Campus Closeup: James A. Strain
Four paintings of Marine drummers from different eras grace a wall in Jim Strain’s (Music) office. On the opposite side, atop a bookshelf, sits a trio of vintage, handcrafted snare drums dating back to 1870. All serve as a visible testament to his avid interest in historical research.
Strain explores the evolution of his musical niche—percussion—and also delves deep into his family’s heritage. The two paths converged when he discovered that an ancestor, Richard Wells, was a drummer in the Revolutionary War.
“As I trace my ancestry, I’ve found they were predominantly teachers and ministers who were well-read and musical,” he said. “I’ve been drumming since I was 4. For Christmas that year, I got a Big Bash snare drum that was advertised on TV. At 10, I got my first complete set. My mom played the piano and encouraged me to get involved in music. Her brother was a drummer while in the Navy.”
Strain’s family relocated among four southern states during his childhood because of his dad’s executive position with the Boy Scouts. As a high school student in Texas, he began his professional performing career with the Amarillo Symphony Orchestra.
“That’s the first recollection I have of a musical experience that determined my future direction. I found myself on stage before a full house, had a good time playing with the group, received a standing ovation and—on top of that and best of all—got paid for it. I thought, ‘This is great!’ By the end of my freshman year in college, I knew I wanted to play in a major orchestra or be a professor.”
Strain managed to do both. He has served as percussionist for several symphonies, Marquette included, and appeared with high-profile acts including the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Memphis Pops Orchestra. His doctorate in percussion performance from the Eastman School of Music opened the door to teaching at such institutions at Kansas State University and Indiana University-Bloomington.
“The Indiana job involved primarily private lessons for percussion students,” said Strain. “It was limited and I wanted to spend more time in a classroom. I was also at a point in my career that I wanted summers off to pursue my research interests. Northern was a good fit. Then we got Reynolds Recital Hall, which is such a nice facility. A Chicago Public Television station came here to record one of my concerts for a documentary on J.C. Deagan, a percussion manufacturer. Without Reynolds, that wouldn’t have happened.”
Since joining NMU in 1997, Strain’s time has been evenly divided between individual lessons, theory courses for music majors and general courses such as music in society. NMU football fans have heard his compositions from the Wildcat Marching Band’s drum line and he used to direct the NMU Pep Band.
Last week, Strain led a keyboard clinic and was joined by NMU jazz students and community musicians in a performance session at the Percussive Arts Society International Convention in Indianapolis. They also played at the Elastic Arts Foundation in Chicago.
“The most rewarding thing I do is help students improve and achieve. I had a great mentor and role model in Jared Spears, a well-known composer, and I wanted to be like him. Hopefully I’m doing that when students approach me to listen to what they’re doing or when they hear me play with the symphony, see me compose music or read an article I’ve published.”
Strain enjoys traveling throughout the United States in his spare time, though it is usually for performance or research purposes and not solely for pleasure. He is married to Carrie Biolo, also a percussionist with the Marquette Symphony and music instructor, and has three young stepchildren.
“We have a music room with all kinds of instruments—a drum set, guitars and amps, marimbas, xylophone; you name it. The kids enjoy hanging out in there, and when friends come over they play, too.”
Whether the family dynamic is mezzo piano or forte, Strain’s musical household would certainly make his ancestors proud.