Friday, May 24, 2024

Anthony McGill: Making Waves as a Minority Principal in a Major Orchestra

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*Extra Extra!  Read all about it … New York Philharmonic’s first African American principal musician shared his time and talent with Los Angeles; showing his love of music and his heart for children.  Anthony McGill, who is in his second season as the principal clarinet of one of the most renowned orchestras in the country, spent a week as the Artist-in-Residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), which culminated with performances this past Saturday and Sunday at Glendale’s Alex Hall and UCLA’s Royce Hall, respectively.

During his whirlwind visit, I caught up with the very busy Mr. McGill one morning after his yoga class.  In a telephone interview, Anthony and I spoke about the challenges facing African Americans in the classical music arena, why there are so few African Americans in American orchestras, as well as what can be done to improve the success of people pursuing classical music careers and the benefits of a music education.

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It is American classical music lovers’ good fortune that Anthony’s parents believed in a “full education” for their children, which included a music education, since him and his twin brother, Demarre, who is the principal flute with the Seattle Symphony, are two unique, successful and accomplished classical musicians.  What makes them so unique?  Well, they are among the 1.6% of African Americans with principal positions in American orchestras.  Not bad for growing up on Chicago’s Southside.

Anthony cited the lack of access to basic music education as one reason for the low number of African Americans in orchestras, sharing, “Music programs are often the first programs to be cut from budgets.  So you have a whole generation of people without access to what used to be a standard in a lot of the schools we’re talking about in predominantly Black communities, schools of color on the lower socioeconomic ladder.”  He feels children, “deserve a music and art education as a part of a well-rounded education.”  Yet another reason cited was the discriminatory practices in orchestras.  During the 170-year history of American orchestras, it has been very hard for a person of color to penetrate orchestras and were steered towards jazz music instead.  Anthony illustrated his point by sharing that his principal clarinet predecessor held the position for 60 years and that had Anthony not gotten the position, it may have been another 100 years before the New York Philharmonic had an African American principal.  Finally, Anthony cited the audition process as another barrier to African Americans obtaining positions in American orchestras.

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Anthony was fortunate enough to be exposed to music at an early age and credits his participation in a community music program designed to reach children who would not otherwise have an opportunity to receive that type of intense study of music for his desire to want to become a professional musician.  He feels there is not enough access to music education for young people and that, “Every child should have an instrument in their hand.”  He would like to see conversation about how to make that happen.  The history of discriminatory practices, the elitist attitude and lack of music education have led to the “elephant in the room,” according to Anthony and now instead of placing blame, he feels everyone should work together to figure out how to address it.

Anthony’s passion for music was unmistakable throughout our chat.  When I asked about the benefits of being exposed to classical musical, the floodgates opened.  “I think there are amazing benefits” and although he admits they are being studied, but only anecdotally proven, he shared, “Music expands pathways in the brain, for creativity, for communication, for processing numbers, space, math, science, all of these things.”  He continued saying, “Music education students often perform better on tests, they do better in school and learn how to focus for longer periods of time on a single task.  They learn how to build steps up to a single goal.  All of the things that people champion in extracurricular activities, music has all those benefits and more.”

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Although Anthony settled on playing the clarinet after a combination of his mom telling him he could not play the flute because he would be in competition with this brother and the saxophone being too big for the nine year old, he has no regrets.  According to Anthony, he fell in love with the clarinet and “never touched the saxophone after that,” continuing with, “I didn’t start off practicing a ton, but I liked it right away.”  From the looks of things, I would say the clarinet liked him as well.

Part of Anthony’s mega busy week included a performance at USC, as well as visits to the Midnight Mission, an elementary school and a high school, before finishing his weeklong trip with his weekend performances.  Those who attended any of Anthony’s events are very fortunate, received a treat and had an experience.  Those who did not, maybe next time.

marilyn smith
Marilyn Smith

Marilyn Smith is a Los Angeles based writer/reviewer.  Contact her via [email protected].

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