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New York Philharmonic Clarinetist Takes Two Knees To Protest Racism11:07
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New York Philharmonic clarinetist Anthony McGill. (Courtesy)
New York Philharmonic clarinetist Anthony McGill. (Courtesy)

Clarinetist Anthony McGill posted a video of himself playing a mournful rendition of "America the Beautiful," then dropping to both knees and holding his clarinet behind his back.

McGill, the New York Philharmonic’s first Black principal player, asked other classical performers to do the same. Now, the hashtag #TakeTwoKnees is spreading through the classical world.

“If it's not beautiful for everyone, it's not beautiful from sea to shining sea,” he says.

One morning, McGill says he couldn’t sleep because of fear surrounding the COVID-19 crisis and anguish over injustice. He spent the rest of the day figuring out what he wanted to say — until his wife suggested playing “America the Beautiful.”

About 37 seconds in, McGill starts playing in a minor key to demonstrate that things can improve. Some people accuse protesters of not loving their country, he says, but changing from a major to a minor key means looking in the mirror and identifying injustice.

“Going into that minor key represents that it's not always as beautiful as we think it is. It's beautiful because we can actually say what's wrong with our country and what we need to work on,” he says. “That's why I … finished out with some doubt, with some questioning sounds in my instrument because there's pain going on and there are people that are feeling things that we need to address.”

When McGill dropped to both knees, he wanted to say that taking one knee hasn’t been enough. But the action took on new meaning after he filmed the video.

There’s no wrong way to interpret his movement, he says.

“This is a Black man going down to his knees and putting his arms and his instrument behind his back, saying, ‘Take me, arrest me.’ And in a way, as I was doing it, it felt like surrender,” he says. “We surrender to the hope that everyone will come together on this issue and try to fix it and try to make things better. We kneel because we have tried so hard that it's hard to stand.”

Classical musicians from across the world are responding to McGill: trumpeter Billy Hunter, trombonist Weston Sprott, violinist Noah Bendix-Balgley, dancers from The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and tenor Lawrence Brownlee.

Watching all of the response videos showed McGill that a lot of other people have also “been wanting to say something, to stand up, to kneel down, to stand up,” he says. He feels emotional when he watches these videos — whether it’s 75 students from across the world playing together or an amateur taking their instrument out for the first time in 20 years.

“Let me use my voice as a musician, as an artist, as a dancer to actually express that I agree with the fact that Black lives do matter,” he says.

Composer Leonard Bernstein once preached that classical musicians shouldn’t speak, but rather communicate through their music. Classical musicians aren’t used to publicly speaking out because they work in silence, McGill says.

“Our power is in our music,” he says, “but couple that with our words and our actions, and I think it's even more powerful.”

Few people of color work as classical musicians. To prevent bias, some auditions require musicians to perform behind screens. McGill says blind auditions are a good way to start diversifying the classical world.

Everyone deserves equal access to music education and what goes on behind the scenes at concert halls, he says. Musicians’ lives and creativity are enriched by collaborating with people of different races, cultures, religions and genders, he says.

For McGill, he fell in love with the clarinet because it sang to him.

“It had this sound of lamentation, sweetness. It can sound jazzy and lively. It can also sound remorseful and sorrowful,” he says. “It can go deep, like the human voice, I think, into the spirit and inside the heart.”

Video credit: Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Annapolis Symphony Academy, The Northwest School in Seattle, Washington, and Antigua & Barbuda Youth Symphony Orchestra video


Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Robin YoungAllison Hagan adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on June 15, 2020.

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