Artists to Watch: Josh Jones and David Yoon

Josh Jones, principal percussion, Kansas City Symphony (photo by Greg Mackay)

Josh Jones and David Yoon are quite the duo . . . or they will be once they have the opportunity to play together. These impressive musicians, both under 30, have each experienced wild starts to their Kansas City careers.

Jones officially joined the Kansas City Symphony as principal percussion in September, winning the job last March, when neither he, the orchestra, or the nation knew what was going to happen in the future. Yoon, associate principal percussion, joined the organization the previous season . . . a season cut short due to the pandemic.

Connecting over Zoom, they discussed their performance experiences, philosophies, and how they’ve approached the many challenges of classical music.

Prior to Kansas City, Jones was principal percussion with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra in Canada, his first orchestral job.

“I feel like I’m the least classical ‘classical’ musician, because I just like hitting stuff, so I want to, in a sense, demystify what people think classical music is and give them an in,” said Jones.

When he arrived in town in July, Kansas City was just emerging from lockdown. It was another six months before he had the opportunity to perform on the stage at Helzberg Hall.

[block pos=”right”] “I want to, in a sense, demystify what people think classical music is and give them an in.”
— Josh Jones [/block]

Wanting to get involved with the organization in some way, and to get to know the city better, he started doing Where’s Waldo-style videos for KCS social media, playing in front of local landmarks. Plus, he likes practicing outside, sparking curiosity and conversation with passersby. It’s a hallmark of his to share both in person and online, through regular check-ins on social media with practice videos and commentary.

Throughout his career, he’s been open about the challenges that persist in classical music: not just the nitty-gritty of technique, but other barriers, like prohibitive costs, gatekeeping and systemic racism.

“One thing I’ve always hated about life in general is that people sugarcoat things, so when certain things happen they come as a surprise, and you are unprepared,” said Jones. “I think people just need more honesty and more transparency with things that are going on in the business and how to handle certain things.”

David Yoon, associate principal percussion, Kansas City Symphony (photo by Jenny Wheat)

Though Yoon’s start in Kansas City was more traditional, it wasn’t a straight-ahead ride. This was his first professional orchestra job, winning the audition while still a graduate student at the Manhattan School of Music.

“I came straight out of school, so it was just filled with all new experiences for me. I learned so much in my first year, about a lot of things music and non-music, my adulting life,” said Yoon.

One of the biggest changes? “Dressing up so much,” he laughed, “so many concerts every week, just constantly wearing dress clothes.”

His colleagues helped him navigate that first year. Even before he officially began, he was invited to perform with the orchestra for Mahler’s Third Symphony, still one of his favorite memories with the ensemble.

Other people stepped in, too, like the homeless man who helped him push his car to the side of the road when it broke down while on the way to his first concert as an official member of the symphony.

Both Jones and Yoon acknowledged the role of mentors, to both guide and push. “It’s funny, how you go one day, on the surface level, from being the student and the next day you become the mentor . . . But you know, you are always a student of the game, always learning,” said Yoon.

“My teachers told me I had to be twice as good to get just as far, so I opted to be four times as good to get further than anybody else,” said Jones, one of the few Black percussionists working in major orchestras in the United States, “because I didn’t want there to be any question.”

[block pos=”right”] “You are always a student of the game, always learning.”
— David Yoon [/block]

While he had a natural inclination toward percussion, he’s worked diligently on his goal since he was a teenager, and he understands the importance of creating opportunities for others.

“People need mentors and people who are willing to help, people who know how hard this business is and how hard it can be and just make it a lot more equitable in general,” said Jones.

When he performs, it’s “almost an obligation to be that person on stage for someone else, even if they aren’t Black,” he said.

Jones’ drive to connect is about more than music. Just a month after moving to Calgary, in 2018, he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. A year of treatments later, he was cancer-free, and even more energized to share his life’s work. “When you have a life-threatening illness, it’s like, well, are you going to live the rest of your days as a fake, or are you going to actually be yourself?” he said.

“If you are not reaching out to the audience, if you are not giving back to your community, if you aren’t trying to help somebody else in their careers, you are just being selfish at that point,” he asserted.

Both have sought opportunities to connect with audiences. They each participated in KCS Instagram Takeovers, sharing behind-the-scenes “day-in-the-life” moments. Yoon performed in the KCS Mobile Music Box chamber concert series and played a solo recital on the KCS Facebook page last year. In one of the first concerts of 2021, Jones starred in KCS’ new on-demand service, performing Antonio Vivaldi’s “Concerto for Piccolo” on marimba.

They’ve also found ways to connect with each other as they build the teamwork their success relies on. Their practice studios are in the same building, and their schedules overlap an hour, allowing them a small amount of regular (masked, distanced) interactions. “We feed off each other’s practice energy,” said Yoon. Their first time playing together in Helzberg Hall was on “Sleigh Bells” back in December, and their first time as a full section, with veteran timpanist Timothy Jepsen, was with the Pops Series in February.

It probably won’t be until next fall that they really have a chance to play as a section with the full symphony orchestra, but until then, keep an eye on two of Kansas City’s newest extraordinary players.

To learn more about upcoming performance opportunities visit kcsymphony.org.

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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