Originally published in The Clarinet 49/1 (December 2021). Printed copies of The Clarinet are available for ICA members.
Interview with Anthony McGill
by Andy Simon
Andy Simon: Hello, everyone. It’s a great pleasure. Anthony and I had a very well-received interview, I guess it was over the summer, and this is a wonderful follow up for the ICA. So to quickly introduce him, orchestrally he has been the associate principal clarinet of the Cincinnati Symphony, he was the principal of the MET, and he currently serves as the first African American principal of any instrument in the New York Philharmonic. And he’s also active as an educator, he’s on the faculty of the Curtis Institute, he is faculty at the Juilliard School, he’s faculty at Bard College. And of course, some notable fun facts of his past: he played in the Obama inauguration, and he has numerous musical and human rights awards. He’s active as a soloist and chamber musician, and obviously human rights movements. And interestingly, he’s also, which we’ll talk about a little later, the artistic director for Juilliard’s Music Advancement Program (MAP). So anyway, welcome Anthony, so good to see you again.
Anthony McGill: Thanks, it’s good to be here with you.
AS: So, listen, last time we were sort of in the height of the George Floyd situation and all your incredible movements back then and it’s so wonderful to see an evolution since then. But we are going to start first with a little bit of your clarinet side. I think it’s impossible to not mention the social side to all that you’ve been doing, but I like to remember you’re also a very accomplished clarinetist so I wouldn’t mind starting there.
AM: Yeah, that’s great.
AS: Why don’t you take us through your teachers and what you took from that? Some of the qualities and the inspirations and the specific things that you took from them. And any mentors and role models, it doesn’t have to be clarinet actually, are welcome along the way.
AM: It’s a fairly long list of people that really helped me out when I was coming up in Chicago. I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and it’s such a great music town. And so the list of clarinet teachers from my first clarinet teacher named Richard Dawkins – I think he was a jazz sax player in Chicago, and I studied with him very briefly, and then studied with Stanley Davis who was the second chair player of the Lyric Opera actually. From there, I went to the Merit School of Music and studied with David Tuttle, who had studied at Northwestern and who is still to this day a very successful freelancer and performer in Chicago. And you know, David Tuttle and Merit School, they introduced me to – and this is when everything kind of took off – they introduced me to Larry Combs and Julie DeRoche up at DePaul and through a program that they were running, I was able to get discounted lessons and a lesson with Larry Combs every other week, and a lesson with Julie every week and that’s when everything started to get very, very serious.
AS: But before you go on, can you just in one sentence or two sentences – what kind of program was that actually?
AM: The Merit School of Music where I was studying with David was a community music program; it was designed to help kids that wouldn’t normally have access to music, to classical music. It was a tuition-free program which was really especially designed to help inner city kids and kids who wouldn’t have had access to this kind of education otherwise, and it was a Saturday program. And through Merit, DePaul also had a community music program, but it was mainly that I was introduced to going up there for private lessons and they had their own program running, but it was through the Merit School of Music that all of that happened.
AS: You can see why I’m curious because obviously you’re involved now on the other end a little bit and it’s wonderful, I mean what a great living example, rather than, “Imagine if we did this, we might get the next principal of the New York Philharmonic” – we have one right now, so I think that’s really an interesting fact.
AM: Yeah, and that was like when I was 11, 12 years old; 12, 13, 14, and that was just an amazing time because you know, it was around the time I went to Interlochen Arts Camp for the first time and I studied with Sidney Forrest for two years, 1991 and 1993, and I was 11, 12, 13, 14 [years old]. And those were amazing summers where I just grew as a musician and changed so much and really understood what it’s like to play in an orchestra and audition and have challenges and things like this back in those days at Interlochen. And so around the age of 14 or so, 15, I was looking to transfer schools, to change schools, to change the environment, and I’d been playing in youth orchestra, etc., and you know then it was time… Oh, before I go on – one of the great mentors I had besides the great conductors, like Michael Morgan of the Chicago Youth Symphony that I had in Chicago, Daniel Hege. These are pro maestros, music directors now of orchestras in the U.S. I also had a mentor named Barry Elmore who conducted this ensemble of kids from the South Side called Chicago Teen Ensemble. Barry Elmore was a great mentor and he arranged all these pieces for this small group, a chamber group, but it was orchestral pieces, classical pieces, jazz pieces, all these beautiful works. We would just go out and perform in churches around the city and spaces, and this was when I was just starting off, age 11, 12, 13 years old. So that was just such an amazing thing for me to do as a young performer, young clarinet player … And from there this is where the list of teachers really gets shorter but it was very impactful for my life and my career.
AS: Now you were looking to change schools primarily because you had now, at this point, decided you wanted to get extremely serious about music, is that why?
AM: Well, no actually. My mom sensed that I wasn’t having a great experience at my school. You know, I think I was definitely getting more serious with music, but around the same time, you know 7th, 8th, 9th grade, I was getting a lot of pressure to be cool, not to play music, from kids at school and probably was getting bullied a little bit about that and other things, you know how kids can be at that age. So, there was another great school in Chicago – I was already at a great school, just not a music-focused school, but one that had a very okay music program that I participated in but I wasn’t getting lessons there or anything like that. I was getting all of that outside of the school. So along with University of Chicago Lab School where I tested into it was Interlochen Arts Academy which is the high school, the boarding school of the Interlochen Arts Camp. And so I got in there and I went up there to visit and I was just like, this is where I want to be. And there my life totally changed, first of all to leave home at 15 or something to go to boarding school was so wild and crazy and then to study, to get to study with Richard Hawkins for those two years and be in that studio with these amazing clarinet players and amazing musicians and dancers and artists and writers and creators… Interlochen was just so rich. It was a challenge, but I just grew so much as a person and as a player and being surrounded by young artists in the prime of their lives kind of, it was a just a different kind of…
AS: Exactly the opposite of the other situation which was getting you away from blossoming, this one carried you along with it.
