of time. This is something I continue to study daily.
He is an incredible musician to play with or watch and is a fantastic communicator as a teacher and leader. If you ever are in Brisbane, I highly recommend going to see this guy perform or if you’re lucky, finding time for a private lesson.
I hope you enjoy his responses.
Can you please clearly outline all your current musical projects and professions which make up your life as a full-time professional musician?
Like all of us, trying to make more sense out of what I do to enable more avenues of expression and different points of view when playing music and improvising which feeds into my professional life as an educator and musician. I teach at the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University and the Jazz Music Institute. I have been a professional musician for 29 years so doing anything that long means you’ve got something to offer in that field from one’s experience. Being a multi-instrumentalist I always have work opportunities.
How do you manage your time to make room for each of these commitments whilst keeping yourself financially independent and living a relatively balanced life?
Scheduling. I’m in a fortunate position to be able to have multiple streams of income through teaching and performances.
How many instruments do you play and how often do you practice them?
I play a few instruments. The only one I practice regularly is the saxophone. The other instruments I practice based on work or recording needs.
Can you please outline the order in which these support your income and if you ever had a strategy for this, or did you just happen to get work on this/these particular instruments?
For me the saxophone is always number one in my mind and I always relate everything through it and reflect back on to it. Most of my income now comes from teaching so the saxophone would be first. I would admit that I am a bit more fussy and picky about what gigs I do on the saxophone because of my relationship to it than the other instruments. I play the drums mostly on the weekend in R&B bands which started strictly as another form of income and I felt that I could offer a different viewpoint in this because I am a musician first. Then developed skills in backing vocals to enhance my employability as a drummer. I also play bass on gigs but not too often. I have in the past played guitar and keys on gigs.
What value do you see in playing/learning multiple instruments, and have you ever felt it has inhibited your efforts on your main instrument?
The only reason I started to investigate other instruments was to help me understand the role of the rhythm section and feel what they feel, to become a better musician on the saxophone. For me, everything begins and ends with the saxophone because it’s my voice. Don’t get me wrong I do enjoy playing these instruments in band situations but I don’t dedicate my time and practice hours to them. Of course I’d love to have more dexterity on these instruments to express other things I hear, but I find it’s not essential to being a professional musician where the emphasis is on supporting the singer and the song.
Do you have any plans for your future as a teacher? For example, are you looking at lecturing more or doing online private lessons etc?
Having been in the industry this long I feel I have something to give to students and anyone interested. It’s taken a few years to enjoy teaching and pedagogy. I do have a passion for it now because through my own pursuit of understanding I am finding solutions to how jazz could be taught and learned, and seeing the influence I have on students is also rewarding.
Do you have a method or personalised criteria to help decide whether to take on a new project or opportunity?
I guess number one would be am I going to enjoy the experience? Will I learn something from it? If the mentioned criteria cannot be answered positively then I look at it from a financial point of view.
How have you managed to keep the ball rolling as a sideman musician in today’s climate? For example: Do consciously look for work or are you getting called back and the momentum builds from there?
Being sideman in today’s climate can be difficult if your priorities aren’t aligned correctly. I am always asking the question of myself of “What do I offer to make you want to choose me over other musicians?” I have been fortunate over the years and only pursued work when moving to a new town.
Can you please explain your reasons for relocating from Perth to Brisbane in your recent years?
We decided as a family that it was time to relocate back over east and Brisbane looked like a great place to raise our children. For me it was exciting as I only knew one person in Brisbane and was totally new to the music scene which presented me with a new challenge. Previously when I moved to New York and Melbourne I had friends already in the scene that would pave the way for me and make the introductions. Brisbane was different and I enjoyed being on the other side for a while and got to know people before they knew what I did.
How would you describe differences in the music scene between Brisbane and Perth?
Every music scene that I have been involved with is the same. The ratio of accomplished to novice musicians are identical. The only difference is playing opportunities and money which in most cases are due to population and demand.
