What brought you to ANAM?
I finished university and I didn’t really know where to go from there. I knew I wanted to keep doing music but I didn’t really want to stay in Sydney, I thought I’d been there long enough, so I thought I’d try Melbourne. I spoke to a guy that had been here before and he said it was cool so I came along and did the audition and here we are.

What’s it like being taught by Peter Neville?
Pete’s great, he is one of the most interesting human beings you’ll ever meet. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone as musical as he is and he can articulate what he wants you to do. I’ve had teachers who are very musical but can’t tell you exactly how to do something or how to achieve what they want. Pete’s very good at explaining what he wants, even if he can’t demonstrate it.

The ANAM percussion cohort seems close knit – why do you think that is?
I think it’s because we are the smallest group and pretty much everything we do, we do together. If there’s an orchestra concert, there are always four of us playing, and many of our chamber projects are usually together. We don’t really have an option but to be close-knit!

Who are the stand-out visiting artists you’ve enjoyed working with at ANAM?
Probably Tony Bedewi last year with the Australian World Orchestra. He came in and did a masterclass, which was awesome! It was very, very intense! And then we had a lesson that was meant to go for 2hrs but went for 4hrs. He just had so much to talk about so that was pretty incredible.

How did you find the John Zorn improvisation project, working with William Winant on Cobra?
Yeah that was sick. That was such a fun week and felt really free and un-shackled because you could just do what you wanted really, within certain guidelines. It opened up a lot of possibilities.

Was it out of your comfort zone?
Not really. We’ve done stranger things!

What are you most looking forward to for the rest of the year at ANAM?
Probably the big percussion piano project – Ballet Mecanique – with the airplane propellers, 3-4 xylophones, pianolas and everything in between!! Plus there are a lot of guest musicians for that project including Gary France & Tim White. Working with those guys will be great. And we’re also doing the Rite of Spring so they’ll have all of the orchestral insights for that, we’ll get the best of both worlds being chamber and orchestra that week.

What did you get out of your experience of playing under Simone Young?
I played timpani in the Brahms work last year, which was good. It was a really high level project – everything was under the microscope. It was good, being under a lot of pressure like that.


James Townsend with Kaylie Melville (ANAM alumni)


And similarly, any other guest conductors stand out for you during your time at ANAM so far?
The best orchestra concert for me, I think, was when we didn’t have a conductor. It was the concert last year with Howard (Penny), who was leading the orchestra for Beethoven 2 from the cello. It was probably the best program because everyone had to be so on the ball as no one was out the front to cue you in.

How has ANAM helped prepare you for work as a casual with Orchestra Victoria and MSO?
Basically ANAM is responsible for getting me into those positions to begin with. When I first started at ANAM, we were immediately having classes with John Acaro from MSO, which put my foot in the door there. And through him, I had lessons with the other percussionists at MSO before doing the MSO casual musician audition. Similarly with OV, the musicians are brought in for classes, we do auditions and before you know it, you’re working. I don’t think these opportunities would have happened without ANAM. When I was at university, that stuff didn’t happen because the university wasn’t as well connected as ANAM is to the professional orchestras and arts companies.

How are you finding working with both of the orchestras?
It’s busy! It’s really busy! At MSO I do perhaps one show a month at the moment and I’ve just started with OV and have done a month of La Boheme and I’m going to be doing Romeo and Juliet at the end of June. Throughout May, I was doing six concerts a week – three La Boheme’s, some MSO concerts and my ANAM concerts.

What’s your biggest fear when performing?
Something breaking. Because we don’t get to have that much contact with the instruments, they’re always scared that you’re going to put a stick through a head or something’s going to fall apart. But nothing’s happened during a performance yet! I’ve done stuff in rehearsals, busted a lot of things in rehearsal – broken wood blocks, sticks, dropped cymbals on the ground, have stands falling over… gongs falling over is the worst one though, because it’s so loud!

Do you feel like there’s a lot of work for full time percussionists in Australia? Is it highly competitive?
It’s very, very competitive but in saying that, there’s about to be a change in generation… So there could be a lot more full time jobs opening up. Having said that, there are plenty of freelance jobs going around, but I find that just really tiring and hard.

How do you like to relax when not practicing or making music?
I watch a lot of bad TV shows! I watch Kiss Bang Love – that’s the new one. Everyone in my house watches that – me, Hamish (Upton), Zela (Papageorgiou) and Eli (Vincent) (fellow musicians), we all watch trashy TV when we get home after a day of practice.

Eli usually finds Tim Tams on special and we eat them whilst watching.

Is there anything interesting about you we might not know?
I get to go to the gym at 4.30am every day. I train with a bunch of senior citizens in the morning. The guy who owns the gym is about 65 so they’re all my dads age or older.

I started going when the gym opened at 6pm but then one of the guys said “you should train with us at 5am” so I started doing that. 

How do you go managing your time between ANAM and your performing work? Is ANAM accommodating of you’re other commitments?
I’ve been pretty lucky. I haven’t had to request leave from ANAM during any of the projects I’ve been involved in. The timing has just worked out well for me. As for time management, I’m a bit like “What’s going on today? What are we doing tomorrow?”. I take things day by day but I’m finding that I have enough time this year to practise and still fit everything in.

Who are your musical inspirations?
Peter Neville.
Also perhaps Rob Cossom. As a player he is scary – as in always 100% in control, just always perfect – and nothing phases him, he just plays as if it’s easy.

Favourite place for coffee?
I don’t drink coffee. But Zappa’s does a good OJ… or if I’m stressed out I have a Red Bull.

Do you cook?
I do all of my cooking on the weekend so I don’t have to cook during the week. I cook a lot of meat and potatoes.

I’m Irish…

What else can you tell us about your experience at ANAM so far?
We do a lot of things at ANAM. At the moment, I do a lot of orchestra work, not all of it is in this building (and as I mentioned before, I probably wouldn’t be working orchestrally at the moment without ANAM’s connections) but I think people assume ANAM is just for orchestra musicians.

This year we’ve done one orchestral project so far. But I’ve been involved in plenty more. We do a lot of chamber music, you play with a lot of different people in many different projects (I put a lot of face make up on for Thea’s recital the other night – so that was something different!) and then, if I wasn’t busy with other work, I’d have the time and support to pursue more of my own projects with people in the building – it’s great to link up with musicians in different projects. You can do whatever you want, really. I did a Soundbite concert early this year with music I picked last year with Peter Neville. It was music just for fun, so I just asked people to play in it. Those concerts are a great opportunity.

If you want to do orchestra, ANAM is great… it will hook you up with OV and MSO and other orchestras but if you don’t want to do orchestra work, there’s plenty of people around to do chamber music and other projects. ANAM is very accommodating to what you want to do.

Any touring on the cards?
Nick Deutsch (ANAM Artistic Director) has asked me to play with AWO (Australian World Orchestra) in September in Sydney and Singapore. That’s just one of the opportunities – all paid for – you get here, along with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra Academy and the Berlin Philharmonic Academy.

You can see James in these upcoming performances:

ANAM Concerto Competition: Round Two
Thursday 16 June 2pm
South Melbourne Town Hall
Entry free

Australian Voices 3: Damien Ricketson
Thursday 23 June 6pm
Melbourne Recital Centre Salon
Tickets $25/$15

Ballet Mecanique
Saturday 8 October 7pm
South Melbourne Town Hall
Tickets $60/$45/$35

Student Beneficiary Support generously contributed by Stephen Whately



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