AM: Yeah, I think so. I could isolate different things and it was probably just a couple kids that year which were giving me a hard time or something and that school was great, but the environment every day that I was in [at Interlochen], the environment every single day, and then to be able to kind of go back to the dorm and practice for three hours or four hours after school when you’re still at school, you know! Like at a boarding school [it] was intense, but also really fun because I felt like I was just away at college. So, that was really, really special and Richard was young; I was probably 15 and Richard Hawkins was 25. And so he was in the prime of his career too, as a teacher, as a player, as a kind of young scholar of music, and this was who we were getting to hang out with every day and was our mentor. And that just like… he was making mouthpieces all the time for us, and he was driving a cool car and he knew all about orchestral playing and solos. It was so great. And we had an awesome studio with Jerry Chai and Alexander Fiterstein and Brook Stone who’s in Japan and Sean McLaughlin who’s not in music anymore but who was an amazing clarinet player and Heather Tone. Ramon Wodkowski, the mouthpiece maker we know and love. These were my classmates in that studio, so it was very special I think. From there the first year I was at Interlochen, because my brother was at Curtis as a flute player, I auditioned to Curtis early. I didn’t get in as a sophomore. But you know, Donald Montanaro said you really should audition again, it’d be great. And I did my junior year in high school. And I auditioned and I got in. And so I graduated early, I had taken classes at that other school in Chicago to allow me to have enough credits. And so that was the beginning of the beginning of my professional life. And with Donald Montanaro for four years, that was just really, really special. And all of these teachers are all so in a way different, and yet I feel like the common thread was that they’re all such great masters of communicating a tradition of playing that they came from. And articulating that. And in different ways and yet in the same kind of beautiful way. I was just so lucky when I think about just the number of teachers and the quality of them. And how much care they all put in their teaching and I feel very grateful for that.
AS: Obviously, it worked out for you as a performer and what they gave you, but you’re quite a serious teacher as well, does that influence you in the way you approach your students and so forth?
AM: Yeah, I feel like I am passing on so much – and this is what all teachers do, right? Yes, we have gone through our own learning and our own processes and our own methods of learning, but so much of what I am proud to pass on is a lot of the knowledge that was passed on to me from my teachers and that’s a really special thing. I think it’s something that I feel is a really important responsibility for me to do, to honor their teaching by trying to live up to what they taught me and how they taught me and the traditions that were passed on to them. I think that’s an important part of being in the community of clarinet players and the community of musicians, this sense of passing on to the next generation what you may have learned from some of your teachers.
AS: I’m very interested in your orchestral career because you were the assistant principal in Cincinnati, and we’ve chatted a few times live and I remember you were talking about a little bit of the differences of the kind of repertoire you played in Cincinnati versus the MET versus the New York Philharmonic and you’ve pretty much covered all the big repertory. What’s the same and what is different about those three jobs in terms of your responsibilities?
AM: Yeah it is very interesting, I was lucky enough to join the Cincinnati Symphony as associate principal/E♭ when I was 21 years old. And that was just intense enough without overwhelming a young kid in his first job because I got to play all of the concerti, a lot of the concertos with piano and violin as principal clarinet, but then I got to sit in the section with Richie Hawley as principal and with Pascual Martínez, my current colleague, as second clarinet, his first year, and Ron Offman on bass clarinet who’s still there. These were such great mentors to be around and I got to play with the great Bill Winstead on principal bassoon. I can keep naming all of the great musicians in that orchestra, it’s a fantastic orchestra, and it’s a real pro, serious musician, high quality orchestra. Everyone always says a “world class orchestra” of whatever orchestra they’re in, but in Cincinnati, for a smaller city, for a city of its size or for anywhere for that matter, it was such a great experience. So I got to have the high pressure, but I also got to take my time and listen to the orchestra from the audience, as an associate principal player, and I got to appreciate the sound of the orchestra outside of it because I didn’t have to just be practicing like a madman the whole time without being able to take it all in. Sometimes when you’re thrown into those principal jobs you are overwhelmed – even as an older person it can be overwhelming the responsibilities that we have to do as principal players. So as a young kid, it was a great place for me to be, and I got to have some time to practice, I got to have some time to continue to learn and grow and play chamber music which I love without too much of the extra load.
AS: How long were you in that job?
AM: I was there for four years. I practiced a ton for the MET job and once again I had two opportunities to get into the MET. And I auditioned once for a one-year position that I didn’t win while [in] my third year in Cincinnati. And my fourth year there [was] the permanent position and I managed to get hired in that audition.
AS: I just want to mention something, it’s funny how my memory at my age works. I didn’t know him as well as you, but I knew the late, great Jim Ognibene. I remember talking to him after that audition, this was way before you were going to get there… he said, yeah there was this kid, he mentioned specifically, there’s this kid who played very musically from Cincinnati, I guess it was a quasi-Nostradamus moment, but I just wanted to share that with you because obviously you did some wonderful tributes to him, even collaborating with us, so I just wanted to share that with you very quickly and then move on.
AM: You know that’s such a sweet story. Moving on to that experience, back at the MET, I was 24-25 when I moved to New York and joined that great orchestra and – talk about just learning all around from such great musicians by just listening to them, not to mention the singers, but the musicians and the singers in the orchestra. Gosh! Jim being one of the greatest in that orchestra. In that section, because we played so many concerts at the MET and so many performances at the MET, we got to play – I was principal and Steve Williamson was principal as well, came in that year as well – we got to play with everyone in the section, so I got to spend time playing with Jim, I got to spend time of course with Jessica Phillips, I got to spend time with lots of people who would come into the city and sub with the orchestra and sub with us. The endurance factor for playing in the opera was something that it takes a while to get used to.
