Interview with Sara McDonald

Sara McDonald is a vocalist/composer living in Brooklyn New York. She recently graduated from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music with a degree in vocal jazz. Soon after graduation she went on to perform at the Montreal Jazz Festival, and then headed to Germany to record this big band record. In February she was named the winner of the Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award.

1. Tell us about your band the NYChillharmonic and what you have coming up!

The NYChillharmonic is a 22 piece progressive-indie-jazz ensemble that I write, arrange/sing for and lead. Our next show is on August 2nd at National Sawdust! Some international touring is happening this fall as well and our next album will be out in ten years. (Joking)

2. You were recently named one of Brooklyn Magazine’s 30 under 30. You have this unique position of being the face of the band as well as the composer and cattle wrangler of all 22 people in the band. How do you keep track of everything as well as manage it with everything else you do in NYC?

I’m a control freak, which works very well when running a massive group. I’m also very bad at delegating. I like to do everything myself even when I know it’s killing me. Over time I’ve had to learn how to pace myself. Running a large band while maintaining other projects and working a fulltime job requires a lot of planning. When I first created this ensemble it was sort of a fun, sloppy mess. But the project grew and the level of musicianship rose, and I knew that I needed to treat the music and the musicians playing it with equal respect. I keep detailed lists of everything I need to do, and I stay in touch with people. With so many moving parts involved in my work, I have to keep tabs on everyone and everything involved. Also, over time, a natural order and flow sort of come into place. But I really do spend a lot of time sending emails and making phone calls.

3. How do you face the position of being a female brass player and a female band leader? Have you faced discrimination or difficulties in either of these roles, and how do you deal with it?

Fortunately I have never truly felt discriminated against in a professional setting because of who I am or what I play. People (men) make comments, jokingly and ignorantly. I was a vocal major in college but I’m also proficient on french horn and piano. Plus I write and arrange for ensembles of many shapes and sizes. So when someone questions my ability to actually play another instrument I just set them straight. This is NYC; anyone that manages to stick around and work for many years is probably good at more than one thing, or they’re just doing one thing a lot better than everyone else.

4. Is there anything you wished you had known as a student or young professional that you know now? Any advice that you’d like to share with younger female musicians?

Forget about the doubts of others. Not everyone is going to understand your ideas the first time around and that is really ok. When I first began this project everyone was so quick to hit me with unsolicited advice. Granted some of it was completely legitimate – voicing chords better, learning easier-to-read notation tricks, etc. But a lot of it was and still is – “why does your band need to be this big?” Sometimes that still stings. Have those people not considered that I have put years of thought into this? But it’s not their fault. People see something they can’t immediately categorize and it frustrates them. I’m glad it’s the exact opposite for me. To summarize – if you have a clear idea of what you want to do – go for it. Don’t feel shy or embarrassed about it, and definitely do not half ass it.

5. Any resources you recommend? Books, podcasts, recordings that changed your life, etc?

Listen to what you like! I don’t ever listen to jazz big band recordings but here I am with my giant band playing jazz clubs.

There are a lot of musicians I admire and listen to regularly though – Hanne Hukkelburg, Grizzly Bear, Kishi Bashi, Nine Inch Nails, and Madonna are always at the top of my recently played list (lol) but nothing gets the inspiration flowing like going for a long run and deep cleaning my apartment. (Control freak.)

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