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Q&A: ISU trumpet professor looks to start local Students Demand Action branch, uses music to raise gun violence awareness

Dr. Anne McNamara
Jack Podlesnik
Anne McNamara is an assistant professor of trumpet at Illinois State University.

Last year, 48,117 lives were lost to gun violence in the United States. That’s according to a study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions. And as gun-related deaths continue across the nation, an Illinois State University faculty member is looking to raise awareness in the youth of Bloomington-Normal.

Anne McNamara is an assistant professor of trumpet at ISU. Now in her 10th year of teaching higher education, she wants to create a Students Demand Action branch at the university. Students Demand Action is a group of “young activists committed to ending gun violence in the United States,” according to its website.

WGLT spoke with McNamara about why and what that might look like, as well as about a trumpet piece she recently performed that’s dedicated to raising gun violence awareness.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

WGLT: What makes you want to start Students Demand Action at ISU?

McNamara: The sort of breaking point for me was May 2022, the Uvalde school shooting. And I just sort of thought to myself, “You know, I need to start doing something.” I don’t know what difference an individual can really make, but I want to volunteer my time and help somehow. And so it was last year that I started becoming involved in a local group called Moms Demand Action, which is part of the organization called Everytown for Gun Safety. They have these branches, they have Moms Demand Action and they also have Students Demand Action. And so, when I started attending some of the meetings with Moms Demand Action, and I said I wanted to volunteer and help somehow, the women who run this group, when they realized that I was a faculty member at ISU, said, “A great way you could help us is if you could get a Students Demand Action group up and running.”... At this time, we’re basically just putting flyers up around campus and trying to see if there’s interest.

WGLT: Behind the scenes, what’s the process looking like right now, and what are going to be the next steps?

McNamara: I think just kind of getting the word out. At Festival ISU, I visited a couple booths and left some flyers and kind of talked about being interested in starting this organization. I definitely want to be careful in that I never want my students to feel I have an expectation of them joining, it’s only if they’re interested. So, to be honest, other than putting the word out there, I think it kind of just depends on whether or not there are students that are interested enough to want to get it up and running. So we’ll just have to wait and see.

WGLT: And if there are enough students to get it up and running, how do you envision Students Demand Action acting on campus?

McNamara: I think again that kind of depends on what the students want to do with it. I know, and I’m still relatively new to the Moms Demand Action group, but they organize various things such as — I know there’s a meeting I attended last year where we helped sign thank you notes to various politicians throughout the state who helped bring about some progress with gun safety laws. So there’s little things like that you can do to the point of organizing meetings, kind of just getting information out there about gun safety, etc. I really think the important thing is if Students Demand Action gets up and running that it be student-led. And as a faculty advisor, I really would just see myself in that position of facilitating things, but letting the students decide what the next steps are.

WGLT: You recently played a piece about gun violence at your recital, Thoughts and Prayers. How did that all come to be?

McNamara: As I previously mentioned, the breaking point for me was that horrific school shooting in Uvalde, Texas. And I thought to myself, “Man, I want to do something.” And I know that, since the beginning of time, artists often turn to their craft to have some sort of societal impact. And I thought, “I bet we could get a trumpet piece that will help draw attention to these significant problems in our society.” As a trumpet player, I know that the trumpet itself has a long history that’s symbolic. There’s mentions of the trumpet in the Bible, for example, as being a signaling instrument. A lot of us are familiar with the trumpet’s role in the military. So I thought to myself, what better instrument to kind of herald and draw attention to the need for gun safety in the face of this horrific gun violence than the trumpet?

So I reached out to a friend of mine and a colleague at ISU, Dr. Roy Magnuson, he’s one of our theory composition professors. I asked him if he would be interested in writing a solo trumpet piece for me. And the reason why I wanted it to be literally just solo trumpet, not piano accompaniment or anything like that, was the idea is that the piece could be performed in more of a traditional recital setting like I did on campus a couple weeks ago, or it could literally be performed from the steps of a state building or steps of Congress in means of sort of a protest piece.

…And something that’s really unique about the piece is he decided to design an app that would allow the performer to sort of tweak the music to fit whatever they need. He spoke about this a little bit at my recital. He was thinking to himself, first of all, writing about this topic was challenging from an emotional standpoint. He was also thinking to himself, “I wish we didn’t need a piece like this, and how many times am I going to be asked to write a piece like this? Maybe I can design one in a way where there’s a lot of different possibilities.”

So basically, any performer who wants to play the piece can download the app, Thoughts and Prayers, and each line of music has the ability to kind of toggle through a bunch of choices. And so, on one end of the spectrum it can be much more lyrical, kind of contemplative, introspective — maybe in the style of an elegy. And then on the opposite end of the spectrum it could also be a very, very loud, very aggressive, technical, virtuosic, protest-style piece. And then anywhere in between, which I think is just a really brilliant idea that he did that.

… One other thing that we had in mind was designing the piece in such a way that if a performer is able to, you can actually play a video either during your performance or right before your performance where we have some statistics about gun violence in the country. And then there’s a prompt with a QR code for anybody who feels so moved, they can either donate money to the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Violence Solutions or the Moms Demand Action website.

WGLT: So there’s really a lot of layers when it comes to the piece. It seems like it’s much more than just a piece, but a movement in a way — making it so accessible, people can alter it to the way they want to play it, and it’s playable just about anywhere because there’s no accompaniment with the piano. How do you want the piece to be remembered? What do you envision its legacy being?

McNamara: In an ideal world, it would be wonderful if we didn’t need the piece anymore. That would be the best possible legacy. I think, with Roy [Magnuson]’s perspective on it, that he wanted the piece Thoughts and Prayers to be anything it needs to be for the performer. I think that would be the thing I think would be most impactful. Many people, musicians, amateur musicians, turn to music in difficult times. So even if this piece just provides an outlet for somebody to pour out any sad emotions that they have, or feelings of frustration, then maybe, in a small way, it can bring about a little bit of healing or relief for those people, too.

How to listen to the piece

McNamara’s performance of Roy Magnuson’s Thoughts and Prayers is available to listen to on her YouTube channel, “Anne McNamara,” or on her website, annemcnamaratrumpet.com.

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Jack Podlesnik is a student reporter and announcer at WGLT. He joined the station in 2021.
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