AS: I do want to mention in one of our live meetings, we had just recorded the Ring Cycle, and I found it, not having had your career path, [I thought] “Oh my goodness, I have a half an hour symphony, this is terrible,” – all of a sudden I was doing six and a half hours with the mighty Götterdämmerung … and I said Anthony, how do you keep the concentration during all this? And I remember your very profound response: “You just do it.”
AM: It’s true!
AS: And you know, that’s what I had to do.
AM: It’s true! You don’t think about it and especially when you’re in the midst of it, time in those operas sometimes stands still. It’s like there are things to do and things to listen to and you have to learn to be really mindful in a simple way about what you’re doing… I am playing music and I’m listening to beautiful music and there are beautiful things happening around me all the time. So you don’t burn out. And there were times when you are just beat. You are just totally beat, physically, emotionally, spiritually kind of beat down, playing these operas day after day after day and the amount of work that goes into that. The amount of dedication and frankly the quality of the playing day in day out, night after night, day after day, I did that for 10 years. And the amount of learning that you get from the singers and the sound of the orchestra and the quality of the sound of that orchestra is just really very special.
AS: So I’m actually curious, I remember Götterdämmerung… you’re doing about an hour and 45 minutes and then you play that big duet and then you’ve got another few hours after that. I remember when we were talking, the very first time you did Capriccio Espagnol was with the New York Philharmonic… I can imagine all the difficulties that you just mentioned in the opera, you’re still doing two-minute solos after – is it a different kind of pressure or excitement or what is that like when you move over to the New York Philharmonic to do shorter programs?
AM: Yeah, backing up to some of the experiences I got at the MET is that three times a year we would do a Carnegie Hall concert with just the orchestra. Those experiences were wonderful, after really intense rehearsal weeks and then double rehearsals the day of the concert. And that helped moving on to the New York Philharmonic. But really the experience of the pressure, experiencing the pressure of starting off the season, having to play like you mentioned Capriccio Espagnol where you are not only starting the piece, but you have solos throughout the piece. You know how this is, but it is striking how different it is, after being in the opera for 10 years, or being in any orchestra and playing the rep over and over again, you know 10 years or 20 years in, when you’re doing some familiar Beethoven symphony or something, it feels different than if it were your first time doing it. So when you go from a situation, mine was at the MET, and you play almost every opera, the standard repertory, Tosca, it feels like walking into your – they always call it at the MET – it feels like walking into your living room, down into the pit. It feels so comfortable because you know what it is, you know what it’s like, and you don’t have the bright lights shining right on you. And you get to the Philharmonic… after many times auditioning for jobs at the Philharmonic, and after six years where they were hiring and trying out other people, I finally end up and get my shot. They offered me the job and this is my shot and it was like okay… I have to record Nielsen Concerto this year, I have to play Capriccio, I probably played Scheherazade, I have to play Galanta Dances, I probably played all the clarinet excerpts and Nielsen Concerto that first year. And the list went on, it kept coming, big pieces. It’s like oh, this is why I wanted to be in the Philharmonic, this is not only why I wanted to be, but it’s also what causes lots of stress. As you know.
AS: I used to have more hair than you Anthony when I started so…
AM: Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. And there’s no – you can’t sneak back, you know, [at the MET] okay, you play the Tosca solo which is amazing, and then you get to kind of listen back and let the singers and let the orchestra take over and do your other beautiful solo. And [at the New York Philharmonic] the solos just keep coming and coming and you realize oh, you’re the opera singer now. You know, or the protagonist, one of the protagonists of the symphony. Of the theater of Rachmaninov or Sibelius or whatever, you are the soprano, the soprano clarinetist of the orchestra. And yeah, that year was so high-octane in so many different ways and yet when you step in there and you’re living your dream, you have to make a couple choices. You have to say, am I going to let the feeling of pressure stop me from playing at a really high level, or am I going to use that as fuel to really just play like I’ve always played maybe with a little bit of extra adrenaline, – to really step into this position that I feel like I can do, and I had to pat myself on the back a lot. I had to look in the mirror a lot and say, “You can do this, you can do this,” because not only that, I was coming into a position historically that was really owned by Stanley Drucker. That was his orchestra, for all of those years. And so I had to understand that and respect that but also kind of totally forget about it. I had to really focus on what I was trying to say musically every night, every day, and to know that I was taking over from something that had been a legendary position and a legendary player in the field, so that was a different thing.
AS: I respect all these things that you say but I’m actually curious – you’re getting me nervous talking about it – at times did you get a little out of your comfort zone? I think there’s a lot of accomplished musicians and starting-out musicians… intellectually it sounds wonderful, but how did you actually when it came time to do it – was there some kind of more concrete way that you dealt with it that helped you?
AM: No, I don’t think there’s like a silver bullet, a specific thing that helps. I think it’s a focus of mind, of practice, but also of just acclimating to the heights. So, if you’re used to flying at an altitude of a few hundred thousand feet or something and then you go to 30,000 feet, it’s going to take a little while, but you know what it is, it’s all about not panicking. [Laughs] It’s about understanding, oh this is actually, like I said, a lot of mental stuff I had to do. A lot of it. A lot of mental work.
AS: Like what?
