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From the South Side to the symphony

By Ron Allen, Correspondent, NBC News

The McGill brothers are a rare phenomenon. They're young African-American men from the Chicago's South Side, who are very accomplished classical musicians. Anthony, 33, who has been called "one of the best clarinet players in the country," is the principle clarinet player for the New York Metropolitan Opera. He says his best role model has been his older brother Demarre, 37, who is the lead flute player for the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.

Click here for more profiles of African Americans making history from theGrio's 100  

I'm not an expert on classical music. In fact, I much prefer jazz. But I know enough to understand that what they've accomplished is a pretty big deal! We did some checking, and as far as we can determine only four percent of the musicians in major orchestras are African-American or Latino. Hundreds of musicians audition for leading roles, some 30 or 40 times. The McGill brothers occupy two of those so-called "first chairs." It's a place few musicians ever reach, and certainly even fewer brothers or sisters together.

Their mom, Ira McGill, is a retired teacher who also has a flair for singing and acting. Demarre, Sr., their father, is a retired deputy fire chief who also played music as a hobby back in the day. They say their boys' careers started the day Demarre, then just 7, found an old flute tucked away in a closet. Mom had given it to Dad in the '60s as a birthday gift.

For reasons he now can't explain, young Demarre was fascinated by the instrument. His dad told him to blow across the mouth piece like it's the top of a soda bottle. The rest, as they say, is history. Now Demarre's flute is made of 14-karat gold.

As you might expect, Ira and Demarre, Sr. are quite proud of their boys. They have refinanced the house five times to pay for music lessons over the years, and worked hard to steer them clear of negative things in the neighborhood that could have derailed them.

One of the biggest ironies of this story, is that the McGill sons learned to play at a time when the Chicago public schools they were attending pretty much eliminated music and arts programs. The city didn't have the money. That was some 30 years ago. It was also a time when a nonprofit called the Merit School of Music was first getting started, offering after-school lessons to thousands of kids from disadvantaged neighborhoods for free. It’s a program still going strong to this day.

Our broadcast story features the Merit School, but even more importantly, you'll get a chance to meet the McGill brothers and hear their music. They really put their heart and soul into it. The passion, energy and artistry that's brought them to a rare place in the rarefied world of classical music.

To learn more about the Merit School of Music, please click here to visit their website.