AMAS Faculty Spotlight: Q&A with Jim Casella - Music Production & Composition Faculty

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What are you most excited about this summer at the symposium?

Being around people who are really passionate about what they do. Last year I felt like I was in a lot of sessions and roundtables, and scheduled going from one place to the other. But what I found myself most enjoying was just going and sitting in on other people’s sessions, learning from them, soaking up their enthusiasm, taking those little nuggets of wisdom with me, and hopefully integrating them into my work flow.

What projects are you working on right now?

I have a lot of things going on. A lot of it is centered around Tapspace, which is what I spend a lot of my time doing. I have some composition projects in the works as well, but probably the big thing that’s been hanging over me lately is this studio I’ve been building in my backyard. It’s basically done and I’m working there - I’m actually sitting in there right now - but there’s little details that remain to be finished, so that’s been consuming a lot of energy over the past several months now. It’s great to have a quarantined space where I only do creative work. My goal is not to do any office/Tapspace stuff in there; it’s just stuff I’m working on for my own creativity.

Coffee or Tea?

Coffee. I grind my coffee in the morning and do a little French press thing. I’ve been mixing half ’n half with caffeine and decaf. It’s a little experiment I’m doing right now.

Band or Artist that has caught your attention this year?

Mica Levi - she did the score for a film about a year ago called Jackie, and a film prior to that called Under the Skin. She has a really unique voice that isn’t trying to fit into some sort of formulaic film score mold. It’s very unique and has its own voice. I love stuff like that. Her stuff, Jon Brion, or Jonny Greenwood - all the stuff they’ve scored for film are the things that always jump out to me, because they’re never really what you expect. I love that. 

Any session highlights you can give us before the symposium?

Honestly, I get a lot of performance anxiety around these things. Really, my goal is to do what I do. I’m not gonna’ show up with a Power Point presentation and try to blow your mind. It’s not gonna’ happen. You’ll see right through me if I try to make some grand, sweeping general TED-talk-kind-of-thing. I’ll focus on the things that I think I spend a lot time doing, and that I have some aptitude for: Harnessing musical ideas into reality; things like musical notation; Virtual Drumline sequencing; and maybe writing to picture. One of the composition projects I’m working on the side is with Fred Emory Smith, who is also going to be there at the Symposium. I’m curious to hear what he has to say, because I’m learning a lot from him. He was on the snare line at Vanguard when I was still writing there. Now years later, he’s gone on to be busy and active as a Film/TV composer. So because I’m working with him in this capacity, I’m constantly looking to him for advice. To learn from his expertise is pretty cool and I’m incredibly proud. 


What Time Do You Wake Up? 

I typically try to wake up around 6:30 A.M. It’s taken a long time to get there, cause I’m generally a night owl. I have so many different things on my plate. If I dilly dally, or just kind of meander into whatever feels right, I’ll wander most of the day. I try to get up early and try to get my more creative stuff done first thing in the morning.

First Thing You Do?

I have this morning routine where I’ll get up, brush my teeth, short meditation, maybe a little short workout, eat breakfast, shower, and then walk the dog. I try to get all the business done that I would otherwise maybe put off. Usually by 8 ‘o clock I can sit down, get into the saddle, and start writing, or doing whatever creative project I’m working on at the moment.


The inner critic that follows me around everywhere I go tells me that I should have a mantra (laughs). It’s something that I’m interested in, especially because I’ve definitely felt some benefit from meditation. I struggle with restlessness and an overactive mind, and I feel a mantra would be useful. But I have a hard time committing to one thing. So to commit to just one mantra as my guiding light seems like a really tricky thing, so I’ve probably avoided it because it’s a hard thing to settle on.

E-Mail Strategy

Email is a hard one because I struggle with it daily. There’s always more coming in than I have the energy to keep up with. So just knowing I can’t get to it all and let myself slide with that has been helpful. The other thing is turning off e-mail notifications on my phone. If my phone keeps buzzing at me, or if my notifications appear on the upper-right screen of my Mac, those things take me out of whatever I’m working on. So I turn all notifications off. My other rule I try to stick to - though I’d say I’m batting maybe .200 at the most - is turning off my e-mail program when I’m not actively responding to e-mails, or sending an e-mail. It’s too easy to look up and see ten new emails have come in and something might be important. If I can just get it out of my sight and not be tempted to look at it, it helps me to avoid the compulsive re-checking of email that a lot of us have experienced. If you don’t have cookies in the house, you’re probably not gonna’ eat cookies. 

Motivational Object? 

I don’t think it’s a motivational object, but now that I have this new studio, I have this really cool LED lighting behind my desk that fades from one color to another. And it’s this soothing glow that subtly gets cast on the back wall, and it helps me feel like I’m in my creative space. I like setting the tone with that, as long as I remember to turn them on (laughs), which often times I forget.

Best Habit

I floss everyday (laughs). Pretty good habit. I didn’t used to have that habit when I was a kid. I’m pretty ambitious, so I run at things head-on. If there’s a project that’s calling to me and that I’m excited about, I don’t like to spend a lot of time planning it. I like to just dive in and start getting my hands dirty. Sometimes it doesn’t yield results that are ideal, and I stop and realize maybe I should have planned this out a little more. But I wouldn’t have known that if I hadn’t jumped in and learned that lesson. I’m not sure that I would call that a habit so much, but it’s a way of being that fosters curiosity and creativity, and digging into something that’s a little scary and new, knowing that I’m gonna’ learn along the way, and see what comes out.

If you had to describe something that is definitely "you" that is present in all your creations, what would it be?

I’m trying to say something different with each project that I’m working on. I think any artist or composer probably has their own bag of tricks that they pull from, and I certainly count myself among them, so I might have a certain sound in the way I write. I like to think I will try to take a project and try something new so that each project sounds a little bit different. And really, in my kind of insecure mind most of what I end up writing sounds like I should maybe go back and work it out. There’s a lot of imperfection in what I end up with; at least with the way I see it. But I think that’s part of my creative exploration. Part of my process as an explorer and as an artist is to try to challenge myself to learn new things and try new things. Sometimes it works with pretty cool results, and other times it might fall a little bit short. But I hope that the spirit of curiosity and exploration comes out as inspiring to people who listen to it, so it doesn’t sound like a failure. It sounds like kind of a cool experiment.


Jim Casella

Jim Casella is a composer and music publisher. He is best known for the music he’s created for percussion ensembles and the world-class drum corps Vanguard (Santa Clara, CA) and Cavaliers (Rosemont, IL). The company he co-founded, Tapspace, is one of the leading publishers of percussion music in the world. You might also be familiar with the software sample library he created called Virtual Drumline.

Jim’s signature series of drumsticks and keyboard mallets are manufactured by Innovative Percussion and are popular worldwide. He serves on the board of advisors for the Percussive Arts Society (PAS), the world’s largest percussion organization.

In addition to his work in the percussion industry, Jim composes music for film and commercials. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

Learn from Jim and many more at the Arcadia Symposium.