On Friday, March 12, Trenton Central High School (TCHS) Orchestra students had the opportunity to meet Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, over Zoom as part of the Neighborhood Music Project.
The event consisted of a guided meditation with music played by McGill, and a conversation with the TCHS students. It was moderated by Dasha Koltunyuk, marketing and outreach manager for Princeton University Concerts (PUC), and Lou Chen, program manager for Trenton Arts at Princeton (TAP).
McGill is one of classical music’s most recognizable and multifaceted figures. At President Barack Obama’s inauguration, he premiered a piece by John Williams alongside violinist Itzhak Perlman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and pianist Gabriela Montero (who also visited the TCHS Orchestra last year).
In addition to his extensive performance career, McGill strives to make music education more accessible to underserved communities. In addition to serving on the faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music, he is the Artistic Director of the Music Advancement Program at the Juilliard School, which is similar to the Saturday Morning Arts program offered by TAP.
After the guided meditation featuring music by Bach and Jeanjean, McGill answered a few questions from Koltunyuk and the audience about the value of listening to music.
“I think what I love about music is that when people listen to music, it can be a balm for pain,” said McGill. “It can be a balm for the things that you can’t control in the world that you’re reacting to, physically and emotionally. And then you can step away from those reactions that the body and mind has and just be where you are, and then be okay without having to run away from something.”
Then, Chen asked McGill how people can further the movement for equity and inclusion in classical music.
McGill replied that people can look at history in many different ways—there’s the history of progress, liberty, and goodness, and then there’s the history of hatred, segregation, and injustice. Classical music is based on that latter history.
“The choice for us as musicians, especially in classical music that is based on that history, is one of looking the other way or one of acknowledging the roots of our past and acknowledging the ability for us to say, ‘no,’” McGill said. “This is about love, the love of all of humanity, and it’s about all peoples not based on what they look like or their skin-tone or their religion or where they’re from.”
He also discussed his #TakeTwoKnees campaign, which spread awareness about racial injustice following the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
“We can all speak up about things that are going on around us that aren’t good for others, if we care about the real values that we hold dear here, which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I believe in that, so my musical tribute to that was bringing attention to that in the classical music field, so we can find a way forward and invite everyone into the room. To invite people from different communities to speak up,” McGill said.
Sierra, a junior clarinetist at TCHS, asked McGill what made him so passionate about playing clarinet. She also asked what struggles he went through while learning the clarinet.
McGill said that he loves the clarinet because he enjoys its sound and the emotion, and that he overcame many struggles.
“Getting better at an instrument is difficult. You have to spend a lot of time working and practicing, sometimes when you don’t want to. Yet you get better, you get through that. Sometimes you fail. Sometimes you audition for stuff and you don’t get it, sometimes you try for things and you don’t play as well as you want. There are many more challenges but you always push through and come out the other side. It can be really rewarding, it can really help you have some grit in life to be able to get through those challenging moments so you can succeed,” McGill said.
Other highlights from the event included questions by Onest’e, a junior clarinetist, and Mariasol, a senior clarinetist.
Onest’e asked how to play the clarinet to the fullest potential.
“You have to do the work to get to wherever you think your potential might be, and beyond,” said McGill. “Usually we don’t know. Usually we cap our potential and what we imagine is possible in our lives. We often do this not just with music but with lots of things. Raise that up a little bit so that your capacity for success in life and music is limitless instead of self-limiting. That’s really important.”
In spite of this, he also said that taking breaks and avoiding burnout is also important. Even now, he is aware of the physical injuries that can be caused by excessive practice.
Mariasol asked how McGill felt being the New York Philharmonic’s first African-American principal player.
“It gives me pride to represent who I am and everything that encompasses, and also just to be able to sit in the chair and be in that position is an honor. Especially for the younger generation of people that may see me playing in that orchestra and might say, ‘That’s really cool, I want to do that. There’s that guy up there that inspires me,’” McGill said.
The conversation with McGill meant a lot for Gisela, a junior clarinetist who is a longtime fan of McGill and his music.
“It’s one thing to watch a performance by someone you look up to and try to pick up on little things versus actually asking them questions and having them answer back,” she said. “It’s a totally different experience, and I got a lot from him about how to be a better musician and how to be a better person in general, navigating this whole world and everything that’s going on.”