Simon James: Perfectly Practiced in Every Way

The traditional model of a conservatory education resembles the lather, rinse, repeat directions on a shampoo bottle: practice, lesson, repeat. Effective though formulaic and vocational in nature, the approach places students on a trajectory towards the coveted orchestra or solo job. Violinist and new SFCM faculty member Simon James believes in a more holistic approach to preparing his students so that they may go anywhere—and they do.

“We have to be more than a one-trick pony,” James says, “and be open to play all sorts of music. Don’t reject anything that you might consider low-brow. As long as something is done well, I’m game.”

SFCM has been an industry leader in this thinking, having rebooted and steadily transformed over the years the traditional one-dimensional teaching approach into a broader and more comprehensive design. Within its new, ground-breaking curriculum, SFCM’s legendary rigors of practice and performance are enhanced by innovative and enriching professional development projects, such as starting a non-profit or developing a knack for marketing and fundraising—skills that James also believes are vital in order to keep pace with the changing tides of the classical music world.

“No one taught me how to start an LLC,” says James, reminiscing on how he got his start as a commercial music contractor during his early years as a member of the Seattle Symphony over 30 years ago. What began as a volunteer effort organizing chamber music programs for Seattle area events quickly grew into a substantial side career contracting music recordings for major motion pictures, television, video games, and amusement parks, in addition to large- and small-scale classical music gatherings around the world. A quick peak at James’ litany of contracting credits reveals a dazzling, bipolar mixture of genres, from Bungie’s Halo and Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft to Ludwig Minkus’ Don Quixote with the Pittsburgh Ballet and Terrance Blanchard’s Grammy-winning recording of A Tale of God’s Will, and from Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure (for whom he contracted over 600 minutes of music that took over three years to complete) to Columbia Pictures’ The Wedding Planner and Focus Features’ Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.”

James also coaches students on the interpersonal nature of the music business and has spoken most recently on the subject this past summer while teaching at Center Stage Strings at the University of Michigan. When asked by a student about relating the importance of social media and digital networking to career success, James replied, “None at all.” He says that building a strong reputation in any field of music relies on “face-to-face networking,” and that music entrepreneurship is a “handshake business.”

“I want my students to know how to do this,” says James, but emphasizes that his main focus with his SFCM students will be playing the violin … perfectly.

“Don’t let them get away with anything” is James’ core philosophy of teaching, and he believes that perfection should come at the very beginning. “Most people want to get something done quickly, but it’s like the tortoise and the hare. Make a conscience effort to be an artist, not just an instrumentalist.” His students may groan when they learn that James’ secret sauce in perfection and artistry is scales. “I love scales,” says James. “You can learn anything through scales. But not just any scales: perfect scales.” He continues: “To achieve [perfection] takes repetition, and from repetition comes habit, and from habit emerges perfection.” He adds that this approach contributes to the desired ability of taking one’s “skills to the piece,” rather than the other way around.

While artistic perfection may be the goal he espouses in his studio, the bigger picture that he eyes for his students is gainful employment.

“Employment is the goal; artistry is the vehicle,” says James, who as an internationally recognized pedagogue has guided many of his students in claiming top positions in leading ensembles around the nation, including the New York Philharmonic, St. Louis Symphony, and Minnesota Orchestra. His students have also captured the highest honors in the competition arena, including the Gold Medal in the Yehudi Menuhin Competition, as well as the Stradivarius International Competition, Stulberg International String Competition, Vancouver International Music Competition, and MTNA National Competition. Even his two daughters, both violinists and students of their father, have enjoyed success respectively as the associate concertmaster of the Minnesota Orchestra and as a student at the esteemed McDuffie Center for Strings at Mercer University.

James practices what he preaches—literally—and his own performing credits abound with a celebrated history of memberships and appearances with renown ensembles including the Seattle Symphony, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Orchestra, and Australian World Orchestra (which he and his orchestra mates lovingly refer to as the “Australian Youth Orchestra with wrinkles”). A crossover artist since he was a teenager—he performed on the soundtrack for the 1979 Australian dystopian action film Mad Max when he was 15 years old—he can be heard on hundreds of motion picture, television, and video game soundtracks as concertmaster of the Northwest Sinfonia, in addition to live appearances with Pearl Jam, Elton John, Billy Joel, and A. R. Rahman. Loyal to his classical roots, though, James attributes career highlights to performing as concertmaster for the Seattle Symphony’s Ring Cycle, and concerts under the batons of Simon Rattle and Riccardo Muti with the Australian World Orchestra.

He quickly follows up, however, and says that “my big success is how my students are doing,” and describes his excitement with his appointment to SFCM.

James says that there are “many synergies” between himself and SFCM, and that moving to San Francisco was an “opportunity that was right there in front of me.” In addition to his regular teaching schedule, he looks forward to guiding collaborations between his students and SFCM’s Technology and Applied Composition (TAC) department and took special note that SFCM “takes the entire business of music seriously and proactively.”

Before James and his wife, a flutist, finalized their move to San Francisco, James spent the summer blazing a trail of master classes, lessons, and concerts around the world, leaving in his wake hundreds of delighted and enlightened patrons and young violinists. His globetrotting began with master classes at the Royal Academy of Music in London and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in Glasgow, then back to the U.S. for Center Stage Strings in Michigan and the Blackburn Music Academy at the Napa Festival, only to jet to the other side of the planet to his hometown of Melbourne for the Australian World Orchestra, and finally back on U.S. soil for Classical Tahoe where he had the opportunity to work with new SFCM colleagues Kay Stern (“she is amazing!”) and Cordula Merks (“the best stand partner I ever had when we worked together in the Seattle Symphony!”).

When asked for any fun facts about himself, James replied, “My idea of a vacation is going somewhere else to work.”

Oh, and he doesn’t like bugs.

To learn about Simon James’ recital and chamber music appearances at SFCM, please visit our performance calendar.