AM: When I said at times I had to look in the mirror every morning for weeks, maybe months, and say, “You’re good enough, you belong here. You are prepared and you’re a great musician.” And then you walk away and you have breakfast and you go to work. You know, that kind of training … and also, the breathing was so different at the Philharmonic than at the MET. I remember being there in the lights at times and almost feeling like I was going to pass out a couple times early on. Because the rate of your breath, your heart rate, the adrenaline… you have to think about how to be mindful more of how you’re breathing in the moment, in the concert, because it’s so different than the MET. And you had to acclimate to the light, literally, and learn where to look on stage and how to be comfortable in your chair and how to not see the audience because the audience perspective from the pit orchestra to the beautiful large Metropolitan Opera it’s all red, it’s calming, it’s wonderful, it’s beautiful. And then you get on the stage of a new hall – and maybe it’s just any hall, any orchestra, new situation, – and it feels so different, you have to know how to focus on the real things, the music. And the other thing is that confidence that you’ve worked on this stuff your entire life. That’s where a lot of the strength came from in the moment, was that I had been preparing for this my entire life. It’s not like I hadn’t practiced these things like 1,000 times. It’s just that you have to adjust a little bit when you’re there in the moment and learn how to map out, how to slow things down, frankly. That’s what it took a little while to do, is [learn] how to play things, how to actually slow things down more in the moment than you were used to doing. And everyone does that with performing and auditioning anyway, but I think in the orchestra for sure, when you’re doing Galanta Dances or Scheherazade, how do I slow my fingers down because they want to go way faster than you’d think. So I spent a lot of time with that in my practice: How do I map this out in my brain and my hands with my practice, slowly, so that when I’m out there, it doesn’t go [from] zero to 95 or zero to 100? Because you know that feeling, that feeling you go to 100 so you have to practice at like 40, 30. You have to understand that that’s going to happen, because the first time it happens it feels like you’re in the fastest car on the road without your seatbelt. And it’s a great ride, it’s a great car, but you’re like, this is very dangerous, this feels much more dangerous, until you get – you have to practice that, though, by a lot of thought.
AS: I think [that’s] superb analysis of what you did. I think it’s very helpful. I just want to share, when you talked about looking in the mirror, I loved it because on one hand, I think a lot of people would call you a humble person. But actually another African American who played in the New York Philharmonic, Jerome Ashby, he used to tell his students “Never have a big ego, except when you play.” I loved it – no one needs to know, “Hey man, I’m telling myself I can do this.” Okay, as soon as it comes down people say “Nice job,” I thought it was superb advice on many levels.
AM: I think that’s a great way to word that. I met Jerome and, everybody should know, he was associate principal horn of the New York Philharmonic for a very long time and really a role model for me because I also had friends that studied with him and whose lives he affected and changed. So, I knew him a little bit as a young college student before he passed away and he was that way. He was very humble, very like when you met him, when I met him at least as a young student, he was very soft-spoken. And to be a horn player up on the stage of the New York Philharmonic you cannot shy away from stuff when you’re in the heat of the battle, right? So, he would know about that.
AS: I would like to know, obviously you’re so busy performing and you’re teaching, but I want to know what does teaching give you? We talked about what you try to do, but what does it give to you personally, musically, all of the above, none of the above?
AM: You know, I was teaching today and I have to tell you – it’s hard not to get emotional about this – but I’ve been teaching online, on my computer for this whole year. And I have a couple students that I’ve been with for a while that I miss but I know what they sound like, I know how they sound and what they react to in the room and it’s so frustrating to not be with them. And then I had a couple students that even one or two of them I knew before and I’d seen and met. But a couple of them, I’d never had a lesson with in the same room. And there’s still a couple that I haven’t, and just recently I had two of my first in-person lessons and I have to say I almost cried. Because there are a couple things – there is the personal energy that you get from hearing someone play in person; there’s also a technical thing, there’s a clarinet thing, where you can hear the depth of the sound, you can hear the air going through the instrument, you can feel it vibrating in the room at the decibel level that you think it should and you know that needs to be a lot more, or a lot less, but it’s also the connection that you can get when you’re in the same room. And when it happens, to answer your question about what I get from teaching, is that I get wrapped up in the music, and it just solidified why I love to teach, especially seeing these students for the first time after a year of just seeing them online. I learn so much about sound, about body, about technique by listening to my students and having thoughts about what might make this sound more like a great singer at the MET. I have that sound in my ear from all those years and was lucky enough to have played with great musicians, still do. Yet what I’m trying to do in that room is learn from the student who is also going through things that I went through as a young player, that I’m going through every day, and letting them know I am working on that too. This is what I’m working on now to try to get a warmer tone, or this is what I’m working on now to try to get a little more focus in my sound when it gets a little bit unfocused or when I’m trying to have a little bit more vibration in the tone. You know, if it sounds a little bit too dull or if I’m not using my air in the right way, this is what I can do, it can help when I work on my articulation or I’ve worked on trying to get a faster, more easy articulation, this is how I try to do that. So part of the idea of why it’s wonderful to listen to other teachers give classes, master classes, is that I’m listening in the same way as a student always, because the teacher can say something and the student can do something, or even the student can say something and realizing what the teacher said that is really fantastic for them and why it resonates with them. And then you can learn from that and become a better musician and a better player – that is fantastic and I just missed it so much. I missed it especially hearing it in person and live after this year. There’s the warmth and there’s the beauty of a tone of a clarinet that cannot be replicated with the finest recording equipment. Even though that can be nice as well, but just hearing that is really, really very interesting.
AS: That takes me to the next question I’m very curious about. You mentioned Donald Montanaro and it was the beginning of the beginning and now you’ve “replaced him,” didn’t you just get some sort of title for teaching at Curtis? So first of all, you’re coming here as a young [person], you’ve got all this information from, it must have been, incredible years, your brother was there at the same time, etc. Now you’re teaching at Curtis, so I’m really curious, please tell us, remind me of this accolade you recently received there and what it’s like to sit in the same chair that he sat and to get to sit in the same chair you sat.
