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ITHACA, N.Y. — Nearly five years ago, Ithaca College’s Josh Oxford — class of 2007 — had a 98 percent chance of dying.
In fact, a nurse was even told to inform Oxford’s mother that her son, then 25 years old, wasn’t going to survive. The nurse later told the family that she just couldn’t do it. His mother never got the message and, obviously, neither did Oxford.
Recovering from what’s called “internal decapitation,” where a person’s skull detaches from the spinal column, Oxford says he had a lot of time to think about his car accident and his prospects for the future. He wondered why he was part of the surviving 2 percent.
“I think it’s because I still have music to make,” he says. “That’s why I’m still here.”
Like most people do after an accident, Oxford returned home, and to him, “home” was Ithaca College.
Six months after the accident—only a month after he was released from the hospital—he was back in the Whalen Center for Music. He jokes that when he was a student, they practically locked him in there and threw away the keys. He spent many long nights composing and working with students, even after graduating with his bachelor of music degree in performance.
Though Oxford had focused on performing most of his life, Ithaca College helped him transition into a new life.
Now he’s focusing more on composing, and he also has a new custom-built synthesizer. This past fall he started a master’s degree program in jazz composition at Queens College in New York City, where he received the ASCAP Foundation Louis Armstrong Scholarship.
A terrible 2010 crash
On July 26, 2010, Oxford was headed to an OXtet rehearsal when he decided to go back and grab some extra music stands. On the way to get them, he came to an intersection in Trumansburg, a few minutes away from Ithaca.
“A car struck my driver’s side door at around 60 miles per hour,” said Oxford. The accident left him with a broken hip, a shattered humerus, and internal decapitation, along with several other injuries.
After spending a week in a coma in Sayre, Pennsylvania, he was flown to Thomas Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia for surgery to reattach his skull to his spine. Two months later, he was transported to Mount Sinai in New York City. His traumatic brain injury altered his personality and thought processes, and slowed down the communication between his body and mind.
The muscle weakness and nerve damage from the accident left Oxford with a speech disorder called dysarthria, which makes it difficult for him to speak. The biggest challenge for him, though, was not being able to play music the way he used to, and now it’s harder for him to play what he hears in his head.
“I used to say, ‘Just do it like this,’ and I couldn’t understand why people couldn’t keep up,” he said. “Now, I’m the one having trouble. Going from being able to do something I really enjoyed to not being able to do it—that is tough.”
One of his first major compositions after being injured was a jazz chamber piece for his friend Damien Scalise ’13. It caught his mother’s ear, who said it sounded like he was writing music to come to terms with everything.
“I think she was right,” said Oxford.
Work composing a new life
Before he was injured, Oxford composed primarily for his band. But now, composing is what he’s meant to do, he said. His journey hasn’t been a solo performance, though. It’s brought together much of his extended Whalen family, including many professors.
Stout encouraged Oxford to compose, using his music with the percussion ensemble. Dana Wilson provided feedback on his pieces. Rick Faria ’87 performed one of Oxford’s pieces in 2011 and suggested he write and publish etudes, difficult practice pieces for students.
“I appreciate their encouragement in making the transition from performer to composer,” he said.
Oxford also started composing for IC faculty members, like Faria, who commissioned a piece for IC’s clarinet quartet, and Aaron Tindall, who included an arrangement and a piece by Oxford (including the title track) on his latest album, This Is My House.
Oxford said his pieces weren’t just songs but challenges.
“I thought, ‘He’s supposed to be the best tuba player in the world? OK, let’s see if he can play this!’” His work resulted in Tindall receiving two Global Music Awards for “instrumental soloist” and “creativity/ originality.”
Tindall said he was drawn to Oxford’s music because it was technically challenging and mixed modern and classical music influences.
“That is what makes working with Josh extremely rewarding,” Tindall said. “He is determined to be the best at what he does. He is always striving for excellence in his life, his compositions, and for finding true happiness as an individual regardless of his situation.” In turn, Tindall’s album enabled Oxford to make a living from his creativity rather than his performance.
Related: Check out Oxford’s website here
“I feel there’s still a lot of ground that hasn’t been covered yet in a wide range of musical topics, and writing music allows me to explore these ideas,” said Oxford.
Oxford always had a knack for arrangement. As a young man, he cataloged his father’s entire collection of records—over a thousand of them—“from Abba to Zappa.”
As a kid, he says he would sit with his sister while their father, who also attended Ithaca, played records for them by a variety of artists, from Simon and Garfunkel to Miles Davis to Beethoven. From his father Oxford learned that listening to music wasn’t just a matter of plugging into an iPod; there was more to it than that.
“Today, it’s not like you sit down with a record and put on side A and then flip it over to side B,” he said. “A lot of people today just don’t think of listening to music as an event.”
A life centered around music helped Oxford absorb the notes, listen to the beats, and hear the differences among genres. As a teenager, he played the piano at his family’s Italian restaurant just off campus called Centini’s Coddington Restaurant (now the Ithaca Elks Lodge). He mostly played the standards sung by Frank Sinatra, but occasionally he snuck in the more progressive Emerson, Lake, and Palmer.
With the encouragement of his high school band teacher (Rick Eleck, M.M. ’87), Oxford came to Ithaca College. He studied percussion and jazz piano and got his first taste of music composition. He worked closely with a number of professors, including Steve Mauk, professor of saxophone, and Gordon Stout, professor of percussion.
“I really was self-motivated and played a lot of the ensembles,” he said. “It is important to do those extracurriculars.”
After graduating from IC, Oxford maintained the relationships he had cultivated with his professors and classmates. He often earned money by playing the piano as an accompanist for student auditions and performances.
One semester he accompanied students for 60 juried performances, the equivalent of a music student’s final. He also recorded with faculty members in the studio and created a band, called the OXtet, which is well known in Ithaca.
With everything he was involved in, he often worked into the wee hours of the morning.
Oxford is experimenting with a new synthesizer, specially built by Jordan Aceto, that has no keyboard.
Instead, the synthesizer has a wooden cabinet with lots of knobs and a metal ribbon along the bottom that Oxford can run his fingers up and down to change the pitch.
The unit emits a seemingly limitless array of sounds that range from video game noises to static to radio feedback to a hip-hop beat box. He is able to glide between notes and bend the pitch, taking his music literally to new levels by playing the notes that hide between notes, such as halfway between C and C-sharp.
Oxford left Ithaca in August to continue his studies as a jazz composition student at Queens College in New York City.
“I really relish the challenge of being back in an academic setting, coupled with the added difficulties of my physical impairments,” he said. “Having spent four years adjusting to my new life, I think adjusting to being a student again will be significantly easier.”