Na'Zir McFadden: From Philly to Detroit
Music and Community are Guiding Lights
“ Music always found a way to my soul and that always came first. ”- Na’Zir McFadden, DSO Assistant Conductor (Phillip and Lauren Fisher Community Ambassador) and Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra Music Director
As a kid, while the choir sang from behind the church pulpit, Na’Zir McFadden would sneak past the organ player, the pianist, and his uncle who played the drums to get a closer view of the conductor.
“I always found myself in awe of what the conductor was doing. You can see the emotion,” he expresses. “I was always drawn to it. It’s a very different style of conducting.”
Music had a soul-touching impact on the Philadelphia native from an early age. “The feeling,” he emphasizes, “directly affected me whether it be good, bad, happy. Music was pure enjoyment.”
His fascination with the conductor’s ability to effectively emote and the way music made him feel showed up again as a self-described not-so-good student in the Philadelphia public school system–so much so, when the music teacher recruited 10 students to join the band, Na’Zir wasn’t selected. His fifth-grade teacher showed grace and saw being a part of a band as a method to teach discipline and focus. “She wrote a small note and told me to give it to the music teacher and ‘tell her I said to put you in the band.’” The gesture worked.
Na’Zir started playing the clarinet and while doing so, intrigue toward conducting was becoming more present. His mom’s clothing hangers became homemade batons that he took to his music teacher in hopes for the opportunity to lead the band.
“She never said ‘that’s not a baton.’ She let my imagination run wild to the point where she actually let me step in front of the band! I was just waving my hands, but she saw something in me at the time that I didn’t see in myself.”
That encouragement fueled Na’Zir’s investment in music as he began a deep dive into his studies. He joined a variety of programs for young classical musicians across his hometown including the Philadelphia Youth Orchestra, Philadelphia Symphonia, and Temple University’s Music Prep. He later served as the inaugural Apprentice Conductor of the Philadelphia Ballet Orchestra and accepted the invitation to conduct a recording project with Civic Orchestra of Chicago as part of their “Notes for Peace” program.
Under the mentorship of Joseph Conyers, assistant principal bass of The Philadelphia Orchestra and founder of Project 440– a Philadelphia-based organization that prepares young musicians to use their musical gifts to transform lives and communities, and a host of other role models, Na’Zir takes each step in his music career as a cultivating and transformative steppingstone.
And the journey has not been without low notes. “I have emails dating back from 2015 that I sent to every professional ensemble in Philadelphia, New York, Jersey, and Baltimore saying I’m a young conductor, can I come watch a rehearsal; can I get some podium time? Every response said, ‘Sorry, we’re not able to do this’,” Na’Zir reflects.
“My mentors instilled in me this drive and dedication to whatever I do, I have to do it well. So, I had to create my own opportunities and rely on friends and mentors to help with auditions, recordings, etc. They never let me fall behind and always said, ‘You have to set goals, but you also have to help others get there along with you.’ That is the way I approach anything that I do.”
These experiences allude to the energetic approach Na’Zir is excited to bring to his new appointment with the DSO. At 21-years-old, the talented clarinetist and conductor was announced in April as Assistant Conductor of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Music Director of the Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra. At the time of his appointment, DSO Music Director Jader Bignamini praised Na’Zir’s musicality and professionalism.
Bridging his two titles for the DSO and DSYO, Na’Zir will also serve as the Phillip and Lauren Fisher Community Ambassador, an endowed chair previously held by Michelle Merrill from 2016-2020. The role was designed to amplify the DSO’s presence throughout the local community, “not just to perform, but to donate their time, energy, and passion to make lives better,” says Phillip Wm. Fisher, DSO Board Chair Emeritus and DSO Impact Campaign Chair.
From the front office—where Erik Rönmark as President and CEO holds the James B. and Ann V. Nicholson Chair, to numerous musicians onstage (e.g., Hannah Hammel, Principal Flute, Alan J. and Sue Kaufman and Family Chair), the endowed chair invests in people and is one of the most prestigious and personalized ways a donor can support the artistic excellence of the orchestra.