AM: Yeah, it’s pretty wonderful, and Curtis made a big press release out of it and this big announcement and… so much love from everyone and friends online. It was interesting because I’ve been teaching at Curtis for six years already, I’ve been the clarinet teacher and a clarinet faculty member there for many years now. And yet, this was a very, very kind gesture and my chair was officially endowed to be a titled, endowed chair at the school by a wonderful, wonderful couple, supporters of the arts, supporters of Curtis.
AS: What is the title?
AM: It’s a newly created chair for me, the William R. and Hyunah Yu Brody Distinguished Chair. It was endowed to be held by a member of the Curtis faculty who brings distinction to the school through their musical art and pedagogy. So they are recognizing me for my significant accomplishments, as they say, in that area. And in the receipt of the chair which I was very proud to receive, I made sure to mention Donald Montanaro and how much of an honor this particular endowment of this chair is because of his tutelage and my carrying on his tradition and the tradition of the other great line of clarinet teachers there. Tony Gigliotti was my woodwind quintet coach when I was at Curtis and so it’s just really fantastic.
AM: Thank you.
AS: Well speaking of more “nitty-gritty,” I’m curious because obviously you’ve heard a lot of the young players and so forth; what are the general tendencies in the younger players that you’re hearing nowadays? And if you teach – be it a master class or like you said, even in the audience – what are those areas that you would gravitate to as a rule? I understand everyone has strengths and weaknesses – are you noticing general tendencies that you like to change or that you feel you can try to help with?
AM: Yeah, I think there are ones that have been all around for many, many years. But I would say the tendency is that everyone has gotten so great, that folks can just play everything. They can really just play technically, everything with nice sound, they can do it all. And so what I end up focusing on – and you know this is different levels too, this is all throughout – you can have even the younger generation or the younger kids that don’t have so much experience or at a different level than some of my students at the college level, they also have tons of talent and tons of gifts technically. But when it comes down to it for me, it really is how do we create a phrase? And this is what I was taught by many of my teachers as well. But how do you express those things that maybe you can’t express with words, and how do you do that through the clarinet? And how do you make the clarinet an extension of yourself, like in song? An extension of your voice as a musician – how seriously do you take that? And can it be heard, and how do you put that in the sound? And that’s a tip of my hat to Donald Montanaro too, putting something in the sound was one of his phrases. How do you do that? And that is something that I talk a lot about with the air in classes that you may see with me. Sometimes I get involved in the embouchure stuff, the technical stuff, these sorts of things, but I definitely skew toward talking about the artistic depth of one’s playing and how do we express that greatly, and how do we adapt our thinking to be able to play at our highest level? I spend a lot of time in my lessons talking about the psychological aspects of performing, of playing an instrument and being a great musician. Some of the things you heard me talk about earlier with what kind of work I do with myself to try to perform at a high level, are what I spend a lot of time talking to my students about. In addition, how do we combine these two things – how do we focus on music and how does that help our technique – and is there a way that we can combine those two things? Just because we’re talking about the music doesn’t mean that we have to let everything else slide, so it’s really about trying to do a left brain, right brain, on the clarinet brain, a melding of those minds, and how do we make that more whole? So that when we are practicing orchestra excerpts and trying to make them in tune, and have good technique with a nice tone and good articulation, yes, we are talking about all of these little technical details and so we work on that. But then we also work on, okay – you’ve done all of that, you’ve dotted all those I’s and crossed all of those T’s, but are you playing the music? Are you playing the piece? And some of that experience is from listening to orchestra auditions and participating in them myself and practicing my entire life. Part of performing well in an audition is actually knowing that what you’re doing is trying to make a real statement, you’re trying to move people, you need to do things well in order to do that, but that is the ultimate goal. So it’s the combination of that: the technical with the artistic and a ratio of those, and how we get to the ideal ratio for your peak level of performance.
AS: I remember it was really fascinating during COVID… at one point you said you’d been contemplating recently the role of a musician in society. I thought that was terrific. Everyone is, in every job in their life, just trying to put bread on the table, running to the next thing – how often do we just sort of step back and ask the most sort of obvious questions and we’re just stumped, so have you come to a conclusion?
AM: No, I haven’t come to a conclusion, but I have thoughts about it, and I think they’re serious ones, actually. I think that as individuals, that role can shift and it can be very different things for very different people. What I think [is] that our capacity for giving the gift of music to people in the world is a very, very important responsibility, right, as kind of communicators to the world. There are a lot of bad things that go on in the world, and one of the most beautiful, wonderful things that you can do in the world is to put out beautiful things day in, day out, 24/7 as a life vocation, to the universe, to the earth, to your friends and family, audience members, students, neighbors, teachers. You’re putting it out, that’s what our jobs are as artists: to recreate or create interesting, unharmful things for the world, and for humanity, and so that’s a pretty lofty thing, here. It’s not just like yeah, we’re clocking in, we’re playing the clarinet, we’re blowing through it and that’s nice they pay us for that, if we’re lucky. I think there’s something greater going on here, and I think over the last year I have contemplated this not to find a solution, or not to find an answer, but… the searching for meaning in the process of being a musician is something that is actually a very important thing. This search for meaning. There’s a very famous book I think with that title …
AS: Man’s Search for Meaning. A wonderful book, yes.
AM: Exactly, exactly. And I think in a similar way, some of our responsibility as artists is something greater, like that. To add a lot of beauty to the world when there are a lot of times and there are a lot of places and corners of earth, this little, tiny planet world that we know can be so terribly ugly.
AS: And along the lines of what you’re saying, let’s not forget that the power of music also can be negative. It can also influence people in negative… and that’s actually also important to remember, which path are you going to take.
AS: Now we’re going to move a little bit, we’re just getting now into the other side. In fact, I’m going to ask this awful question. What am I supposed to call you? Are you a humanitarian? Are you a social activist? I always have a different word for you, and I think… all of the above, none of the above?
