Traditional “greatness” in classical music comes in a few forms. There is of course the coveted orchestra job, where you are paid a relatively secure upper-middle-class salary to make music. Some envision instead (or also) a solo career, one with their face splashed across Lincoln Center, jetting off from venue to venue, country to country. This idea of “greatness” becomes romanticized into a linear, obsessively focused journey, no doubt fueled by self-interested artists who have wanted to craft a mystique around their careers.
But what does success look like when it’s not linear? When there’s no ultra-specific goal to strive for?
You Should Be Following is a National Sawdust Log series that highlights musicians who’ve embraced unconventional paths, explores how they got where they are, and takes a look at where they’re going. This week, we chat with Ken Kubota, a cellist whose frequently viral YouTube classical cover series has earned him nods from major magazines, press, pop artists, and even movie studios.
Lionsgate Studios. Glamour. The Chainsmokers. Mike Posner.
These are just a few of the outlets and artists that have taken notice of JHM Jams, a series novel for its unpredictability, talented music-making, and light-hearted fun.
Uploaded twice weekly on YouTube and Instagram, where Kubota boasts a combined 45,000 followers and subscribers, each JHM video reflects a spirit of amateur collaboration. Shot in the living room of Kubota’s Morningside Heights apartment, a given video may simply pair Kubota with another cellist…or go much larger with a full seven-piece ensemble of cajon, guitar, woodwinds, and strings.
“Mostly I just message a bunch of friends to see who’s available,” Kubota said in a recent interview with National Sawdust Log. “I look around for songs that would work with that; a lot of times I hunt for songs that will get a lot of online traffic, but I stick to what I enjoy listening to!”
After gathering a hodgepodge of classical instrumentalists, the group will agree on a general structure – stylistic choices, decisions on who will take the melody, and establishing a chord progression – Kubota turns the camera on and the group plays, over and over, until they find a take everyone’s happy with. Given the improvisatory nature of the work, filming times vary wildly: JHM’s shortest filming time currently stands at a one-take-wonder five minutes, while more difficult covers have taken more than five hours to get just right.
Through JHM – which originally stood for Juilliard House Mafia, until Kubota quietly retired the association as the series became popular, fearing his alma mater’s notorious legal protection of its brand – this upstart auteur has turned a once casual hobby into an online powerhouse. Clocking in at more than two million views across 213 videos, his twice-weekly improvisatory jam sessions with talented friends often have caught fire across the web. Lionsgate snagged his timely cover of “Another Day of Sun” from La La Land for an official compilation of fan videos, while Glamour featured his country cover of pop mega-star Demi Lovato’s “Sorry Not Sorry” in its Pop Stars Watch Fan Covers series.
With a burgeoning presence on the creator-funding platform Patreon (where patrons have collectively committed to giving $40 per JHM video), and an increasing visibility that has netted paid performance invites to out-of-state weddings and offbeat New York venues, Kubota credits the steady positive momentum to his consistency: “I’ve never missed a Tuesday or a Friday since starting the channel over two years ago—that’s probably the thing I’m most proud of.”
Consistency isn’t all, of course. Kubota’s results are a master class in why being well connected and willing to jump in to a new project feet first – whether or not the project will make you any money in the short term – can lead to a string of good luck.
It’s unsurprising that Kubota, 26, would carve a path built on music with friends, given his history. A child of a professional pianist and an amateur flautist, chamber music was in his blood. “It seemed like every day growing up, my parents were playing music together, or just inviting their friends over to play with them,” he said. “I actually learned the cello because I always wanted to be a part of that.”
Eventually landing at Juilliard to pursue his Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees, Kubota experienced what many others had before him: burnout. “Playing music started to come from the wrong type of energy,” Kubota recalled. “I was practicing to be prepared for my lessons, or orchestra, or to not embarrass myself. I wasn’t playing from a place of joy anymore, just requirement. It was a rough time.
“JHM became a place where I was willingly opening my cello case. It got me back on track why I started music, and served as a therapy of sorts.”
