A flutist fuelled by competition
Chris James on what motivated him on his path to becoming a professional musician
When accomplished flutist Chris James thinks back to his time at Earl Haig Secondary School, he says he was a very serious student.
“‘Bossy’ isn’t quite the right word, but I liked having a lot of projects and a finger in a lot of different pies,” he says.
Music had always been a driving passion for James. Having come from a musical family, the flute called to him at a young age. Much of his youth was filled with bands, flute choir and private lessons, yet the young keener managed to sit on the music council, write for the school paper and fight tooth and nail to match the book smarts of his intellectually gifted brother.
“The Claude Watson arts program brought a real elite cohort together,” says James.
When it came time to go to university, although it was tempting to take an offer from McGill University, like so many of his talented classmates, he decided to go another route.
He pushed himself way out of his comfort zone, and on to the Manhattan School of Music in New York City.
“Four years in N.Y.C. was wonderful,” he says, remembering the $10 student tickets to Carnegie Hall. “It’s so amazing to be in a place where so many incredible artists are coming through all the time.”
During his fourth year, he nabbed a spot in the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in Memphis, Tenn., where he would commute roughly once a month to do a run of their larger symphonies. After graduating, Memphis would hire him full time, but after one year, he decided to make a go of it in Toronto.
“I liked coming back with American credentials,” he says. “I came back a professional, rather than becoming one in front of everyone’s eyes.”
By 2015, James had moved home and began studying in the Royal Conservatory of Music’s artist diploma program. During that time, he also began playing with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, The Ann Arbor Symphony Orchestra in Michigan and the Buffalo Philharmonic, while still playing in Memphis on a semi-regular basis.
“That was an exciting time for me,” he says. “It was really fun, but I got kind of tired of being tired and broke all the time. It was not a lifestyle that I felt was sustainable for me, so I started auditioning for full-time jobs.”
Last April, James auditioned for the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) for the second time. The first time was in 2010, and although the audition went well, it seemed the stars didn’t align until 2017 for him. He now sits as assistant principal flute/piccolo with the VSO.
“I love it in Vancouver. It’s extraordinary here,” he enthuses.
But he’s quick to bolster his affection for Toronto simultaneously.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love love Toronto, but if I had to move anywhere else to start a new life, I couldn’t think of a more beautiful place.”
When reflecting on what he did right, James says the best decision he made was to go N.Y.C. early on in his career, where the competition was fierce.
“In order to make it as a musician, you have to be either extremely good or extremely motivated and resourceful. So I think the best thing to do is to get out of your comfort zone to find that motivation,” he says. “The best thing about N.Y.C. is that you’re so surrounded by genius; you have to shout to be heard, which is great for character.”
James now has a full-time position with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra