On Tuesday, May 11, Trenton Central High School (TCHS) Orchestra students had the opportunity to meet 23-year-old superstar saxophonist Jess Gillam over Zoom. The event was sponsored by the Neighborhood Music Project and moderated by Lou Chen, program manager for Trenton Arts at Princeton (TAP).
Hailing from Ulverston in Cumbria, England, Gillam’s life contains many firsts. She is the first-ever saxophonist to be signed to Decca Classics, as well as the first-ever saxophonist to reach the finals of the BBC Young Musician competition. She recently made her Princeton University University Concerts debut, performing during their “Leading Ladies” concert.
In addition to her packed performance career, Gillam is a passionate advocate for the power of music in society. She is a patron for Awards for Young Musicians and a trustee for the newly formed HarrisonParrott Foundation, which works towards equal access to the arts for all ethnicities, genders, disabilities, and social backgrounds.
To kick off the event, Gillam gave a live performance of music ranging from a Meredith Monk/Phillip Glass mash-up to Darius Milhaud’s “Braziliera.” In between songs, she explained how she began playing the saxophone.
“I was seven years old when I visited a local carnival center inspired by Brazilian samba music. They had all different kinds of workshops. I tried everything out and I was terrible. I had no rhythm, no coordination for dance,” Gillam said. “But then I picked up this instrument, the saxophone, and totally fell in love with it. There was just something about the sound and beauty of it, and the directness, and also just the coolness.”
Chen then began the conversation by asking Gillam to share some of her ideas for keeping the music going during the pandemic. She talked about her virtual Scratch Orchestra, which was born out of her desire to bring people together through music, even from afar.
“I set up an online orchestra, expecting maybe fifty people from my area in England to take part,” said Gillam. “Then we ended up having people from so many countries taking part. People who were care-workers and hospital workers, and people who were very sick who wanted to be a part of something positive. It turned out to be this incredibly emotional experience to see the power of music-making in action.”
Sorange, a sophomore alto saxophonist, asked Gillam about her favorite musical memory.
“That has got to be when I played to a room of 300 young children,” Gillam shared. “I played them a piece and said, ‘You can react however you want. There are no rules of the classroom.’ By the end of the piece, they were standing up in their chairs, they were spinning, they were dancing, they were clapping and so engaged with the music.”
Arlene, a senior alto saxophonist and frequent freelancer, asked how to stay composed and professional while performing. Gillam stressed the importance of practice and preparation, advising, “It’s better to do ten minutes of super-focused practice instead of half an hour of kind-of-playing-but-not-really-playing, so that when you come up on stage you’ve already practiced that state of mind and are already in it.”
Some students openly acknowledged how difficult the past year has been for them. Nanet, a senior trumpet player, asked if Gillam plays music to distract herself when she is going through a rough time.
“Playing music in hard times can be this amazing world. But I think it’s really how you feel. You might feel like playing one day, you might feel like never playing again, but the music will always be there for you, the instrument will wait for you. If you want to play, it will be there,” Gillam responded.
Other students expressed interest in Gillam’s eclectic performance style. Jackie, a junior flautist, asked if Gillam played only classical music on the saxophone. Gillam explained that she likes to be adventurous in her musical choices, replying, “I like to think of music without genres. I like to approach music with an open heart, an open mind, and open ears, and play the music that resonates with me and might resonate with an audience,”
In closing, Gillam challenged the students to figure out what they want to say with their music.
“Keep asking this question ‘Why?’ Why are you playing? Why do you want to play that piece?” Gillam explained. “For me, I want to bring some happiness to people and improve their lives. If you can find the reason that you want to do it, it will make every practice session so much easier, because you’ll think ‘Ah, I’m doing it because of that! Because I want to say that, or to do that!’ So create your own personal message and mantra about what music is for you.”