Key Peninsula Middle School seventh grader James McCourt plays so many instruments it took a while for him and his mom, Eryn McCourt, to list them all.
“This year James chose to play the clarinet for concert band,” Eryn said. “He also plays drums and keyboard, and stand-up bass.”
“And everything,” James said.
James recently competed in the Commencement Bay Music Educators Association Solo and Ensemble Festival. In October, James and his clarinet traveled to Yakima as part of the Junior All-State Band.
“I practiced and practiced and practiced,” he said. “And one day after school I auditioned.”
Kids from all over the state competed for spots. Once accepted, James was sent the music for All-State ahead of time, but in Yakima the kids only had one day to practice together before holding a concert that same evening. James was part of the 85-member Baker Band and his mom said she’d never seen him that tired, after playing his clarinet all day long.
“His band teacher, Sarah Kaal, thinks he’s the only kid from Key Peninsula Middle School to ever go,” Eryn said. “James was the only kid from our geographical area, besides one from Charles Wright.”
“Music comes easy for me,” James said. “Studies have shown that the more instruments you play, the more connections through your brain make it a lot easier to learn stuff. And that’s what I’ve found all around. Not only in music but in school and sports, and just, in life.”
James’ band mate and friend, fellow KPMS seventh grader Yulya Nichipor, said when it comes to instruments, “James is good at all of them.”
But for James, clarinet did not come easily right away. “Clarinet was my first instrument that I had to use air for, and I have asthma,” he said.
“He’s a musical genius with everything,” Eryn said. “And here he has this clarinet, he’s in beginning band, and he can’t make his clarinet make noise, for like a month. When he got accepted to All-State, I told him, ‘A year ago you couldn’t even make sound out of this instrument.’ That to me is crazy. It’s very special, for sure.”
James’ musical career began with a ukulele when he was 2 years old. For his sixth birthday, he received a guitar. After that came a violin.
“As a little kid, he would always sing,” Eryn said. “Whenever he was doing anything, he’d be walking around singing. He still kind of does that sometimes.”
James was the first sixth grader in the KPMS Jazz Band. He approached Kaal on his first day of middle school and said, “Hey, can I audition for your jazz band?”
Now James is the first electric guitar player in Kaal’s class. In addition to practicing at school, he enjoys rocking out with his buddies in the garage at home.
“I tell them I’m going to buy them plaid shirts from the ’90s so they can be a grunge band,” Eryn said. “We’re looking into building him a soundproof room. He needs more space for his instruments because they’re kind of taking over the house.”
“I love them all equally,” James said. “I always get, like, a warm feeling inside playing them, having a fun time.”
“He kind of grazes,” Eryn said. “He’ll play the keyboard for a little bit. Then he goes and plays on some drums for a while. Then he’ll pick up a guitar before dinner.”
Through his various experiences, James has gotten used to playing in front of people.
“Shyness in a performance means that you might not be ready for that performance,” he said. “I make sure I’m ready for a performance, to the best of my ability. And then, if I’m doing really great on my music, I’m not shy at all.”
“Our neighbors occasionally come out for concerts,” Eryn said. “Or they’ll open their windows if he’s playing.”
James enjoys listening to R&B, hip hop and rock music. Some of his favorite artists include Boyz II Men, Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and Sheku Kanneh-Mason, a famous young British cellist known as “Cello Bae.”
“I’m a pretty well-rounded listener of music,” he said. “I really enjoy Alicia Keys.”
Looking ahead, James is interested in music programs at the University of Washington and Notre Dame.
In the future “I definitely picture James rocking out!” said his band mate and friend Yulya. “Maybe he’ll be making music or rocking out on a stage.”