Without Missing a Beat- Calgary Herald Article by Jon Roe

Josh Jones sums up his passion simply.

“I love hitting stuff,” the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal percussionist says.

But the 27-year-old’s path to joining the orchestra and then playing his first concerto wasn’t so simple. Last year he was diagnosed with cancer, and it’s been a short three months since the tumour was removed. He’s cancer free, but the recent surgery means he’s been keeping the beat for duelling lines: recovery, and preparing for New Zealander Gareth Farr’s complex Hikoi concerto, which features 42 instruments and objects including a marimba and car brake drums.

Jones began playing the drums at the age of two; his grandfather bought him a Mickey Mouse drum when he was three because he was hitting everything in sight.

“I still remember how those sticks felt when I picked them up,” he says. “It was probably the most important part, because I actually got the chance to play a set of drums, even if it was a toy.”

Jones loved Disney soundtracks. He would listen to them in the family car, memorizing them and singing along to the different parts.

“I really enjoyed movie soundtracks because they can convey a lot of emotions,” Jones says. “I never realized they could be considered classical music, I just thought they were cool.”

He went from banging on his Mickey Mouse drum to playing in church at the age of five. Then, when he was in the fourth grade, he joined the Percussion Scholarship Group, a full scholarship percussion ensemble run by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

“They taught me all classical music things: how to play classical percussion instruments, performing a lot, solos, lessons every week,” Jones says. “They gave me an instrument to practice on. They were basically my second mom and dad for the next 10, 13 years, or something like that.”

Jones went to university at the DePaul School of Music. After graduating, he saw an ad for an audition with the CPO in a musicians’ union magazine. He did the audition, even though he had already done eight auditions that year.

“I was exhausted from the other eight. I wish I had done less,” he says. “I was also fighting thoracic outlet syndrome (a disorder that results in the compression of the nerves or blood vessels) with my left arm. That was interesting. I was a little worried going into that audition because if it had flared up worse or something, I wouldn’t have been able to feel my sticks in my left hand.”

But he impressed and the CPO brought him on in December 2017. He knew nothing of Calgary before he moved here.

“Absolutely nothing,” Jones admits. “It was a Canadian city. That’s about it.”

His impression since? “Free health care is great,” he says. “The people are nice.”

Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra principal percussionist Josh Jones. Photo by HarderLee Studio. CALGARY

He would make use of that free health care not even two months after he moved here to join the orchestra. Before he even moved into his apartment, he found himself suffering from pains in his stomach.

“I had a really horrible stomach ache that I could tell wasn’t a stomach ache,” Jones says. “It was in the vicinity of my gut. I went to a local clinic the next day and asked them what they thought the problem was. They were like, ‘you need all of these tests immediately. You need to go, here, here, here.’ I’m like, ‘how much is this going to cost?’ He’s like, ‘just go!’ ”

By the first week of April 2018, they had the diagnosis and were figuring out treatment. He had the tumour removed three months ago.

“Luckily it was all in one piece and hadn’t spread,” Jones says. “We were really, really, really, really lucky.”

The recovery has been going smoothly, according to the doctors, but too slow for Jones’s taste.

“I want to get as better as I can as quickly as possible,” he says. “I’ve only been working on the concerto for a month. I was really worried, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to play it because of pain or not being able to move. Luckily, I’m just well enough that I can pull it off. That’s been a good motivator for getting out of bed everyday.”

The surgery required removing a vein in his left leg, so he needed to rehab. The incision to remove the tumour was also big, which meant Jones’s core muscles were affected.

“The way they had my arms situated in the surgery room caused more thoracic outlet syndrome and some damage to my shoulder, so I had to rehabilitate that, too,” he says. “I had a lot of things not go right, even though everything went correct. Even with all of that, I’m glad it’s gone. I had a picture of it. It was really, really, really, really big. It was like a little baby.”

The various maladies limited Jones’ ability to prepare for the Hikoi concerto, so he improvised.

“The way I practised, since I really couldn’t go to the hall a lot, I just played all of the rhythms on one drum pad and imagined how my arms were going to have to move to hit every instrument correctly,” he says.

Still, his diagnosis, surgery and recovery has provided plenty of creative fuel.

“I tend to put a lot of emotional context into each piece that I play,” Jones says. “It actually makes things a lot easier to learn because — I don’t know why. It’s probably because if I attribute a movement to an emotion I remember easier instead of just point and click. This one has a lot of emotional context to it, which makes it emotionally draining and physically draining.”

The emotional context is pretty simple on its face, given his brush with cancer, but also complex, much like Jones and his journey to his seat as principal percussion of the CPO.