AM: I think, yeah, you can call me whatever you would like, well, as long as it’s not a bad name, you know. And you can do that too, I guess. I have no, zero control over what you say or anyone else for that matter. But what I’m doing is trying to be thoughtful and helpful. And for myself as well as any others or whoever would like to listen, not just to my clarinet playing but to listen to my perspective on frankly just humanitarian issues and life issues that are going on. And so it is not to try to necessarily steer things in a particular way, but also to bring awareness to things and to help maybe myself and others to understand what’s going on with certain things in the world. And so that has been obviously amplified this past year because I wasn’t spending as much time just playing the clarinet, we were all in front of our computers and had these outlets and interviews and talks and being able to reach people online, to be able to express to people like what we care about as people. So however you want to put that in writing [laughs] or down on the record, that’s what I’m doing.
AS: I can’t help but thinking … remind me, your daughter’s age?
AM: Four and a half.
AS: Now, I’m fascinated, okay, I mean first of all, it’s already weird that you are, Daddy’s a musician, okay, Daddy’s a reasonably high-profile musician in this city, that already takes a little explaining, but as you said there’s been a lot of bad things happening in the world. But let’s talk specifically about your Take Two Knees movement. There’s some seriously brutal stuff that’s happened this year and obviously before. How do you explain this now? We’re not even talking about your students, we’re talking about your daughter, you’re a role model … I think I’m going to love this answer because you have to simplify it, why are people doing this to certain people and what’s Daddy trying to do and what has he been doing?
AM: Well yeah, it’s a little bit early for her, but it is important actually to put it in simple terms like you say. And what I would break it down to are a couple different things. And it does matter what your values are and what your beliefs are, right, that actually does matter. So, if one believes that all people deserve the right to live out their brief lives on this earth with some of the same rights that we may have, that you may have, that we all have an equal capacity for being able to, within reason, to be able to live our lives as we would like, as long as we’re not harming each other, as long as we’re not harming other people, and as long as we’re not infringing on someone else and their right to the same thing. When people’s rights are taken away because they might look different, like if I talk to my young daughter, because Daddy’s skin is darker than this other person’s skin, some of those people may do bad things to them that don’t allow them to live their lives in the same way that you may be lucky to live your life. And this is simply something that people like to say I politicize different things, but if you kind of put it in simple terms, that are complex of course, I think that’s better because people can say this whole concept of treating others how you’d like to be treated is a simple golden rule, that we all know and we learn this. Do we really believe that’s true? And when we see people where that’s not happening in their lives for whatever reason, maybe we should say something about it and try to help those people, and so simply, it’s that.
AS: Can you talk a little more in depth about what you specifically have been doing? Because obviously it’s become recently high profile.
AM: So after so many different circumstances last year, with the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and all of these things hitting a head and us being at home and as musicians being kind of silenced as well, I wanted to speak out against this kind of racial violence, and obviously my experience as a black man. I was taking it from that experience in America as that is a real problem that we have, just violence that goes… people are often unaware of it and then it comes to the forefront, no change happens. These things keep happening over and over again. So, I felt that it was in a self-expression of what can I do as a musician to say something against and tell the world what I believe about this and to have people try to join me in that, and to use their voices and their power and their individual voice in your community to try to make changes.
So that’s how I started this Take Two Knees movement, to try to get people to join me in using their power, usually their voices as musicians and artists to also speak about injustice and speak up for others that may be voiceless or may need us to all stand by them to create a consciousness of change, which is very difficult to do without reaching hearts first. I think part of our roles can be as musicians [becoming] vehicles for that sort of change and that sort of movement and consciousness through our art form. And so last summer I started this viral movement of people making videos and making statements online, not necessarily directly related to that movement, a lot of arts organizations and musical organizations started taking a stand as well on social media and on their platforms for change. But also we did a fundraiser for the Equal Justice Initiative through Take Two Knees and you generously donated to an organization that is really doing real work to bring attention to some of the atrocities that happen in the U.S. and our history to black people, and to support the work of lawyers that are trying to get unjustly convicted people off of death row and to get voting rights to be available for everyone and these kind of organizations are doing this work. So we did a fundraiser where I gave some money and others gave money to Equal Justice Initiative to support that. And I’m going to try to continue this concept of Take Two Knees because I think it’s very important to try to use my platform. I’m in this platform because of my clarinet playing, and because of my musicianship and my reputation in that way, but also, I do interact with a lot of different people, very important people in the music world and have that… I’m sitting here talking to you because of that, those connections with people like you and the ICA and all of these connections we all have. I’m trying to do my little part to bring awareness to it and hopefully encourage all of us to try to see what we can do. I don’t have all the answers or all the solutions, but I think we can all think about it collectively to try to put some action behind our thoughts about what we can do.
AS: I’d like to observe since COVID started, I’ve been following some of your interviews, I’ve been involved myself, and it’s wonderful to see two things: you can map your story to identify history and you can actually map “history,” within reason, in how you’ve shaped it. So for example, the first interview I saw with you was with Richard Hawkins who you mentioned before, before all the George Floyd stuff. That was an incredibly different interview let’s say, than mine, which you had with me just a few months later. But now, a few months later again, you can see… even I can see how your analysis has changed, because I remember asking this question in our interview, what are you trying to do with all this and you were still trying to find your own clarity it seemed, and now it’s well thought out and very well identified. But now look, you’ve won the Avery Fisher Prize, you’ve given some of that money to Juilliard’s organization MAP (Music Advancement Program) that you’re heavily involved with, and things are progressing, so I really enjoy – if anyone wants to I would follow Anthony’s path literally this year because it’s really remarkable, it’s a remarkable identification point of what happened this year and how Anthony actually had influence over that. So, thanks and congratulations on that one.
