James Nickell Student Profile
by Ian Wisekal
James Nickell, though he has not yet started his senior year, is already one of the most decorated members of the Lamont student body. He has won the school-wide Honors Chamber Competition; received a recital commendation for his exemplary junior recital, meticulously filmed and presented remotely in the spring of 2020; took first prize with his quartet at the International Percussion Ensemble Competition sponsored by PASIC, the worldwide percussion conference; and won a spot in PASIC’s All-Star Percussion Ensemble.
A native of Golden, CO, Nickell came to Lamont primarily to study with John Kinzie, percussion faculty and principal percussionist of the Colorado Symphony. Nickell remembers his audition well: after experiencing cold, clinical treatment from professors at other schools, he was immediately put at ease by Kinzie’s warmth and engagement. Kinzie took the time to get to know the young musician and shared that, for his studio, a person’s character is just as important as their playing. “That’s part of the reason why my experience with the percussion studio here has been so great,” Nickell offered. “Everyone is so collaborative and supportive…the small community has given me a lot of opportunities that I wouldn’t have otherwise had.”
One of Nickell’s collaborative efforts has already borne professional fruit and attracted attention off campus. Atlas Percussion, made up of the members of his Honors Chamber-winning quartet, has performed downtown at Dazzle Denver, at the Denver School of the Arts in an event hosted by Friends of Chamber Music, and at area schools for educational initiatives. They have also made several recordings and have begun a commissioning project to expand their repertoire.
Further afield, Nickell has attended several music festivals: the Vancouver Symphony Orchestral Institute and the University of British Columbia Chamber Orchestra Festival, both in Canada, and the Aspen Music Festival this summer (although its programming has moved online). These experiences were made possible thanks to the Joseph Docksey Fund, which gives Lamont students access to professional development resources.
It was in Vancouver, playing Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, when Nickell realized that his ultimate aim is to become an orchestral percussionist. “The experience was really powerful,” Nickell recalled. “Everybody has the same goal and everybody is really driven – everyone becomes one entity.”
To that end, Nickell plans to audition for several prestigious graduate schools scattered all over the country. He has already made a connection with a professor at the San Francisco Conservatory, Edward Stephan, who gave a guest master class at Lamont in January 2020 and with whom Nickell is studying this summer at Aspen.
Nickell takes a clear-eyed view of his prospects in the competitive world of professional auditions. “In order to get a job in an orchestra,” he explained, “I’m going to take every audition I can – on percussion and timpani – any job that comes up” in the U.S. and Canada. In the meantime, he plans to teach privately and to freelance, as he has already done with the Denver Philharmonic, the Boulder Symphony, and other groups in Colorado.
He also plans to continue taking advantage of Lamont’s resources. “I’ve been doing double lessons every week,” Nickell revealed, both with Kinzie and William Hill, the Colorado Symphony’s principal timpanist and a longtime member of the composition faculty at Lamont. “That has been the most beneficial thing for me: to study with guys who are really supportive and really committed to seeing me succeed.” With all of his external support and internal drive, the question is not whether Nickell will succeed, but how soon.