Innovation and Influence: Together They Can Make Beautiful Music

Last week I—along with millions of Americans—watched the historic inauguration of President Obama. But as a musician, I received the added bonus of a lovely and moving rendition of John William’s “Air and Simple Gifts.”(1) I have long been a fan of violinst Itzhak Perlman; I also knew of a sensational cellist named Yo-Yo Ma back when he was a student at Harvard. But I was just as moved and impressed by the playing of clarinetist Anthony McGill—and I play clarinet myself!

McGill’s dark, rich tone and and liquid, sensitive playing grabbed my ear from his very first phrase. I knew he played principal clarinet (that’s first chair, for those of you who were in high-school band) with one of the top American Orchestras (Metropolitan Opera, I found out) and also played with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I had to find out more, not only because he was a great player (perhaps the finest of his generation) but also because—sadly—there are all too few African Americans playing classical music professionally in the U.S.A. Anthony McGill, I think, rose to the top of his profession—not just with an amazing talent—but with the help of innovation and influence. 

Chicago—Anthony McGill’s hometown—has a wonderfully innovative school, the Merit School of Music. Whenever public school budgets get cut—which has happened all too often lately—one of the first things to get cut is the music program. The Merit School of music was founded 30 years ago in response to budget cuts:

When the Chicago Public Schools eliminated music from the elementary school curriculum in 1979, Alice Pfaelzer and Emma Endres Kountz took action and founded Merit School of Music. Merit School of Music is dedicated to ensuring that Chicago-area children have the chance to experience and excel in music. Merit first opened its doors in borrowed space at Roosevelt University, establishing its most selective program, the Tuition-free Conservatory.(2)

But, unlike most music schools, the Merit School is not surrounded by the affluent. It is outside the Chicago Loop, about equally distant from the Near North Side and the Near South Side. Perhaps this is as near to an ideal location as possible for the school to fulfill its stated mission:

Merit School of Music provides high-quality music education to students in metropolitan Chicago. Its primary goals are to help young people achieve their full musical potential, to remove economic barriers to participation, and to stimulate personal and educational growth through music. Merit’s programs are provided without regard to national origin, race, religious belief, gender or physical handicap.(2)

Classical music—and perhaps any serious instrumental music—is largely the pursuit of the middle- and upper-class. Musical instruments can be costly; music lessons are a big investment of time and money. The Merit School is innovative in attempting to remove social and economic barriers from the pursuit of instrumental music. Anthony McGill received his early training at the Merit School; he (along with his brother, who plays flute in the San Diego Symphony) are wonderful examples of the talent that is out there, if only it can be developed and nurtured properly.

The Merit School provided the innovation, but I wish I knew more about how McGill was influenced to pursue music. In a Chicago Sun-Times interview his father said:

Our goal was to expose them to as much artistic endeavor and culture as possible… just to keep them busy along with their school work. We didn’t want them to [get involved] with all kinds of things that are out there on the street in Chicago. We had them in everything — tennis, tae kwon do, swimming, basketball, visual arts, music. And lo and behold, they really had an affinity for music. They sort of chose music themselves.(3)

Whatever influence tactics they used, it worked. By the way, McGill was chosen to play at the Inauguration by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who is on the Merit School’s National Advisory Board. Ma had played chamber music with McGill some years ago. Yo-Yo Ma said, “I was so struck just by his artistry… I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I really want to play with him again.” And play they did. 

Joel Kleinbaum
Blogger-in-Chief as well as Classical Bassoonist and sometimes Clarinetist

Listen to Anthony McGill play Debussy and Gershwin


(1) Since the inauguration, the media has seen fit to focus on the fact that the musicians synched to a pre-recorded tape of themselves because of the cold. As a musician, I can only marvel that they even considered playing live in that kind of cold. Simple laws of acoustics and physics dictate that extremes of temperature wreak havoc with musical instruments. Any non-plastic clarinet would have played at least a half-step flat in that cold; the pianist said at least a dozen keys were sticking. They made the right decision to go with the tape.

(2) From the Merit Music School’s website

(3) “South Sider an accompanist to history”, Chicago Sun Times, January 18, 2009

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2 comments on “Innovation and Influence: Together They Can Make Beautiful Music
  1. Jamie says:

    Along those lines (and I didn’t know they played with a tape! I LOVED that piece however they did it!) if you haven’t already, sign this petition demanding a Secretary for the Arts so that more Americans will have musical and artistic opportunities like McGill and schools like the Merit Music School will have someone in the federal government really fighting for them.

  2. Kim says:

    I also loved the music – and the fact that they were so obviously enjoying themselves!!! I do think we should all use our influence skills to get music back into the schools for all children – it not just “nice to have” but research shows that it is very supportive of academic learning. There are several programs I’ve heard about, in Latin America, especially, where children living in the favelas or barrios are given musical instruments and the chance to play and learn – and their success is amazing. I will check and see if i can find anything on YouTube that shows this kind of project.

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