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The Mind Over Finger Podcast

Nov 30, 2018

Today, I speak with composer Jim Stephenson.  Among many other topics, we discuss his transition from performer to full-time composer, why it’s important to look inside and listen to our instinct, why we need to have the right mindset in building a career we love, and how to harness focus in our work.  

Jim’s story is a testament to the incredible things that can happen when one follows a calling and takes a leap of faith forward.  His approach to following a path is highly inspirational and I know you’ll love this discussion! 

(Not only that, but Jim graciously agreed to let me use his Concerto #1 for Trumpet and Chamber Orchestra as the Mind Over Finger Podcast’s musical theme!  So his music has been greeting you at the beginning and end of each episode of the podcast!)

We elaborate on:

  • His journey, from trumpet player to composer
  • How and why he got started composing
  • How he moved forward with his new career
  • Why it’s important to look inside and listen to our instinct
  • Why we need to have the right mindset in regards to building a career we love
  • How we are in charge of defining our lives and creating the passionate story that we want to tell
  • Why it’s important to be genuine
  • His compositional process
  • How he has the audience and musicians in mind when he writes
  • How he learns his best lessons from performances of his works
  • How he harnesses focus in the work studio
  • The importance of figuring out when you do your best work and how to organize your day in a way that suits you
  • Why good stage presence is important




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Leading American orchestras, instrumentalists, and wind ensembles around the world have performed the music of Chicago based composer James M. Stephenson, both to critical acclaim and the delight of audiences.  The Boston Herald raved about “straightforward, unabashedly beautiful sounds,” suggesting “Stephenson deserves to be heard again and again!”  A formal sense of melody and tonality characterize his music, each embedded in a contemporary soundscape.  These qualities, coupled with the composer’s keen ability to write to each occasion, have led to a steady stream of commissions and ongoing projects.

Other upcoming premieres also include his 3rd symphony in April at the Frost School at University of Music, a piece based on model trains for the River Oaks Chamber Orchestra in February, and a multi-media tone poem for the Quad City Symphony also in April.

Additionally, Compose Yourself!, Stephenson’s landmark young-audience work has now been performed over 300 times since its creation in 2002, engaging children in New Zealand and Canada and across the U.S. Additional  premieres include Carnegie Hall in May, 2017 (Chamber Music Charleston) and in the summer, 2017, a Music Academy of the West premiere of “Martha Uncaged” – with the composer conducting – and a west-coast premiere of his violin concerto at the famed Cabrillo Music Festival. The 2017-18 season will see a new “Low brass concerto” with the Minnesota Orchestra and Osmo Vänskä.

The Devil’s Tale (2013), a sequel to Stravinsky’s famous “Soldier’s Tale” has become a highlight of Stephenson’s extensive chamber music output, having already garnered much critical praise for its recent recording (“a most remarkable work” – Fanfare Magazine) and numerous performances, including at noteworthy venues such as Ravinia and Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center.

James M. Stephenson came late to his full-time composing career, having first earned a degree from the New England Conservatory in trumpet performance, and then going on to perform 17 seasons in the Naples Philharmonic in Florida.  As such, the composer is largely self-taught, making his voice truly individual and his life’s work all the more remarkable.  Colleagues and friends encouraged his earliest efforts and enthusiasm followed from all directions.  As his catalog grew, so did his reputation.  That catalog now boasts concertos and sonatas for nearly every instrument, earning him the moniker “The Concerto King” from Chicago Symphony clarinetist John Yeh. 

The vast majority of those compositions came through commissions by and for major symphony principal players, in Chicago, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Minnesota, Washington DC, St. Louis, Oregon, Milwaukee, and Dallas, among others.  A major break came from the Minnesota Commissioning Club, which led to two works (violin concertos) receiving premieres in 2012—by Jennifer Frautschi with the Minnesota Orchestra under Osmo Vänskä and by Alex Kerr with the Rhode Island Philharmonic under Larry Rachleff.  Other international soloists for whom Stephenson has composed include saxophonist Branford Marsalis and trumpeter Rex Richardson, whose concerto has been performed on five continents.  With such prolific output, Stephenson’s music is well represented in recordings.  Nearly all of his solo brass works (over 50) have been professionally recorded, and in total, his extensive catalog for all instruments can be heard on over 30 CDs.

James Stephenson is also a highly sought-after arranger and conductor, rounding out his constantly busy schedule.  His arrangements have been performed/recorded/broadcast by virtually every major orchestra in the country, including the Boston Pops, Cincinnati Pops, New York Pops and more.  On the podium, Stephenson has led orchestras in Chattanooga, Bozeman, Charleston, Ft. Myers, Modesto, and Wyoming, in addition to numerous concert bands.  With the Lake Forest Symphony, near his Illinois home, he has not only conducted but also has served for seven years as Composer-in-Residence.

Jim originally hails from the Greater Chicago area, as does his wife Sally.  In 2007 the couple, along with their four children, returned to the region to pursue the life they now share.


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Most sincere thank you to composer Jim Stephenson (our guest today!) who graciously provided the show’s musical theme!  Concerto #1 for Trumpet and Chamber Orchestra – Movement 2: Allegro con Brio, performed by Jeffrey Work, trumpet, and the Lake Forest Symphony, conducted by Jim Stephenson.

Also a huge thank you to my producer, Bella Kelly!




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