Name: Sara McDonald
Most Likely To: Get sick to my stomach during something important, but in high school I was voted most likely to host my own talk show.
Favorite Quote: “Don’t try.” (meaning, do it)
As a young kid, Sara McDonald would canvass her neighborhood asking for donations to fund her latest musical endeavor. By the time Sara graduated high school, she had been in 30 musicals and was the lead soloist of her high school’s jazz ensemble. A graduate of The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, Sara McDonald has been running a 22-piece progressive rock big band for the past four years. In addition, she was a recipient of the ASCAP Foundation’s Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award. Sara has performed and toured internationally, most notably at the Kennedy Center, The Lincoln Center, the East Village Music Festival, and the Montreal Jazz Festival.
What is your earliest memory associated with what you do now?
While I did not grow up to become a playwright or a musical theater producer, I do specialize in the orchestration of large music events and music for large bands. As a child I always wanted to be in charge of what I was doing or, at the very least, have an important say in what was going on around me. I loved creating art and then organizing the way it was showcased. I have wanted to create enormous spectacles of entertainment for people for as long as I can remember.
When I was about 6 or 7 I started “writing musicals” and “curating shows.” I’d write a short story, get all of my friends to memorize some lines, and even write a song or two. Then I’d go around the entire neighborhood putting up homemade flyers to advertise. I’d also go door to door and ask for donations. It was both a bold and shady move for a small child. My mom would always make me return any money I might have collected.
Anyway, I managed to put on a lot of these variety show type events. I’d drag lawn chairs to the nearest park, create some costumes and makeshift sets. Only the parents of the kids involved showed up, obviously.
When did your occupation become real to you?
My occupation became most real to me when it was clear that people wanted to be involved in what I was doing. I didn’t have to beg anymore. People would ask me personally to take part in my projects. When I played my first big festival that was also made me aware that something I was doing was working. I never thought about getting to that point in my career, and then suddenly it was all happening.
How does Brooklyn/your neighborhood particularly inform your work?
Kensington is where everything began! I wrote my first orchestral big band piece, began my first booking job, and started putting together shows all over the city when I moved to my first apartment in the neighborhood. Kensington specifically, will always be filled with nostalgia for me. I more or less came of age in the last 6 years. My neighborhood informs my work because all of my most important career moments occurred while I’ve been here.
As someone that grew up in a military family that moved all over the globe on an almost yearly basis, I never quite experienced that “home” feeling. I’d leave a lot of my things in boxes if I knew we’d be staying somewhere for a short period of time. I feel at home and at peace in Kensington. This has been the first moment in my life I’ve been able to nest and create a home for myself—a home I am always excited to get back to.
What do you feel is most challenging about being where you are now?
When you finally complete something there is always a scary lull between the completion of that project and the beginning of the next one. I become so consumed with seeing something through that once it’s done and I have a second to step back and admire it, I almost immediately begin to panic. It’s hard for me to appreciate my own work sometimes. It is also hard to suddenly not be busy. There are so many insane ups and downs you face as a freelance musician. It seems like it should go without saying, but you have to remember to also take care of yourself and remain positive and optimistic.The challenge is maintaining momentum, and knowing when you need a break.
What’s most rewarding?
Seeing the culmination of my work and witnessing the effect it has on other people. When I play a great show or get to experience the success of an event or a tour I’ve put together, I’m excited for everyone involved and I’m moved that the audience enjoys it. I want people to have new experiences and enjoy the music I create and curate. When I accomplish that, I feel the most rewarded.
5 spots in Brooklyn people should know about?
Acapulco (Greenpoint) – The best tacos.
Kos Kaffe (Park Slope) – Great coffee. They also have oat milk: bougie but tasty.
Dobbin Street Co-op (Greenpoint/Bushwick) – Beautiful vintage furniture and clothes.
Littlefield (Gowanus) – cool shows, good sound, solid wine list.
The houses on Argyle, Westminster and Albemarle roads.
Ditmas Park – Rows of mansions that look like they’ve been shipped in from LA or New Orleans. Completely surreal—go walk around in awe.
What’s your most significant accomplishment to date?
My most significant accomplishment to date is the fact that I’ve been able to manage a 22-piece progressive rock big band in NYC for almost four years, while programming monthly showcases and festivals for not only us, but other bands as well. I’ve managed to do this entirely on my own, all while simultaneously taking this music on the road to Canada and Europe to play major festivals. The fact that this project has thrived in an environment that doesn’t favor, let alone make room for, large groups is an accomplishment all on its own.
Who/what inspires you?
Any person that is genuinely doing what they love, and is always willing to encourage and elevate those around them to do the same. That inspires me the most.
Thinking about the future, where do you see yourself in the next 30 years?
In 30 years I will win an Oscar and a Grammy for scoring a film. Hopefully I’ll already have a Grammy or two for my large ensemble work. I’ll win a Tony for one of the musicals I wrote, and I’ll nab an Emmy for writing the theme song to a TV show. I want that EGOT! At 56 I see myself continuing to be busy and inspired. I will also own a mini pig.
What’s next for you?
Two things: I’m creating a festival that features large ensembles only – and I’m looking to expand my network and work with curators and musicians that are interested in being involved; and my 22-piece big band,The NYChillharmonic, is getting ready to record it’s second album!