5 Things I Love about Making Music with Non-Professional Musicians


There are two aspects of my life that connect me musically with non-professional musicians.

Every week, I coach the brass section of the Concert Band from the Arlington (Virginia) chapter of the New Horizons International Music Association, an organization that creates musical opportunities for adults. I coach extraordinarily wonderful people who have decided to pursue a brass instrument in retirement.

I also participate in local labor events, which sometimes incorporate music-making. The most recent example, which will be included in next Labor of Love post, was singing Christmas Carols last month in support of The Campaign for DC Paid Family Leave. Representing an array of labor and advocacy groups, more than ten of us made our rounds with song in the Wilson Building, which houses the District of Columbia’s legislative offices and chambers.

I’ve become so grateful to be involved with both New Horizons and these labor events. Here’s why.

Four street musicians play outside in front of grass and flowers in the back, which from left to right are lilac, red, salmon, and purple. The musicians are all men. The one on the left is a bearded bass player who is standing up with his instrument on his left side. He is wearing a brown hat, sunglasses, light purple button-down, long-sleeve shirt, gray pants, and black shoes. To his left is a cimbalom player. He is an older man whose shoulder-length white hair is only in the back of his head. He wears a white long-sleeve shirt and blue pants. To his left stands a younger tambourine player. He has black hair, olive-skinned complexion, wears a white button-down shirt tucked into charcoal dress slacks with a black belt. The tambourine is in his right hand. To his left is a dulcimer player. He wears a blue baseball cap, black and white horizontal striped sweater, and gray jeans. He is sitting on a fold-up chair with a red cushion.

1. “Your best is good enough.”

As most professional musicians can attest, the quest for musical excellence sometimes results in becoming overly self-critical. Striving for progress and wanting to deliver the best possible performance aren’t bad things. But they can occasionally lead you to a disparaging frame of mind.

On the contrary, there is no negative self-judgement when I coach the brass section of the New Horizons Concert Band. Sure, they’ll make a quip from time to time about not sounding like the Vienna Philharmonic. But no one speaks ill of him/herself or anyone else. They seek improvement without letting frustration get in the way.

Incidentally, the motto of New Horizons International is “Your best is good enough.” It’s a refreshing environment to step into every week.

2. Playing music purely for enjoyment.

Sometimes it’s fun just to sit back and play music for music’s sake, giving yourself a moment to not care if something is out of tune, rhythmically unstable, etc. I noticed this last month at the Christmas Caroling event.

The day before we sang, one of the organizers altered the words from a few popular holiday tunes to say things in support of the DC Paid Family Leave Campaign. For example, instead of “Jingle Bells, Jingle Bells, Jingle all the way…”, there was “Family Leave, Family Leave, Family and Medical Leave…”

When the organizer emailed these lyrics to the group, I slipped into “Perfectionist Musician” Mode. I printed them out and, nervous that we had sixteen hours to master these Carols, penciled in rhythms and pitches so that I could have a “cheat sheet”. I was so worried that if I didn’t do this, I wouldn’t be able to do a good job.

Lo and behold, this was over-preparation in its absurdest form. We all knew the tunes, and we all had the words in front of us. We sang  through everything once or twice before we went to the legislative offices, and even though the vast majority weren’t trained musicians, the group sounded great. Nothing else needed to be done.

I soon ditched the notes I made from the previous evening. I got out of my head and sang just for fun. And it was awesome.

3. Learning about new things.

Clearly, I love classical music and those who have careers in the industry. But I also love connecting with people who do completely different things with their lives.

The brass section from New Horizons is quite a tremendous group. They have devoted themselves to our Armed Forces, education, insurance, foreign languages, cultures, sciences…they are a fascinating team. There’s something very fulfilling about hearing anecdotes, factoids, and jokes from people who have achieved so much in other disciplines and passions. It’s hard to be more specific, but suffice it to say that coming together over music with these people every week is energizing.

This is also a reason I love participating in events with other labor unions. Solidarity might be the reason I show up, but I also enjoy learning about other lines of work and the people who carry them out.

4. A greater purpose.

From time to time, we all hear someone complain that classical music is nice, but it doesn’t serve the interests of the general public. Both instances I keep citing–New Horizons and the Christmas Caroling–have one thing in common.  They use music to serve a greater purpose.

In the case of the New Horizons Band, that purpose is to bring people together over something that is enjoyable and stimulating. The Christmas Caroling connected DC legislators and the DC Paid Family Leave Campaign.

So from now on, when someone paints classical music in an irrelevant light, I’m using these examples as evidence to debunk this notion.

5. An entry point into the art-form.

Two months ago, I posted an article comparing baseball fans and classical music audiences. Towards the end of it, I speculated that there are elements that might keep a baseball fan from attending a concert.

For example, a lack of understanding for how the “game” of classical music is played.

…with baseball fans, there’s a certain empathy for the players. Sure, they know the rules and how the game unfolds. But so many of them actually played the sport as kids, and perhaps still as adults. They’ve had first-hand experience with what it’s like to play in the heat of the moment.

Whenever we play ballet in the Kennedy Center Opera House, I can count on seeing one of the trumpet players from the New Horizons Band. Not just because she loves the dancing. But, as a trumpet player, she loves experiencing a live, full brass section.

Participating in the music-making process seems to give people the aforementioned “empathy”. And in turn, it gives them the curiosity to seek out live performances. I can’t help but wonder if giving more people the experience of playing music would promote our art-form.

Either way, it sure is fun having people like New Horizons Band members in the audience!


About Doug Rosenthal

No one told Douglas Rosenthal to give up playing music. Not even his patient siblings, who endured many early-morning practice sessions; even they encouraged their brother to follow his passion. As the years passed, that passion evolved from simply playing music to advocating for music, musicians, and music-lovers. Douglas is based in Washington, DC. He is the Assistant Principal Trombonist of the Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra/Washington National Opera Orchestra. He currently makes his home on Capitol Hill in DC with a pug named Jake, who serves as a constant reminder to relax, eat well, and sleep plentifully.

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3 thoughts on “5 Things I Love about Making Music with Non-Professional Musicians”

  1. I’ll have to say, Doug, that some of the more rewarding times I’ve played in community bands and even in high school were times when a professional would play with us. We stretched to play better for them and they relaxed and had fun with us. They taught us a great deal about the musicality of playing, leaving behind the worry of correct notes and rhythms and getting into the passion of the music, the trandecesence from playing into making music. It was always thrilling and inspirational. This is the difference between simply having music being your profession and being a true artist. Jobbers work for their money, artists work to spread and develop their passion. I’m so proud to know a true artist, I just wish I had the chance to make music with you!


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