“Just being alive,” he says. “Had I not had the surgery, had we not found it in time and it just grew, and then by February, it would’ve started causing damage to organs and things like that. I’m alive, playing 25 years, playing a concerto with an orchestra for the first time, having the new job. I don’t know how old my grandfather would have been, but it’s like two days after what would’ve been his birthday. A lot of stuff.”

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What a Year

I’ll be brief. Life is a lot different when you think everyday might be your last. Don’t wait to make your goals a priority, and work towards them. I waited ten years to publish my book, and had I not found out my cancer diagnosis, maybe it would never have existed. Also, don’t short change the power of music. The ability to express yourself through art is a gift that, it specifically, many people will never know. Take advantage of it. Use it to learn about yourself, about the world, and about others. Communicate and listen, share and receive, grow and nurture. You’d be surprised what the simplest melody will do for a child that will have a completely different effect on an adult. There’s so much I want to say about this entire year I’ve had, and I hope one day I can process it enough to be coherent. In the meantime, please take those advisements, as well as this. Learn about yourself, love yourself, be yourself, and share yourself.

Motivation and Discipline

People can have a lot of different reasons for doing or not doing a certain thing. You eat because you're hungry, or you don't because you're sick, etc. While those types of causes and actions are geared towards sustaining your life, basically, we tend to treat our work in similar ways. I.E. "I want to get work as a musician, so I can eat. So I gotta practice." I usually say that people can rationalize any action they choose to take, no matter how crazy it may seem to the beholder. The main issue is taking that step to rationalize yourself into the action you wish to take. 

Hopefully playing music is something you enjoy. If it's not, well, it's going to be hard to make yourself practice when you don't want to, but more on that later. If you like it, that's only a piece of the rationalizing puzzle. For me, liking or loving what I'm doing is an emotional motivator, which may or may not be strong enough to fight against being tired, or grumpy, or discouraged. So, I had to find a way of thinking that would counteract those variables when they appeared. Thinking about the process in a way that had nothing to do with how I felt, but where I wanted to go really helped me find healthy ways of responding to my discouragement or fatigue. If I was feeling like I wasn't progressing, I would look objectively at what I had accomplished during the day. Literally, any accomplishment, no matter how small, is a step forward in my mind now. So what I didn't learn the entire first page of a piece. Maybe I only learned the first 4 lines, that's progress. 

I've practiced when I was exhausted, and probably shouldn't have, but somehow I made myself get out of bed, grab the sticks, and hit something, even for a few minutes. Honestly, that's from watching movies or seeing someone I respect do the same when they are really down and out. If you know the story of Rocky Balboa, you know how crazy his workout routine was to prepare for a match. The slogan of one of the films was, "no pain." Clearly he was in pain, but the mindset that they cultivated was that pain didn't matter, you keep going anyway. Of course, with a grain of salt here, but the spirit of it is what I'm getting at specifically. Also, my parents are extremely hard working, and I figured if they can work for hours and still come home and take care of us, I can at least get up out of bed and play stick control. What's the least I can do, even running on empty? Ask yourself that when you are exhausted, or just fed up. 

Like anything, cultivating discipline is a habit you have to form, and I really believe that it starts with how you think. The previous scenarios are only two processes of thought, but for me they are the most important. Discouragement and fatigue were and continue to be my biggest foes in my career, especially now given my current health circumstances. In spite of that, I'm releasing a book, doing Facebook live streams, practicing for a concert, basically doing exactly what I've been doing and then some. How? It starts pretty small, like playing five minutes of stick control every day. Take five things like that a day, and you have a twenty-five minute practice session. Do it every day, and you have a practice routine. Consistency is the most important part in cultivating that muscle of discipline. If you let yourself lax on a day, or an exercise, you'll do that for two, or three, and eventually you'll lose a day, a week, etc. Start small, start where you are, and build to where you want to go.

With starting small it also can be encouraging to see yourself complete a task of that size. Again, combining multiple small tasks can result in one bigger task. Rather than trying to take on 4 hours of practice a day before you've even done stick control daily for five minutes, can result in failure and then discouragement, leading you to never attempt it again. Start with something you know you will be able to achieve, take pride in it, put all of your attention and drive into that task, enjoy the process, and do it every day. When you are ready, add another task until you reach your ultimate goal.

If you are like me, the feeling after completing a task is motivation enough to begin it. The fear of not being successful or completing the task deters me away from even beginning at all. You must go into it knowing, or convincing yourself, that you will complete the task. Even if it isn't where you want it to be in the end, there is always tomorrow to come back and try again. One day is not a reflection of the future or yourself as a musician. Really fight the urge to characterize it as such. It's only a small segment of the work that you've done and are going to be doing. Even the end result is only a small segment, because you still have so much to learn and improve on. Really embrace the fact that you will always be improving on something, and take it as not only a challenge but a relief, because you never have to be perfect at anything, you simply have to improve.