Interview with James Morrison

Jazz musician. Adjunct Professor at University of South Australia - James Morrison Academy of Music (Australia).

«If you're studying too many things that you don't love, then you will find it all too much work»

2017-02-07

It is difficult to put a label on this famous Australian trumpeter. A true virtuoso with trumpet, trombone, tuba, piano, clarinet, saxophone, and double bass... It’s always interesting what he tell us.

Up close and personal
  • Age: 54.
  • City of birth: Boorowa, New South Wales (Australia).
  • A hobby: Sailing.
  • A food: Pizza.
  • A drink: Milk.
  • A book: The Holographic Universe (Michael Talbot).
  • A film: Being There (Hal Ashby).
  • A place: The Whitsunday Islands on Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

Professional career

What first drew you to the trumpet and when did you realize that trumpet playing was what you wanted to do professionally?

I liked the sound, it was brilliant. I decided I wanted to play music for the rest of my life at the age of seven.

Where have you studied and who were your teachers?

I studied for a short while at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music but I didn't have a trumpet professor as such. I prefer to learn things myself.

What was your first full time professional job as a trumpet player and how did you get it?

Playing in night clubs around Sydney at the age of thirteen. I knew some older guys in a band and they asked me to join them.

Which musicians, teachers, conductors or trumpet players have influenced and taught you the most?

I learn from everyone I hear and see. Mostly the people who have taught me the most don't know that I have been learning from them. I watch and listen, then imagine what it feels like to make the sound they are making. Then it's a simple matter of creating this feeling myself.

Daily work

What is your daily practice routine?

I have no routine, I don't practice. As far as physically playing goes, I just play my performances and jam with my sons when I'm home. For me, the preparation for playing is done completely mentally, I think about it subconsciously and then it feels familiar when I go to play on a conscious level. Although this may sound strange, it's really quite simple. The thing that makes it work is having an awareness of your subconscious mind, this is what does all the work when you are playing anyway — nobody actually thinks consciously of everything they are doing, that would be impossible. When somebody practices for hours, they are really just transferring information many times to their subconscious, so it can perform the task at a later time. All I do that is different is transfer the information very few times (maybe only once).

You spend a lot of time on the road performing and teaching. What do you do to stay in shape?

Firstly I play many concerts. Also, I have an attitude that allows me to use more of the fitness that I have. Most people are capable of much more than they believe they are, I manage to use most of what I have.

How important do you consider a rest or break when you are practicing?

This is a hard question to answer as this varies with different people. I am comfortable working for very long periods without stopping, some people learn better if they stop more often to consider what they have learnt.

How do you approach a new piece?

Understand what the piece is about, why it was written, what emotion(s) the composer is trying to convey. Then get to know how it sounds and feels. After this, there will be minimal (if any) time needed to actually practice the notes.

Education

What is your approach to teaching your students?

To find the way in which they learn best. Everyone is different and is starting from a different understanding. Before I can help them, I have to know what they believe about their playing. Once I understand this, I can perhaps show them a way of experiencing playing that will allow them to do much more than they thought they could.

Do you consider it important to combine more than one genre in your studies such as jazz and natural trumpet?

It's most important to follow the areas for which you have a passion. If you're studying too many things that you don't love, then you will find it all too much work. Music is not about work, it is about communicating with sound and if you are too much used to working with your music, you will find it difficult to communicate anything freely.

What criteria do you follow when you are choosing a mouthpiece and trumpet?

Firstly quality — this is why I play a Schagerl. Next, you need to find the combination of factors that suit your physiology and desire for sound — such as bore size, weight and materials. A mouthpiece should most of all be comfortable and not too small — I advise playing the largest size that is comfortable. Sometimes people try to get the mouthpiece to help them with high register for instance — this is not an idea that will lead to the best playing. It is the musician that makes the music, the instrument is a tool — what you need most is the best quality tool you can get.

What advice do you have for young students and for teachers?

The same — play from your heart, always remember WHY we make music, not to be correct, not to be clever, not to impress, not even for tradition — we make music to give the emotion we feel as the player to those who are listening.

Performance anxiety

Have you ever had a bad experience on stage?

Many — but they are only bad if you look at them that way. At the time I may have seen them as undesirable but with more understanding I see that all experiences are just that — experience.

How should one take criticism?

With joy and interest. When somebody criticises your playing, you must first acknowledge that this person has taken the time to offer their thoughts — this is a gift. Secondly, you need to be interested in these thoughts — they are from a different perspective than you can look at your own music. Even if you think that the criticism is incorrect, you still learn much from the fact that somebody heard you and formed such a wrong impression 

Lastly, you need to understand that the criticism is never (and I really mean NEVER) about you. It is simply a statement of the other person's perspective, they cannot say anything except how it sounds to them — that means they are always right! Because no matter what they say, it is their opinion. this means that criticism can never hurt you, it is just an interesting statement of somebody's view that you can learn from, no matter what they say. In an extreme situation, perhaps all I will learn is that the person knows nothing about trumpet — but I still learn!

They say that everybody has a little bit of performance anxiety and the important thing is controlling it. What do you do to control it?

I have no performance anxiety. I feel too much excitement and joy about playing to feel anxious. I have developed techniques for helping people who feel anxious to transcend this and feel good when they play. This is too involved to explain here but I can say that all performance anxiety is able to be dissolved, rather than controlled. We need to use all our energy for communicating our music and not waste any on controlling something that need not be there.

Any advice on preparing for auditions?

Of course the obvious — know what you must play and be competent. After that, it is MOST important that you remember why you are doing this — because you LOVE it! Many people go to auditions and play less than their best because they are not having fun. Show in your audition that you are happy to play music.

Musical preferences

What kind of music do you listen to?

A lot of classical, Rachmaninov, Bach (a real favourite of many jazz musicians) Mozart (particularly the piano sonatas) and much more. Apart from that, I listen to what is around me. I also have a lot of time where I don't listen to any music at all. A thing I really find pointless is what they call background music this doesn't make sense to me. Music is for listening to (and perhaps dancing!) to put it on and then not listen seems strange.

With what musician or style of music do you identify with the most?

This is difficult. I seem to identify with whatever music is played to me. I suppose I am primarily a jazz musician and I like jazz that swings but this would be too narrow as a definition.

Who is your favorite trumpet player?

Again, a difficult question. There are so many that are great. If I must pick one, then Dizzy Gillespie has probably been the greatest influence.

What is your favorite piece for trumpet?

Whatever i am playing