23 November 2021

Music students learn from the best of the best

Music students got the opportunity to perform alongside and learn from James Ford, Professor of Trumpet and Jazz Studies at the California State University, US, on his recent visit to the Faculty of Arts and Design. Prof Ford, who has performed and/or recorded with well-known musicians, such as Justin Timberlake, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Joss Stone, Michael Buble, Celine Dion, Queen Latifah, Paul Anka, The Temptations, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Englebert Humperdink, to name a few, shares his experiences.

Prof James Ford.

You are currently spending a four-month sabbatical in South Africa. How did that come about? I received a Fulbright Scholar Award to lecture at UNISA. I’m really impressed by the community outreach work Karendra Devroop is doing at UNISA in Soshanguve and other locations, and really wanted to contribute. I hope my teaching and performing knowledge will help the students establish a strong foundation that will give them access to more opportunities in their teaching and performing careers.

Have you visited the country before, and what are your impressions? This is my third trip. I was honoured to be invited to South Africa to participate in the 2008 International Chamber Music Festival in Stellenbosch with Nina Schumann and Luis Magalhaes, and the 2018 South African Jazz Songbook project with Karendra Devroop. I was deeply impressed and curious about the students I met at Soshanguve, TUT, Stellenbosch University, and the University of Pretoria.

As part of the sabbatical, you conducted a workshop with third- and fourth-year TUT Music students and further masterclasses are also envisaged. What was the experience like, and what are your views of our students? It’s always great to work with young students wanting to pursue careers in music. I really wanted to encourage and motivate the students to keep working hard towards their goals and career aspirations in a positive and meaningful way. And I want them to have fun while doing it! The masterclass was focused on Musicianship skills and their importance. I was happy to share my ideas and experiences with the students in the hopes of them seeing what can happen when you strive to master those skills. The students were curious and asked questions that left me thinking they really want to improve.

During your visit, you will also be working on community music projects, and conduct performance wellness research. Can you tell us more about both? I’m working a lot with UNISA’s outreach Music programme in Soshanguve. The focus is on Brass Pedagogy and Performance Arts Health. Keep in mind, I’m here to learn as well. I will also observe and take back some of Soshanguve’s best practices. With regards to the research, the goal is to collaborate with Karendra Devroop and Kris Chesky on a few research ideas related to Performing Arts Health. It’s a work in progress at this point.

Discussions around student exchange programmes between TUT and the University of California are also planned. This will be a wonderful opportunity for students from both universities . . .It would be wonderful to initiate an exchange programme between TUT and the California State University, Los Angeles, or the California State University system in general. The California State University has 23 campuses. I’m currently seeking out information from my university on how this can happen.

The Performing Arts sector has been heavily affected by Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown measures. What is your message to students studying in this field not to lose hope, and to keep on keeping on? I like your phrase “Keep on Keeping on.” That’s great! Did you get that from Clark Terry? Your phrase pretty much sums it up! It’s a challenging time for everyone. I tell my students to stay focused as much aspossible. Talk to friends and family often and reach out if you need or can offer help with anything to anyone. We’re all in this together.

In this time of crisis and isolation, the role of the Arts has become more central to our lives, whether we realised it or not. Yet, this sector is still so neglected. What, in your view, can be done to convince decision-makers of the importance of the Arts in shaping society, or is this a lost battle? The battle is definitely not lost. This is such a widely discussed issue and we can talk for hours about it. I will say this: Awareness and communication is a great step with this issue. The more people discuss and eventually take action, the better. I believe the people make the decisions, not the elected officials.

As an accomplished all-around trumpet player living in Los Angeles, you have performed and/or recorded with the likes of Justin Timberlake, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, Joss Stone, Michael Buble, Celine Dion, Queen Latifah, Paul Anka, Leon Russell, Renee Olstead, Eric Benet, The Temptations, Earth, Wind & Fire, Englebert Humperdink, and John Pizzarelli, to mention a few. What was the experience like working alongside these musicians (perhaps you can let us in on a few secrets)? Lol. No secrets. The experiences were just amazing. I feel very honoured and blessed to work with the wonderful artists you mentioned. But I must mention that the artists and music teachers that prepared me and provided those opportunities for me to get to this point, including Benjamin Wright, Jeff Clayton, John Clayton, Jeff Hamilton, John Beasley, Kenneth Kirk, Leonard Candelaria, Kris Chesky, Kevin McGillivray, Bill McIntosh, Vincent Rosse, Bijon Watson, etc., are all great mentors to me. I thank them all!

You were part of the development of the first epidemiologic profile of brass musicians and the scientific characterisation of mouthpiece forces generated during trumpet performance, and published extensively on issuesrelating to musicians’ health. Just how important is this branch of music research? Great question! I believe all musicians should strive for “Musical ease, health, and longevity.” (a quote from Alice Brandfonbrener and Richard Lederman). To achieve these three things one major goal is to help professionals and amateurs become aware, knowledgeable, and competent about Performing Arts Health.

It is said that your dexterity and warm sound have allowed you to cross many musical boundaries as you perform in diverse musical settings, including big band, small groups, orchestral, chamber, pop, and early music ensembles. What is your favourite music genre, and why? I enjoy listening to and performing all genres of music!

  • Prof Ford’s visit to the Faculty of Arts and Design was facilitated by Dr Roland Moses, Programme Coordinator and Senior Lecturer at TUT’s Department of Performing Arts (Jazz and Popular Music), who first met Prof Ford in 2018 when they were involved with the South African Songbook Concert at UNISA. At the time, Dr Moses invited the South African Songbook band to perform at TUT, which led to TUT connecting with Prof Ford and the UNISA project. During that visit, Dr Moses and Prof Ford discussed the 2021 visit and his involvement in teaching and conducting masterclasses. Many of TUT’s jazz students were part of the UNISA Community Music Programme.

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