Five Fine Things from Five Fine Years


Four days after I publish this post will mark exactly five years since I moved to Washington, DC. This means I have been a fully professional musician for five years.

As I tend to be a nostalgic person, I’ve decided to reflect on what I’ve learned so far. For those of you who have “been at the party” longer than I have, you might consider my findings to be old news. Nevertheless, I thought it would be valuable to illustrate how things look through the lens of someone who is kind-of new and kind-of not-new.

A blurry open palm. Caucasian hand, black background.

1. We don’t get what we wish for; we get what we work for.

Every year of my life until moving to DC, I was studying either in school or a training orchestra. In these environments, if you wanted to present performances in addition to band or orchestra, much was available to us. For example, in school we could enroll in a chamber music course. Rehearsals and performances were easily arranged, and we could select music from a thorough library collection.

I didn’t realize how relatively easy this was until I started taking part in organizing chamber concerts in Washington.

There are two orchestras here at the Kennedy Center, The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra, which means there are seven trombone players who work under the same roof. Twice since I arrived, we’ve come together and presented recitals as a group. They have been very successful and satisfying–literally a dream come true for me.

But to be sure, the leg-work involved in organizing them has been much more intense than what we had to do for the chamber music course in school. Coordinating each other’s schedules, finding rehearsal space, piecing together repertoire to form a program, tracking down the music… It takes a lot of work. The pay-off, though, has been wonderful.

Here is our most recent performance, where we took part in the Kennedy Center’s celebration of President Kennedy’s Centennial Birthday.

2. What it Means to be a Union Member.

Becoming a musician is quite the investment.

Earning degrees. Buying expensive instruments and accessories. Maintaining these things. Spending countless hours in the practice room. Paying for lessons. Living in an area that likely has a high cost of living (because that’s where much of the work is). Becoming highly-skilled in very specialized work that, in many cases, creates wear and tear on the human body.

And yet, so often we trick ourselves–or allow other people to trick us–into believing we don’t have a “real” job. Why? Because we don’t do our work at a desk? Because our hours aren’t 9-5? Because our work is done in venues where people go when they aren’t on the clock?

We do have real jobs. And we deserve decent wages and working conditions.

I realize that I’m going down a slippery slope of propaganda here, so I’ll cut to the chase. I’ve learned that musicians who are active and unified participants in the name of a fair workplace are the ones who stand the best chance at making that a reality.

I go further in depth about this topic here.

3. Institutional Memory

One aspect of being a professional is that you work alongside musicians who have been doing the same thing for at least a decade. These people are tremendous resources for both the art-form and the business. (And, they have the best stories.)

Many know how to balance their practice sessions to ensure the longevity of their careers. They understand industry standards. They know how to portray different styles throughout the repertoire. They know how past problems were resolved–and whether or not those precedents apply to current issues. They also know why things are done they way they are done, and they’ve helped establish traditions.

Take for instance this shrewd wisdom from Chicago Symphony Orchestra Trombonist Michael Mulcahy about the music of Anton Bruckner:

There are endless opportunities to learn from these people. Those of us who have more recently shown up to “the scene” stand on their shoulders, and I am so grateful for the work they’ve done, artistically and otherwise.

4. People Skills are the same no matter your age.

This is pure observation on my part, certainly not intended to be a holier-than-thou, soap-box moment. I have noticed that the social skills we (hopefully) are introduced to in grade school are no different than those needed in the workplace.

Collaborating with other people to present something. Lending a helping hand to people who need it–and we all need it at some point. Raising each other up instead of tearing each other down. Contributing to a productive and pleasant environment. Dealing with interpersonal conflicts when they arise. Exercising forgiveness. Saying “Thank You”.

I’m not going to fool myself for a second and think that I’ve perfectly mastered any of these skills. I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes over the last five years. (Some of you reading this might be very quick to agree.) But I can think of no truer expression than “All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten.”

5. Life outside of career does exist. And it’s necessary.

Before I moved to Washington, my life almost completely revolved around music. When a school-year or training orchestra’s season was finished, I went to a summer festival. There was always an audition or recital around the corner.

I don’t regret this. But once I became a professional musician, it didn’t take long to learn that indeed, there was more to pursue than a career alone. Unsurprisingly, life is more well-rounded when I make time for these things.

Incidentally, these non-musical interests have actually enhanced my musical life. For example, I have a pretty intense interest in U.S. History. A couple seasons ago, the Washington National Opera presented Phillip Glass’s Appomattox. The first act of the opera detailed the events that led up to the end of the U.S. Civil War, which was the Battle of Appomattox Court House.

I had a free week before we started rehearsals for this production, so I took a day-trip down to Appomattox to tour the grounds and see things for myself. I couldn’t get enough of the presentations I attended, and it was thrilling to step into the very room where the surrender took place. (Ulysses S. Grant, the hero of the day, is in my family tree, so naturally I have an affinity for all things Grant.)

Did this trip help me play the trombone better? I don’t believe so.
Was the experience of performing this opera more fulfilling because I made this trip? Absolutely.

Douglas wearing a black sweatshirt standing in front and to the right of the chair where Ulysses S. Grant sat during the Surrender at Appomattox. There are red drapes behind the chair with sunlight coming through.

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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