A VISION FOR IMPACT
“ I am in a position with the opportunity to do more music; and where I can make a change through exposure, sharing, collaboration, and creating experiences! ”- Na'Zir McFadden
The DSO is applauded for its top-notch musicianship across a multitude of genres. Come September, a taste of Na’Zir’s vision for programming and his ambassadorial role will be evident when he makes his DSO conducting debut at the annual DTE Community Concerts – a free, cornerstone series that celebrates the launch of a new DSO season each year.
Ahead of his official start this fall, Na’Zir got a feel of the chemistry and rehearsal flow of the orchestra working alongside Jader as the DSO prepared for four performances of Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony. The collaborative vibe created a level of communicative and artistic openness that inspired Na’Zir to want to adapt certain elements into his other new role as music director of the DSYO.
“Mr. Bignamini knows how to articulate exactly what he wants and how to connect with the musicians. He knows all their names! He immediately connected with me, and I think it’s because he just has this willingness to share, learn, and explore different atmospheres. There’s an openness to change, and that’s something you don’t find too often in conductors,” he says.
As music director of the Detroit Symphony Youth Orchestra, Na’Zir envisions intensive composition and composer study as an avenue to encourage individual research and open class discussions about life and music—from the composer’s biography to the period of its creation —in this way each note is approached with knowledgeable intent.
“I’m looking forward to being open and just exploring—looking at ways to bring music of composers with different lifestyles and backgrounds, because this is how we learn, how we share, and how we experience,” he says. “I would like to help the youth orchestra manifest how we will approach our concerts and really put our best foot forward to learn, share, and relate to the music as much as possible.”
The value in being an active community member has been instilled in Na’Zir since childhood when his mother, Kim Mitchell-Williams, co-founded an outreach program that offered study sessions for young students; assisted adults to get back on their feet, coordinated street cleanups, and threw block parties and barbecues in the local park. This show of care inspired his view of using music as a throughline to bring communities together.
“It’s about having this open communication, knowing what’s going on and focusing efforts into the city, sharing assorted styles of music but also performing music that identifies and is appreciated more within a specific community.”
From a broad view, Detroit is seen as a city that can’t catch a break. However, that narrative only fuels the “Detroit Hustles Harder” mentality that links the people of this diversely quilted city. It’s known that to enter these grounds, you have to come with vision, character, and a certain grit—a tough enough skin to make your own way, even when it feels like all roads are closed.
Na’Zir is embracing his soon-to-be Detroit digs with an eagerness and awareness of all the city encompasses: the good, the challenging, and the brewing possibilities; To this end, he’s embracing his Philly roots.
“I grew up and lived everywhere in Philly, so, experiencing various parts of the city, I got to see the struggling communities and the working communities,” he says. “So much of my city created the mentality that if we stand together and we stick together, we'll be together. In a way, I feel like Detroit is the same. It’s just a different city name and location. Detroiters know that Detroit is capable of so much, and I’ve been blown away by how nice the city is, how respectful, open, and willing the people are to share about Detroit.”
Another thing that’s for sure: Detroit is serious about its arts, culture, and music. Thinking back to his time spent with Jader and the DSO musicians, he recalls a moment when a broader mission came into focus. During his pre-concert talk, he referenced Beethoven wanting to premiere his Ninth Symphony in Berlin as opposed to Vienna because locals had become too enamored with Italian composers and that was a turnoff for the composer at the time.
“I said it’s ironic that we have an Italian maestro conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony when Beethoven wasn’t quite fond of Italian music. But I think there’s a bigger message, because it shows that just because we’re from a different place or have a different background, we can all come together to create something beautiful. That’s my mindset and how I live my life; and this is what I hope to inspire around the DSO, Detroit, and back home.”
Every experience—beginning with that pivotal fifth grade class to landing a leadership role with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra has proven the power in being resilient and ambitious. Na’Zir McFadden, a young, Black conductor from Philadelphia is living his dream, while showing a new generation of evolving minds what is possible.
Hear Na'Zir's DSO Debut
DTE Community Concerts