Originally started for a music technology class and filmed on his iPhone, Kubota’s collaborative covers soon became a regular series. (A real camera was one of his first hardware upgrades.) “I would just pull people from the 4th floor practice rooms in to make covers,” he said. “It was easy to post something twice a week when Instagram videos were only 15 seconds, so I kept doing it.”
Kubota relishes the energy of his widely rotating roster—by his count, over 145 musicians have taken part in JHM. “It’s amazing how much each artist can bring to the table with their experience and ideas. My greatest asset from going to Juilliard wasn’t so much the education, but the friends that I have made there. Honestly, having JHM was and still is my way of making sure I made time for friends and keeping them in my life.”
Indeed, the musicians in Kubota’s JHM Jams series are impressive in number, but also in talent. Drawing on a deep network gathered during six years of study at the Juilliard School, Kubota has hosted an impressive roster of collaborators in JHM—among them Devin Ilaw, a budding Broadway star with credits in Miss Saigon and Les Miserables; Yoonah Kim, clarinetist and the 2016 winner of the Concert Artists Guild Young Artist competition; and Nathan Chan, another successful YouTuber who recently became the youngest member of the Seattle Symphony. (Full disclosure: I, too, have participated in several JHM videos.)
Advice from a confirmed trailblazer to an aspiring one? “The people you meet are everything,” emphasizes Kubota. “JHM would be nothing without the great people I collaborate with, but I’ve also gotten help with a lot of the technical stuff from friends, too.” Kubota cited Drew Forde, the “ThatViolaKid” Instagram and YouTube classical music personality, as a classmate who has mentored him on video editing topics like color grading and lighting.
Kubota urges everyone to remember that music has been fun. “Keep in touch with why you started. I started because I wanted to play music with my parents. I attended a program in Ohio when I was a kid where we just played chamber music with friends. That was where I discovered the joy of making music. JHM became my way to relive that.”
Now, as success has given Kubota both the blessing and curse of abundant opportunity, he faces a timeless question: to what point, if any, would he commercialize a passion project to make it sustainable? Does he take a set JHM band on the road, capitalizing on his global recognition but sacrificing the interchangeable instrumentation? Or does he actively seek out recurring local gigs with the JHM brand, which will make him money but has its own logistical hurdles?
Turns out, Kubota wants to have his cake and eat it, too. In an attempt to pursue two different pathways, Kubota recently announced the formation of Empire Wild, a new band starring himself and preternaturally talented regular JHM collaborators Mitch Lyon, a cellist, and Brandon Ilaw, a percussionist. The trio, focusing on original music and arrangements, has already composed a bevy of tracks. “This was my way of keeping JHM in its pure form while still satisfying a few creative itches I’ve had. Since JHM is all about covers and improvising arrangements, I don’t get to actually write my own music very much. Partnering with Brandon and Mitch will give us all a regular group to know inside and out, and the things you can make with a regular group are quite different. I’m excited to see where this ends up.”
JHM isn’t going anywhere, though: Kubota still plans to continue the series in his living room, because his priorities are clear. “In the end, I just want to hang out with my friends and make music,” he said. “Any way I can do that and still feed myself is good enough for me.”
Ken James Kubota posts a new JHM Jams cover video every Tuesday and Friday on YouTube (@JHMJams) and Instagram (@kkubota8). His recently announced band can also be found on Instagram (@empirewild). You can also support him on Patreon.
John Hong, a trained clarinetist warmly reviewed as a “deft solo player” by the Chicago Tribune and praised for performing “with aplomb” by The New York Times, is a lifelong devotee of amplifying the narratives behind classical music, whether in print or through performance. Hong has performed for Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart festival and the American Ballet Theatre, and appears in both audio and video during the fourth season of the Emmy-winning TV show Mozart in the Jungle. He serves as Copywriter for National Sawdust, conceived and co-writes the weekly National Sawdust Log newsletter, and holds a Master of Music diploma from The Juilliard School.
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