Why don’t we talk about MAP? In fact, I’m going to ask you some very basic questions, because you’ve been so good now at taking these complex [questions] and trying to simplify them. So, is there an underrepresentation of certain groups on stage and off stage, in the audience, and what do you think… if this is a problem, let’s say, what do you think would remedy it? What directions, what can we do about this, how are we actually going to make a difference? People complain all the time. How do we solve it?
AM: Yeah, first of all, you have to identify that there is an issue, right, so that’s very obvious. For instance, just specifically in America, do our orchestras in cities in America look like our communities? If they don’t, do you – first of all if you don’t think that’s a problem, that’s one issue. If you do think that it is an issue and usually when you find out about the history of music in America and the history of classical music in America you can do a little bit of research about that, you understand that a lot of that comes from the history of segregation, the history of discrimination, and not that people did not want to play music that were of darker complexion. Because then you understand the birth of jazz, you understand the birth of American jazz music and where that came from and how that thrived when musicians were turned away and there were segregated unions in most American cities for blacks and for whites. So you understand that history and then you can say oh, okay, now I see that that’s part of where this more homogenous thing came from, besides the fact that a lot of this music hundreds of years ago came from Europe, Northern Europe. That’s the obvious part.
The less obvious part is why there’s not very much diversity on stages. And so, in thinking about that, and let’s say one acknowledges that that’s a problem and you understand the history of racism and you do all of that kind of work or you know it because it’s obvious, then you say, okay, you acknowledge the problem, then you say if you’re an individual or if you’re an organization it’s very different. If you’re an organization, then you can say what have we done, what can we do better? So, how do we run our auditions? Are our auditions based on old ways of thinking about who should show up? Are our auditions biased toward people that look like us only, specifically, and people that only study with people that look like us? Are systems of evaluating musicians to be based on solely the playing of one or two pieces or five pieces by a certain player in a certain way? Do they bias that orchestra or that organization to certain types of playing, so certain types of players? And is that a system? Or is it really a system like basketball where you know if the ball goes in or it doesn’t, or is it more subjective, which music does, and how does that lean? That’s at one level, examining the audition process, examining the culture of orchestras in the world and in America, and what that does for people that are maybe trying to break into the field.
But then you go younger, okay, so what happens to the kids that start off and they’re lucky enough to get music? What happens to those folks? Are they having experiences that keep them off the stage? And so you dive in to the educational part and that piece. And is there a culture within those institutions that prevent or create barriers of entry for young people of different colors and races to enter the field. Or is the existence that we are realizing now, knowledge, power, programming… so have we been part of the tradition that I grew up in, as you did, of only thinking there were only pieces written by certain men of a certain color and that no other pieces existed by any other composers throughout all of time that might be worthy of our consideration by females, by blacks, by Asians, by other people? And the answer to that is actually no. There are instances of that kind of greatness that exist all over society, all over the world, and that realization is a very powerful one. So that’s one where we can all go on our journey to say, oh, maybe I should branch out. Maybe I should ask those questions the next time I am given the opportunity to do so. And the list goes on, there’s not enough time to really dive into all the different layers of this, but one thing you can do is to first identify it as a problem, then try to find strategies for changing behavior within the culture of your organization to maybe create pathways for the type of diversity that one would want.
AS: So, it sounds like you don’t really have a very concrete answer, it’s kind of like your situation before about – it’s the journey, it’s the balance, and this needs to be tweaked and every organization has their own way, maybe, that they can contribute, every person, and so forth if I get this right.
AM: Well, yeah, you have to ask a very specific question as far as are we talking about individuals trying to shape stages, are we talking about what kind of decisions you make as an executive director of an orchestra, as a music director of an orchestra, or if you’re an artistic director, how would you go about that? That is very particular and one is to actually think about the problem, and to say we want to set goals. What are your goals? You can’t make changes if you don’t have goals. So that’s one simple thing. And that is at every single level that we talk about. So I think it’s very important when you’re talking about a general question, to have [a] thoughtful answer about some of those things. So, you could dive into how do you get more kids into a conservatory program or something like that and then you could talk about training early on and you can talk about these things. I think it’s quite a bit more nuanced than people may think. But a couple of the things I mentioned are pretty good starting points.
AS: What I like about this is before we were taking kind of complex issues and simplifying it. And now we’re taking an issue that I think sometimes is very simplified, and you say wait a minute, maybe it’s a little bit more, as you say, nuanced or complex than that. Let’s talk more about you and how this all applies. Just let us know, do you have any recent projects that have been very close to your heart? And I know you have some future projects, so if there’s anything in particular that you want the world to know about, let us know right now.
AM: Yeah there have been quite a few really great things going on actually. Recently I did a project at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City with the Catalyst Quartet. And prior to that we released an album and I recorded with them. They have a series called “Uncovered” of albums they’re going to release of composers of color. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s clarinet quintet is the piece we played on this album, it’s a gorgeous piece. We did a project there with a world premiere of Richard Danielpour’s piece Four Angels for clarinet and strings. This piece was dedicated to the four girls who were killed in the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963 as a hate crime by members of the KKK. He wrote this stunningly gorgeous, heart-wrenching work for this and we did it in front of a piece of art in the gallery that I chose at the museum by Kerry James Marshall who was also from Alabama and is a Black American artist. I just loved this work and so we did that, the Coleridge-Taylor, and I played a piece by Adolphus Hailstork, Three Smiles for Tracey in a different part of this gallery. I’m really proud of that and I have other projects brewing. A lot of online work that you can find and search and you can find some of that on the YouTube channel. I’m premiering a trio by James Lee III – also an African American composer – I premiered his clarinet quintet which is fantastic. I also just did a stream of Valerie Coleman’s clarinet quintet, which is based on the life of Muhammad Ali, and I may have a project where I do some of that work and another premiere of a trio that is going to be in a concert at the 92nd Street Y by James Lee III, a trio for clarinet, soprano and piano. I’m going to play that alongside Schubert’s Shepherd on the Rock, so those are just a few. In the fall I’m going to release an album, and it’s going to have Brahms and Weber on it.
