Demarre McGill is the principal flutist of the Seattle Symphony, associate professor of flute at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, and an artist-faculty member at the Aspen Music Festival and School. He is a founding member of The Myriad Trio, and The McGill/McHale Trio, and is a recipient of an Avery Fisher Career Grant and the Sphinx Medal of Excellence.
What do you like best about performing?
I love the energy that can exist between musician and audience. As performers, we spend a lot of our time (hopefully) enjoying the process of progressing and learning; however, the moment during a concert when the performer is so connected to the music that the listener can’t help but be drawn into that particular sonic world is what I live for. That shared experience is the greatest reward for all of the hours of practicing and studying, and although it isn’t an easy connection to make, it is something that is absolutely worth striving for.
I have a recording with my flute, viola, and harp group, The Myriad Trio, entitled “The Eye of Night.” The title track was written for us by the amazing composer David Bruce and is really one of my favorite pieces to play. I highly recommend that all of the chamber music-loving flutists out there check it out. I’ve also recorded with the McGill/McHale Trio music for flute, clarinet, and piano, and have a recording of flute, clarinet, and orchestra works with my brother, Anthony McGill. The McGill/McHale Trio is also working on a project that we hope to record of works written for us. I’m particularly excited about this and can’t wait to share more details when the time is right!
What does your schedule look like for the next 6 months?
Of course, most of us are facing an unclear performing future. Although all of my summer festivals were canceled, and I’m not sure what will happen with the beginning of next season’s Seattle Symphony concerts, so far my solo and chamber music performances from August to December are still on the calendar. That includes concerts in Santa Barbara/Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Oakland, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. It’s definitely possible that the presenters will need to postpone these performances as well, but we’ll see! I’m grateful that I can look forward to teaching privately throughout the summer, as well as teaching my wonderful studio at CCM in the fall. I’ll also be working on a pretty big commissioning project with my brother and pianist Michael McHale that will hopefully be completed over the next few months.
What are your goals personally? Professionally?
I would love to continue creating a life where I have the freedom to do what I love. In an ideal world, I want to be able to show up to every job, not because I have to, but because I sincerely love it. This is definitely easier said than done but is something I have tried to cultivate my entire adult life. I believe that if we don’t stay connected to the positive feelings many of us felt during the early years of music-making when it really becomes a job, it is so easy for the beauty and art to be drained from what we do.
I also want to do more to use my music, and my experience becoming a professional musician, to help others find their path in life. I’ve done things in the past, via classes and talks at many institutions, to try to inspire and help others reach their potential, but I really need and want to do a lot more of this, especially for people in underserved communities.
What inspires you the most in life?
I can clearly remember when my current musical life was just a wish. I can also clearly remember how much my parents sacrificed for me to make those dreams become a reality. This has always been reason enough for me to try to reach my potential as a musician. In addition to that, throughout my life, even when I’ve been far from perfect, their love and support were as consistent as it has always been. Never forgetting these two things really provides me all the inspiration I need. Other than that, I really love music! So, if for some reason I’m feeling uninspired, there is so much music out there I can listen to make everything feel alright!
What has been your greatest challenge?
The greatest challenge in my life has been to live in the present moment. When I was around 12 years old, my best friend asked me what was my greatest fear. I answered that I was most afraid of dreaming my life away. I’ve always been a dreamer and a goal-setter, and have benefited from my strong belief that work paired with dreams equals wishes come true, but I’m very aware that sometimes the things right in front of you are even more beautiful than the things you can imagine. Making sure I keep my eyes open long enough to recognize the beautiful people, things, and situations that already exist in my life has always needed to be my mantra.
Who were your music mentors? And what did you learn from them?
I’ve been so fortunate to have had amazingly caring and thoughtful teachers; starting with Barry Elmore, my elementary school band director, who recognized not only my talent and potential but also the talent and potential of so many other young black students in Chicago. He gave me performance opportunities even before I was old enough to play in the school band, and when I was out of elementary school, he became a common link for many aspiring classical musicians who grew up in areas that didn’t typically nurture this particular career path.
Susan Levitin was my teacher from around age 12-17, and during this period she provided me with everything I needed to be able to do well post-high school. Her flute studio was filled with talented, ambitious, kind, and supportive young musicians, and it’s very hard not to grow when you’re in that kind of musical environment.
I studied with Jeffrey Khaner for 4 years, and Julius Baker for 7 years. They were the two flutists I looked up to the most when I was in college and one step away from the professional existence I was hoping would be my life. They were both clear examples of the type of professional I wanted to be - great musicians, and great teachers.
Can you give us 5 quirky, secret, fun, (don't think too much about this) hobbies or passions?
Ok, let’s call this “True Confessions with Demarre McGill.”
1. I dance almost every morning. I’ve always had a playlist I listen to when I’m getting ready for the day, but over the past two months, I’ve discovered that mini dance parties are essential.
2. I don’t usually have time to play video games, but during this time of self-isolation I’ve discovered, there are some gorgeous and fun games that tell really beautiful stories.
3. When I’m on an airplane I listen to the same song on repeat until we’re at cruising altitude, whenever there’s turbulence, and again right before we land. I do this because if something ever happened, I want to be in control of at least one part of it - what music I’m listening to.
4. I sometimes feel I could teach a class on the evolution of pop music and hip hop.
5. In another life, I would live on an island and write pop songs for a living. And maybe I would sell papayas and mangoes on the side.
What 3 things would you offer as advice for a young flutist?
I believe that it’s never too early to create a sound that you consider beautiful. If you have this as a goal from the start, it increases the likelihood that you will eventually play with that beautiful sound. You will also be more connected to the sounds/music you are creating, and you learn immediately that one of the great benefits of playing an instrument is how amazing and therapeutic the act of trying to create something beautiful is.
In addition to this, from the beginning of any flutist’s journey, I would encourage them to keep in mind that we are all learning how to play the flute so that we can make music. It’s so easy to forget that that’s the point of it all. We spend countless hours, days, and eventually years, trying to improve the technical aspects of playing the instrument, while not believing that the sounds coming out of our flutes have the potential to inspire, brighten moods, and change lives. If a young flutist is fully aware of this, it provides context for all of the technical exercises they should be practicing, and those exercises become more enjoyable because they have a purpose - for you to be able to have the freedom to bring any piece of music, regardless of difficulty, to life.
And my final advice to a young flutist would be to have fun! Whether flute playing becomes part of your professional future or not, it can always be something that brings you joy, and can always be a vehicle for your self-expression!