Today I had the extreme honor of representing MPR before a judicial funding committee at the Minnesota State Capitol. Things were much more "procedural" than I had expected, and I greatly appreciated being able to get a peak "inside politics", so to speak. I'd like to offer the notes I prepared to read before the committee. Things move fast in those rooms, so I didn't get to everything, but preparing put me in a really nice head space, and maybe my notes will inspire you!
Mr. Chair, and Representatives - thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak before you this afternoon.
My name is Garrett McQueen, and I’m a national host and producer of classical music at MPR. My principal role is hosting Music Through the Night, which is a national service through C24 that reaches about 250 public radio stations nationwide, with almost 2 million listeners nightly.
I’d like to tell you a bit of my story. When I was in 7th grade I graduated to a new school, and having been a singer throughout my childhood up to that point, I was interested in going a step further and learning to play an instrument. So I joined the band, and my director handed me a bassoon.
It ended up being a really good fit for me. After going through middle and high school, I decided that I wanted to major in Music Education in college, and I did. At the beginning of my second senior year, I realized that the classroom wasn’t exactly where I should be, so I switched at the last minute to a major in music performance, and after graduation, I set off to the University of Southern California, where I’d eventually earn a masters in bassoon performance.
I didn’t know what was next for me. I had planned on going back to Memphis and just finding some sort of job, but my teacher at USC convinced me that a profession in classical music was in fact attainable for me. With that in mind, I auditioned for a 2 year spot with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which I won, and in my second year there, I won a permanent spot with the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra - so I landed back in my home state for a little while.
Being the only black person with the KSO, and one of the few black people in a professional orchestra nationwide quickly grabbed lots of attention. In 2014 I was invited to New York City, to speak in a focus group given by the Mellon Foundation, and they presented an idea that I had never thought about before - what is the role of classical music in our very divided society - both politically and culturally.
From then on, I dedicated my career, and the platforms I held, to exploring that question, and finding answers. This desire to impact audiences led me to a temporary position as a radio announcer at WUOT-FM in Knoxville, and my impact was appreciated so much that they made my position permanent. I would eventually write and produce a radio series on the relationship between race and classical music, and that got a bit of national attention.
Fast forward to December of 2017 - I was invited to play with Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and on that trip I met Brian, and Julie Amacher, who is now my manager. They’d heard about me from another member of the staff at MPR who was familiar with the work I was doing. I think our conversations went well enough for me to be invited to apply for the position that I currently hold, and here I am.
I offer my story as an example of the possibilities attached to an early exposure to music. I didn’t know what a bassoon was when Mr. Turner handed one to me as a 7th grader, but I knew it was something interesting, and different. With the Class Notes video you just saw (or are about to see) I’m sure you could imagine how inspired a young person could be to explore this thing called classical music even more. We have to make sure, though, that access is never overlooked, with with features that appear online AND over the air, I think we’re making big strides in knocking down those walls.
In order to create a more equal, and more importantly, a more equitable world, we have to make sure every voice is being heard, in as many arenas as possible. I believe that every business, every organization, and even every convening body like this one, can only benefit from more diversity. The arena I happen to “play” in, pun intended, is music, so I believe I’ve found my calling, thanks to access and exposure from an early age.
The programs, and programming of classicalMPR can play a vital role in this, from these class notes videos, to other online features like our classical kids story time, and even over the air features, like the classical kids corner you may have heard from time to time on Saturday mornings. I’m not here to tell you that the work is done - as a member of the classicalMPR team, I will be the very first to say that we have lots and lots of work to do concerning more diverse practices, from hiring, to inter-organizational conversations, all the way to what makes it through the airwaves and to the web.
I’m going to close by revisiting the question that was posed to me back in New York City, on that cold 2014 December morning - maybe not quite as cold as we’ve seen here lately but you get what I mean. What is the role of classical music in our very divided society? From where I stand, it’s role is to create opportunity, hope, and change for the next generation. I hope that you’ll think about this, and even consider what YOUR role can be, in helping us do the work I’ve personally dedicated my entire life to.