AM: No, I recorded the quintet with Pacifica years ago and Mozart, but it’s going to have the sonatas and Weber Grand Duo Concertant.
AS: Great, and who’s the pianist?
AM: The pianist is Gloria Chien, and we’ve been dreaming of doing this particular recording since we started working together, I don’t know, maybe 10 years ago, and we got an opportunity because both of us were, like everyone else this last year, at home more and so we just finally said it’s now or never for us to get together and do this and so really happy and excited about that.
AS: I remember again in old interviews… I’m just looking at you now the way things have been going, you had started quite slow at the very beginning of COVID, now you’re very busy. I remember you mentioned your brother before, who’s a flutist, he gave some very good advice once, he said, you need to know when to sit down on the sofa and you need to know when to get off. Have you been following your big brother’s advice?
AM: One thing, I’m in a comfortable chair, I’m in a more comfortable chair for this interview because this is where I’ve lived my life. I would love to just sit on the couch and do nothing, but sometimes when life takes you on a path, frankly just go with it. And so as much as you’re right, I’ve been very, very tired for a long period of time over the last year because I have been giving a lot. But I’m not going to complain about that, because I feel like in a way it’s a gift, even though it has been hard, and the gift has been I’ve also been able to be home with my family and still connect with students all over the world and do some performing which people weren’t doing, and recording with great musicians still. So that’s a gift that I can’t complain about because that’s why I’m a musician… and so to be able to do that and also be at home, and that’s been stressful in its own right, but it was very slow at the beginning and very not slow now. But I will get there, I will take some time for myself at some point and reevaluate and think about a year ago today, where I was and where I am now, and I’m just honestly also I’m happy to be alive here, talking to you. So many people lost so many people close to them over the past year and I have friends who have lost close people to them and so I’m just happy to be here and be breathing with you, talking to you, so that’s where I am with all of that.
AS: Actually, to me it sounds like you have been following your brother’s advice, knowing when to go on the sofa and know when not to, so I think it sounds perfect. So we’re going to wrap this up perhaps with a very important question. I’d like to know what advice would you give to your 20-year-old self, and/or generally to young people today? I mean we’ve talked about your humanitarian side, we’ve talked about COVID and how that’s been affecting society and the music world, we’ve talked about obviously your clarinet side, so what would you do differently, what would you tell your 20-year-old self, and what would you tell young people worldwide in general?
AM: There are a couple things. I would say imagine what you want. That’s what I mean when people talk about what they mean, when they talk about goal-setting, right, imagine what you want in life, imagine what you would like. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is to just take care of yourself, to be able to – in order to work, in order to try, in order to strive for things – to answer that question number one (what do you want, what would you like, what do you imagine) you need to be in an okay place mentally and physically to be able to do that. This whole year is for me it’s been about how am I taking care of myself, how do we take care of each other, how do we take care of ourselves so we can be in a place so we can breathe better and sing better and create more. And so that’s kind of like a part of what I’ve been doing for a long time, which is trying to work on the mental stuff, trying to be healthier so I can continue to do this kind of work. Because none of this stuff is easy, life isn’t easy and throws really crazy things at you, so you’ll be okay, so if you take care of yourself and try to do healthy, happy things for yourself, so you’ll be okay, because then you can show up again and again for whatever it is that you imagine that you want. And that can be little steps, you can take little steps to get you to big places.
That’s a third thing I would say, is that to get to number one again, don’t expect there to be large outsized jumps in everything that you do, look for the little steps and the little movements and the little goals, those little moments of stepping your way to those things that you’re imagining and to go on that path. To get yourself carried on that path it might be a little rocky, it might be a little bit bumpy, but if you go on the little step here and the little step there and don’t be discouraged by every little bump down that life throws at you, you will get closer to that place that you imagine and that moment that you dream of, and know that you’re being true to whatever your path, wherever your path will take you.
Fourth, I think it’s important to keep your ears open and your eyes open and aware so you don’t miss anything. What do I mean by that? I mean that sometimes our journey happens because we might have made a decision here or there that may be a small decision but that affects everything that comes after that. So, be aware and listen to what’s happening around you, look at what’s going on around you, and how you’re interacting with your world. Because often, when you are more aware and you’re listening to others and you’re kinder and gentler to yourself and hardworking and passionate and sensitive to what’s going on and how you’re saying things and how other people are saying things to you, you can create a path that you won’t miss as much. I think sometimes when we get distracted or are unhealthy or too tired to just do it, we miss the things that might be a great opportunity because we just can’t hear, we can’t see, and we can’t be aware of that opportunity for what it is. We turn away from it, and really it could be a great opportunity.
AS: Wonderful. Anthony, wonderful to connect with you again, wonderful to see the evolution of, I mean it’s literally been just over a year, and I can’t wait to see a year from today, what you’ve added to the world and how you’ve moved along and all that.
AM: And you as well, Andy, I’ve seen some of the newer videos as well and it’s just great to talk to you again. Hope to see you again soon.
AS: Thanks again Anthony. All the best, and when it’s time, take your brother’s advice.
AM: Thanks, I’ll try.
About the Writer: Andrew Simon has served as the Hong Kong Philharmonic’s principal clarinetist since 1988. In 1992 he became the first American to perform in North Korea as soloist. As guest professor he has frequented institutions worldwide such as Yale University, the New World Symphony, the Royal College of Music in London, the Sydney Conservatorium and the Central Conservatory in Beijing. In 2020 Andy founded the videocast Andy’s Licorice Talk featuring interviews with many of today’s most influential clarinetists.