Interview with Jack McNeill

Each month on our ‘Cumbria’s got talent’ page we’ll be interviewing a Cumbrian musician who has made a successful career out of music. We start with the amazing and inspiring Clarinetist Jack McNeill. A must-read for every young musician.


Jack McNeil


What’s your job: I’m a professional freelance clarinet player, musician and actor, workshop leader, composer, singer-songwriter, guitarist and teacher.


What instruments do you play? I play the clarinet, bass clarinet, Eb clarinet, guitar, I sing and have been known to dabble in electronic wind instruments, live electronics and wurlitzer’s.


How and when did you first become interested in music? I started learning the clarinet at Kingmoor Junior School and later had a fantastic time performing and touring with the Carlisle Youth Concert Band and Cumbria Youth Orchestra which were organised by inspiring, passionate teachers and musicians, several of whom I am still in touch with now. I started the guitar while at Trinity School after Brampton Live left me itching to start writing my own music! Through school and 6th Form I took every performance opportunity available to me, I always had the support of my family, friends and teachers there and I was very proud to win a trophy at the Carlisle Music and Drama Festival.


How did you get to work in music? After my A-levels I applied to study at the Birmingham Conservatoire and was accepted after audition. A BMus Hons later I had learnt just how much I wanted to pursue a professional performing career and so I applied again to study for an MMus and later an Advanced Post-graduate Diploma, which with the support of both the Countess of Munster Musical Trust and the Musicians Benevolent Fund through audition, I was able to do.

Specialist music colleges like Birmingham give you a safe and lively environment to develop your skills, play with other like-minded friends and form working ensembles of your own, make invaluable connections in the real world, be inspired and learn from those at the very top of their field and artistry. But like most things you can’t expect it all to come to you – make a noise, make yourself visible and let everyone you can know how passionate you are! While I was still a student I was also teaching for local music services, teaching privately, applying for dep work in local shows, writing off to all the orchestras for auditions and trying to get people to come and hear me, performing abroad in touring shows, and playing every dot of new music I could get my hands on – all the time collaborating with composers and other artists. All this as well as being great fun is I think essential, you and your contemporaries make your own scene and musical world happen, so I got involved long before I finished studying and am lucky enough to be still doing so.

And the guitar…I kept it up along with writing my own material, and now perform in a duo and larger ensemble with violinist Charlie Heys with whom I was a finalist in the BBC Young Folk Awards. It is rare for a musician not to have a “portfolio career” where lots of different strands all intertwine, my advice is to embrace it, prioritise but be aware that you never know when a particular skill you have can mean the difference between a two-year tour abroad and no phone call.


What’s the best thing about your job? The best thing about my job is also one of the hardest things, the variety and keeping myself organised enough to do it all! I can’t think of another job that would mean I get to perform at the Proms or in Iceland dressed as a ghost one week, and then work with young musicians who despite severe learning disabilities perform together with a unity and sense of thrill missing from many professional ensembles, the next.


What’s your most memorable musical experience? That is a very difficult question and I can’t single out a particular experience. I will never forget the first time I performed with the CBSO under Andris Nelsons, that was an electrically exciting concert for me. Also sweating through my mask while playing and dancing at the end of Der Kleine Harlekin for the Stockhausen Festival of Light, will remain a time where panic and elation where in equal measure during a performance! What I can say is that making the effort to apply and audition for the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme is something that changed me in lots of ways, up until that point I had never been around such awe-inspiring musicianship and love for the arts, I would encourage any young musician at uni or college to get stuck in and apply for these kind of courses now!


What are your other interests? I love running and being outdoors, especially up in Cumbria! I enjoy travelling, reading, drawing and writing and spending as much time as possible with family and friends. I’ve also just set up a concert series with my partner in a local bar, which is an exciting new venture in the world of collaboration and new music.


What are your top tips for young musicians?

  • Try and go watch as many live performances as possible! Whatever genre you’re into, as well as learning loads you’ll most likely have a great time and we all know experiences are better shared. In fact, make it your mission to listen to as many different types of music as you can, there is no one music with all the answers and your ears will thank you!
  • Practice, and practice properly so you don’t get bored. If you’re bored, that means you need to change the way you’re working, and try to make everything you do musically interesting. Yes, even scales…who said you had to play them straight or in the right order all the time? Learn how to play your instrument, not just how to play the music, improvise.
  • Play with other people. Maybe this means joining a band or a local orchestra. Maybe this means starting a band, or a quartet, or an orchestra!
  • Look after your instrument, and that includes your voice and your whole body – it’s surprising how fit you need to be for some performances. And if you get in the habit of cleaning your instrument when it needs it, it will always sound as good as it should and will save you money on unnecessary repair work.
  •  Perform at every opportunity! Sharing your music with others and bringing them happiness is one of the best things you can do. Teach others about your music and help make the musical landscape where you are more vibrant, interesting and fun!

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