In fifth grade, Na’Zir McFadden broke plastic hangers and brought them to his band teacher, asking if he could conduct the school band using his “baton.”
“She never told me ‘no’ and she never said, ‘that’s not a baton,’ she kind of let my imagination go wild,” said McFadden, a senior music performance major.
After trading in his “hanger-batons” for a baton his friend gifted him, McFadden began seeking out every opportunity he could to gain experience conducting. These efforts led him to be named assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and music director of the Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra on April 6. He begins his new jobs at the Orchestra in September and is looking forward to shaping the next generation of classical musicians.
“I was in shock, a deep state of shock that I couldn’t really feel anything, and I’m still in a deep state of shock,” McFadden said. “I’m looking for apartments right now. It hasn’t hit me that I’m about to move.”
As assistant conductor at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, McFadden is responsible for learning all of the music the Orchestra will use during their twice-a-week concerts and conducting 10 weeks of concerts, including pop and classical chamber concerts, he said. As music director, he decides what music the Symphony Youth Orchestra will play.
He hesitated to audition to be the assistant conductor because he accepted a position with the United States Navy Band, a band made up of Navy members, in 2021 as a clarinetist but decided to take a chance and apply anyway to see if he could get past the first stage of the application process, McFadden said.
Once he advanced to the final round, which includes an audition and interview, he realized he had a unique opportunity as a young Black conductor because most people like him do not make it this far, he said.
“I’m 21, I’m Black, I’m an inner-city Philadelphia kid, I went through the public schools, I’m from a single family household,” McFadden said. “You know, I’m not supposed to be the assistant conductor of the Detroit Symphony, I’m not supposed to have these opportunities.”
Less than 2 percent of musicians in major American orchestras are Black, WBUR reported.
After months of rehearsing with Philadelphia Ballet Music Director Beatrice Jona Affron, who he works with as the inaugural apprentice conductor for the 2021-2022 concert season, on Zoom, he flew to Detroit for his audition and interview in February.
McFadden received an email the next day from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra asking to speak with him in the middle of rehearsal at the Ballet but had to anxiously wait three hours until he was done to reply, McFadden said.
He joined a Zoom call in Affron’s office where the orchestra offered him both the assistant conductor position and the music director position and decided to take a leave of absence from Temple to accept the positions.
Affron was apprehensive about how the Zoom meeting was going and couldn’t resist poking her head into her office, she said. When McFadden gave her a thumbs up while he was talking, she knew he’d gotten the job.
“It was hard to keep it a secret, it was very very exciting news,” she said.
When he was 16 years old, McFadden and a group of friends asked Affron if they could sit in the orchestra pit and observe the “Nutcracker” because he wanted to see how music and dance work together. Affron said ‘yes’ and set up chairs for them in the back of the pit, Affron said.
After McFadden graduated high school in 2018, Affron invited him to apply for an apprenticeship as part of the Philadelphia Ballet’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Access Portal, a task force created to make the Ballet more inclusive, which Affron is a member of, she said.
“I designed it really honestly with [McFadden] in mind because I knew he was around, I knew he still was very interested in being a conductor,” she said.
McFadden also studied under Gi Lee, an adjunct clarinet professor at Temple University, before taking his leave of absence.
Lee was impressed with McFadden’s hard work and talent and hopes they both can work together one day with McFadden conducting, he said.
McFadden is excited to work with the children in Symphony Youth Orchestra and share his story with them, which he hopes will show them anything is possible, he said.
“They’re the future of classical music, music in general, and having a direct impact – I couldn’t ask for anything more,” he said.