S8 E7 | CLIP

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.

AIRED: November 19, 2021 | 0:12:07

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- [Narrator] Growing up on the south side of Chicago,

Anthony McGill's family instilled in him

a belief in limitless possibilities.

- 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.

- [Narrator] As it turns out,

tenaciousness runs in the McGill family.

Born 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.

- 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.

- [Narrator] Anthony's brother DeMar, Jr. was seven

when he found his father's flute in a closet and began


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 and performance toying with

tempo, tone, and color.

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- 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.

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- [Narrator] Yet unlike many of his colleagues,

most notably string players,

McGill is not creating this extraordinary music on a

centuries, old priceless antique.

- 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.

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- [Narrator] And though he doesn't give them names.

McGill does form close relationships with his instruments.

He tinkers with the reads and other moving parts,

all searching for a more beautiful sound.

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Anthony McGill also forms close relationships with other


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


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- [Narrator] McGill views an orchestra as

a metaphor for community.

100 plus individuals subverting their feelings

in favor of one goal, a great performance.

The 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 play, 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


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.

- [Narrator] Perhaps due to his family successes,

Anthony McGill believes the change can happen.

One person at a time.

- 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 is 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.

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- [Narrator] 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.

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- [Announcer] Articulate with Jim Cotter

is made possible with generous

funding from the Neubauer Family Foundation.

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