Boxing bassist

By Mike Sorenson

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When James VanDemark was 14, doctors discovered an anomaly in his lower lumbar that forced the hockey-loving Minnesota native to stop playing. Coming from a family that valued music as well as athletics, VanDemark then took up the study of the double bass. Now, decades later, the New York Times has called him,“One of the most brilliant virtuosi ever to perform on the double bass.” VanDemark, the Times continued, was hailed at his Lincoln Center recital debut as “an exceptionally gifted string player and a musician of taste, intelligence and the best spontaneous musical instincts, with an unerring sense for exact intonation.”

The native of Owatonna, MN, showed an incredible musical talent, performing a solo debut with the Minnesota Orchestra just 18 months after leaving the hockey rink. Without graduating high school, his musical prowess allowed him to attend the University at Buffalo and, at age 23, he was named professor of double bass at the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Currently, VanDemark serves as chair of the String Department at Eastman as well as the chair of the Musical Arts Major, Eastman’s interdisciplinary academic honors program. He has performed across the country and is a sought- after guest at summer music festivals.

Despite having to hang up his skates, VanDemark never gave up his interest in athletics, becoming a regular at ROC Boxing and Fitness Center in Rochester. He tries to work out at the gym at least three times a week when in town with ROC Boxing coaches Dominic Arioli and Tim Kelly, a former New York State Golden Gloves competitor. “For me it is quite transforming to go to the gym a lot. I want to be good at it, just like I would in anything I do. I first went for conditioning and fitness,” VanDemark said of his interest in boxing. As he went deeper into the movements of a boxer, he believed aspects of the sport translated to music as well. “Hitting a heavy bag or a speed bag, you need to develop a rhythm, the same as in playing a musical instrument.”

For a man who makes his living with his hands playing and teaching the double bass, VanDemark said “I have never had a fear of injuring my hands. It’s all in the wrapping.” Enjoying the physical conditioning aspects of shadow boxing, sparring and training as a boxer, and discovering the crossover benefits of the sport to music, VanDemark decided to introduce some of his students to the boxing gym.

“Music students spend most of their time in the rehearsal studio,” VanDemark explained. Seeing the need to give his students a break from their musical routine, he brought his idea for boxing workouts for musicians to Arioli. “We started with three females about three years ago.” The women found that punching in rhythm at a basic level translated at a high level to their music, he stated.

Kelly, one of VanDemark’s trainers at ROC Boxing, was asked about having a 62-year-old boxing student. “James is looking to be consistent in his boxing,” Kelly said. “He is very structured and will do anything I ask him to do. He knows what he can and cannot do, and James wants to keep excelling, he wants to keep improving; for his health, his skill and his knowledge. James is an inspiration to me.”

In 2011, about 20 music students joined VanDemark’s initial program at ROC boxing, located less than two miles from the Eastman campus. Collectively, the students reported improved posture and cardiovascular fitness, which proved beneficial to playing long, demanding passages that require equal parts precision, dexterity and power. Many of the bassists also noted a decrease in their level of stress, something that every college student and musician alike can appreciate.

Despite all the coverage VanDemark has received from sources as varied as the Wall Street Journal and ESPN, perhaps the best summary of what boxing can offer bass students comes from Andrew O’Conor, then a senior, talking about his experience in the Campus Times, the Newspaper of the University of Rochester: “Performing is very nerve-wracking because everyone’s staring at you. But so is someone punching you in the face.”