Have you ever considered relocating abroad or have you spent any significant amount of time in a different location for music study etc. For example NYC…
I lived in NYC for a while and visited other cities in the USA. I’m really happy living in Australia and don’t wish to live anywhere else.
What’s the most common trait/skill you’ve noticed artists are seeking when hiring a professional drummer or musician in general?
They want musicians to be professional, energetic, prepared and easy to get along with.
Do you have any pet peeves that you would recommend up-coming musicians to be mindful of or artist to keep in mind when hiring sideman musicians?
I guess it’s to remember that you’re being hired to be a musician in a band and not an instrumentalist. Therefore everything you play should be serving the singer, the band and the music you are playing.
What’s the most valuable career investment you’ve made to get to where you are now?
Is there anything you wish you did differently that in hindsight you feel would’ve positioned you better?
Have you integrated technology into your playing since its rise in popularity in modern music?
I have dabbled in the past with electronic effects pedals through my influences like Eddie Harris and Joshua Redman. I’d like to get back into it I think.
Are you currently getting lessons from any other musicians? Or plan to?
For me getting a lesson is turning on the music player. Listening to musicians of the past and transcribing to figure out different ways to approach playing. I’ve gained most of my knowledge through this investigation in music. I take pride in figuring these things out for myself. It’s the way I was taught and guided as a young musician. I definitely learn a lot about teaching strategies and education through watching workshops from the great musicians in person or on youtube.
If you could simply create more time for yourself, how would you use it? For example, would you invest in more music-related skills or study, or spend more time at home etc..
All of the above. I feel I have a good balance right now so more time would be evenly spread.
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?
I think it’s an important part of what we do. In this day and age, people are less likely to take a risk when going out to see live music than before when there were less recreational and entertainment choices. Everything is costing more money and our free time is at a minimum, so one tends to value their hard earned time and money and choose entertainment based on their conviction that it will be “money well spent”. Face to face and networking is vitally important as well as media. Once people have experienced the performance, if they liked it they are hungry for more and want to invest time and money. You gave them something that they can’t get at home and so they are willing to come back an experience that again.
Did you ever have an 8 hour a day practice schedule before working full time?
I have never had a practice schedule. I practiced out of necessity so time and length of practice is irrelevant. Yes I have done lengthy hours of practice for a period of time through the years but it never felt like a schedule. There was a period when I was a 1st year student when I would practice all day and into the early hours of the morning, stopping only for meals. I was obsessed with it and never ran out of things to practice, and still
haven’t. When I opened a door into a particular technique or idea, there seemed to be countless other doors behind that one. Now with my schedule I don’t get as much time physically on the saxophone but I’m constantly practicing and figuring out directions and options in my mind.
Do you/did you spend much time transcribing other musicians?
Yes definitely. I still listen to and learn from everyone I hear. Transcribing initially was to learn how to speak words and sentences of the jazz language on my chosen instrument. Then it became figuring out methods and harmony used to create phrases so I wasn’t using their solutions, I was using their methods and harmonic integration.
If you could only practice three things what would they be?
On the saxophone it would be fundamentals, fundamentals and fundamentals. To be able to voice the ideas in my head I have to keep the connection through the saxophone open and ready.
If you had to play in one band only, who would it be?
If I only had to choose one it would be my own group.
If you could pivot to another occupation, what would it be?
Professional golfer. I find a lot of similarities in both.
Have you ever wished you weren’t a musician or felt stuck?
No. I feel stuck all the time but if I didn’t then I wouldn’t be growing and improving as a musician.
Where would you like to be in 5 years?
I am really happy doing what I do. I guess more travel with the family would be on the agenda.
Do you have any other hobbies or interests outside of music?
Cooking, golf and basketball.
What would you say to up and coming drummers/musicians who wish to have a sustained and fulfilling career as a full time performing musician?
I suppose this is advice for all musicians – Have fun performing, practice with intent and be versatile.
Any other comments or insights you wish to share?
We “play” music, so have fun with it!
James does not currently have a website but if you’re interested in finding out more head to: https://www.musicteacher.com.au/james-sandon/ where you will find an overview of what James does and places to find his recordings etc.