The secret lives of Bill McBirnie

Many knew him as either a flutist or an accountant. But few knew he was both.

During his career as an accountant, Toronto-based Bill McBirnie lived a double life. After long days at work, he would take off at night and secretly jam with other musicians as a freestyle jazz flutist, unbeknownst to his work colleagues.

“I kept the two things quite separate,” says the now-retired McBirnie, 63. “People at work did not know I was sort of a professional musician, and even many of the musicians I worked with did not know I had a day job.”

Today, McBirnie is an award-winning artist, and listeners around the world have discovered him through Toronto’s JazzFM91 and popular syndicated radio show Jazz with Bob Parlocha.

His success didn’t come overnight, however. It grew out of his long-standing passion for the flute.

Music was a big part of his life while growing up in Port Colborne, Ont. His mother was a classical music fan and his sister and two brothers played instruments as well. However, it was his father’s musical interests that had the most impact.

When McBirnie was young, his father would take him and his siblings to nightclubs in Buffalo, NY, to hear jazz. “We were underage, but my father looked after us. The owners and bartenders were indulgent because I guess we were cute and enthusiastic about the music.”

McBirnie first picked up the flute as a child and was enamoured with it. As his skills progressed, he took lessons with better teachers farther away from home in other southwestern Ontario cities. But instead of making music his career as some suggested, he decided to study commerce and finance at the University of Toronto.

“Although my prospects were pretty good, my father always encouraged me to look at music as an avocation rather than a vocation just because it is so difficult to make a living,” McBirnie recalls. “It was reasonably good advice.”

In university, McBirnie played less of the flute, but when he became unhappy working at a public accounting firm in his early 20s, he rekindled his passion for the instrument and found it therapeutic. He later worked for the government as an accountant specializing in objections and appeals and found career nirvana; it was moonlighting as a flutist, however, that helped him excel.

“The discipline and focus that was necessary for me to become a good flute player I redirected into accounting. Music is a very good discipline for anything,” he says.