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.”