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Joshua Barkley ’21
The Young Improviser
You may have heard him playing the accordion for the high school production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” the saxophone in his high school marching band, electric bass in a local country music group, or the organ at church on Sunday. However, Joshua Barkley, an incoming freshman at SUNY Potsdam, is most known as a young jazz pianist who plays the piano on the fly and improvises his music more than sticking strictly to sheet music.
Last year, during his senior year at Madrid-Waddington Central School, he was selected to perform with both the All-State Jazz Ensemble in Rochester and the prestigious All-Eastern Jazz Ensemble in Atlantic City. He is also no stranger to the Crane School of Music. Every year since the eighth grade, he has performed with the All-County Jazz Ensemble on stage at the Crane School of Music’s Hosmer Hall. He also attended the Crane Youth Orchestra’s annual band camp the last two summers—a unique experience that set him on a path to attend SUNY Potsdam this fall.
“One of the biggest reasons why I’m actually coming to this school (SUNY Potsdam), is because of Julie Miller, she’s the piano accompanist here (at Crane),” Barkley said.
Barkley met Miller at the CYO band camp where she gave him personalized piano lessons. Later, he reached out to her for support as he was going through the rigorous application process while applying to Crane, where prospective students have to perform several classical music pieces. She gave him a couple of songs to rehearse and then met him on campus to fine-tune his performance.
“Being a jazz musician, I don’t know very much about classical repertoire…I don’t think I’d be able to do it without her guidance,” Barkley said.
Barkley is keeping busy during his last few weeks of summer before starting at SUNY Potsdam. He has 26 shows scheduled with the country music band, “Steel and Country,” where he plays the electric bass. He also plays the organ every Sunday from 7 a.m. to 12 p.m. at the First United Methodist Church in Massena and the Methodist Church in Waddington—something that he said has definitely helped him as a jazz pianist.
“The people in Waddington always tell me to spice it up a little bit, so I always have to play kind of like southern gospel church music. That’s definitely helped me broadened my range of jazz in general,” Barkley said.
Although Barkley admits that he didn’t even like jazz five years ago, his perspective has completely changed over the past few years, so much so that it’s now his favorite genre of music. “In classical music, you have to play it exactly how it’s written, you can take liberties every now and then, but not like you could with jazz. With one chord, I could do it 20 different ways…It’s much more free than classical, it gives you a little more wiggle room when you’re put on the spot,” Barkley said.
He’s been put on the spot more than once as a piano accompanist at his high school. He recalls one time where he was accompanying a classmate on stage where her reed dried up and she had to stop playing momentarily to deal with the issue. He quickly improvised and kept playing the piano while he waited for her to return to action.
“One of the biggest parts of being an accompanist is being able to follow. What I’ve learned is that there are people who can follow and people who cannot…I’ve been in situations where people forget lyrics, forget how it goes or just get lost in general. So, they kind of pick a spot and start there…My job is to fill in, or find where they are,” Barkley said.
“I’ve always been interested in accompanying. I accompany everything at my school, all of the choruses, eighth grade, fifth grade, everything,” he said.
Barkley hopes to keep that trend going after he graduates from SUNY Potsdam. He has aspirations of playing the piano on Broadway. “Playing in the pit orchestras, that would be a dream come true,” he said.
He would love to be an accompanist like Miller. “She just performs all the time here (SUNY Potsdam), that’s her job, that’s amazing! I’d love to do that,” Barkley said.