Anthony McGill: Blowing It Up
It took Anthony McGill multiple attempts to become Principal Clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. Failure was never an option.
A celebrated classical musician, Anthony McGill is the principal clarinetist of the New York Philharmonic—the first African American principal player in the organization’s history. He won the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize in 2020.
Born in Chicago in 1979, McGill studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and the Mannes College of Music in New York City. He joined Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra as principal clarinetist in 2000, the same year he won an Avery Fisher Career Grant for promising young musicians. From 2004 to 2014 he was principal clarinetist with the Metropolitan Opera; he has played with the NY Philharmonic since 2014. McGill has also appeared as a soloist with leading orchestras around the world, and played at the inauguration of President Barack Obama. He teaches clarinet at The Julliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music.
In 2020, McGill received national attention beyond the world of classical music for his project #TakeTwoKnees, a musical protest video in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis.
Growing up on the south side of Chicago, Anthony McGill’s family instilled in him a belief in limitless possibilities.
Anthony McGill: If you’re never told that you can’t do something and you’re allowed to like, explore the world and find out what, maybe, is your talent and is your gift, and not, more importantly, your interest. Your imagination of what you could possibly be does not have a ceiling on it.
As it turns out, tenaciousness runs in the McGill family. Born in 1979, Anthony was raised by two gentle, but strict public school teachers. Ira Carol and DeMar McGill, Sr. surrounded their family with art and music. His father, an amateur flutist, would eventually leave teaching and become Chicago’s deputy fire commissioner.
McGill: What I saw in my parents was a work ethic that was very high, and an attitude ethic about the world, which they believe and believe to this day is very important in the pursuit of things. If I look at a percentage of what my success as a musician is, as a person, I wonder what percentage I would give my parents. I’d probably give them 90% or something or maybe more.
Anthony’s brother DeMar, Jr. was seven when he found his father’s flute in a closet and began playing. At nine Anthony followed suit on the clarinet when his first choice of wind instrument, the saxophone, proved too large for him. By age 12, the brothers were playing with the Chicago Youth Orchestra. In 1994, Anthony was 14 and DeMar was studying at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia when they were invited to play Saint-Saens’ “Tarantella” on the PBS show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. After following his brother through the Curtis Institute of Music, McGill joined the Cincinnati Symphony as Associate Principal Clarinet, then became Principal Clarinet of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. When he joined the New York Philharmonic in 2014, he was the first African American Principal in the organization’s 179 year history. And he took over from the, by then, legendary Stanley Drucker who had played with the orchestra for 61 years. But attaining this vaulted position didn’t come easy. He had to audition several times before he got the job. What eventually convinced the New York Phil that he was their guy was, at least in part, McGill’s technical prowess and emotional depth. Anthony McGill’s playing reflects his day-to-day lived experiences. He’s at his best in the moment, in performance, toying with tempo, tone, and color.
McGill: Every experience, every interaction, every thing I do, every book I read, every conversation I have, all of it, I’m absorbing, just kind of experiencing this, right? And all of that is going to be, and sometimes I like to use that actively in, you know, how I approach music, from an intellectual standpoint or how I feel music. What I’m experiencing in every way. The sounds I hear. The things I love. Those great experiences, the sad experiences, the pain, the agony, whatever it is, it’s all going into here, which, you know, when I’m performing or when I’m playing music will probably show up somewhere.
Yet unlike many of his colleagues, most notably string players, McGill is not creating this extraordinary music on a centuries-old priceless antique.
McGill: No, they’re just, just clarinets. Well, the clarinet specifically, you know, it’s a, it’s a band instrument. It’s a wind band instrument. It’s one of the spitting instruments. You blow and you spit in it. That’s not exactly like the height of refinement, you know, as far as the quality. So that’s one of the reasons why they don’t really appreciate because you know, like with all of that air blowing and whatever, it’s like nature in there and it erodes. And so it doesn’t preserve itself that well.
And though he doesn’t give them names. McGill does form close relationships with his instruments. He tinkers with the reeds and other moving parts, always searching for a more beautiful sound.
Anthony McGill also forms close relationships with other musicians, particularly with those just starting out. In 2019, the Julliard school appointed him Artistic Director of its music advancement program, where he and conductors such as Simon Rattle, mentor students from a wide range of backgrounds. Through the music, these students learn to connect with the world around them. They learn about their obligations to the group, as well as to time, rhythm, and space.
McGill: When I see a kid who was not able to like, look me in the eye was like, when I first started hearing them play in a group, was almost like cowering from the world, you know, scared of the world, and to see them speak up and be proud and communicate, in a way that I think music helped them to, because they got pride in doing that thing. But also you learn a lot of skills that help you express yourself.
McGill views an orchestra as a metaphor for community: 100-plus individuals subverting their feelings in favor of one goal, a great performance. A utopian vision, to be sure, but something to always strive for.
McGill: Playing in a symphony orchestra is an interesting experience, because you know, you do have so many different personality types in an orchestra. So if we’re on the orchestra stage together and we believe that those people over there, the bassists, are the terrible ones that are creating the bad, playing all the bad notes. Or we think that, “Oh no, we’re the violins. And we are superior to those other people because they play those instruments.” And it becomes a competition instead of a concert. When the competition gets so unfairly balanced and rigged towards the violins or towards the trumpets, then it becomes very difficult to play that concert together. And when things work you know, in our cities, in our communities, they work, because first of all, we understand that we are the same. And when I have felt that kind of peak experience as a musician, it feels as though you as a human, like you become a part of this organism of energy, of sound, of all of those things that comes together, that brings a feeling of ecstasy to you. You know, the chills, it’s the thing, it’s the whatever. And you can kind of feel it like being transferred around you, with all of the other players, into the audience, and back after the performance.
Perhaps due to his family successes, Anthony McGill believes the change can happen. One person at a time.
McGill: I was sitting around a room with some young students recently in a performing residency somewhere. And one of them said, “What do you do about all the, those barriers in the world? It’s difficult because of the people are putting these barriers in front of me.” And I said, “If you think of the world as like being a space where there are a lot of people that don’t want you to succeed. The worst thing you could possibly do is believe them, is agree with them, that there’s no way you can possibly succeed. And that you don’t deserve to.” And so, that’s what I mean by success.
Anthony McGill is proof that to excel, talent and dedication may not be enough. A tenacious belief that anything is possible is something he learned at an early age and one that he models every day. And how he teaches others and how he makes music every time he steps onto a stage.