Dan McDougall, double bassist, freelances along the East Coast playing with ensembles including the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, Pennsylvania Ballet Orchestra, Philly Pops, Northeast Pennsylvania Philharmonic, Bach Choir of Bethlehem, and Delaware Symphony, to name a few.
Dan is a graduate of the Curtis Institute of Music, where he studied with Roger Scott. Dan has worked at Curtis for nearly twenty years in various administrative roles; he is currently Human Resources Assistant. He has also served on Curtis faculty for ten years and teaches the "21st Century Musician" course to all instrumental undergrads. (Photo by L. C. Kelley)
When did you start with your other work outside of performing?
I always had another job, even when I was a student. I’ve always been a doer and I say yes to everything. So even as a Curtis student, I performed in operas as an actor, or playing keyboard. I tried to stretch what I was doing because I knew that if I just played bass all day that I’d be bored to tears. You know what bass parts are like, and I knew that wouldn’t be enough for me early on, so I always diversified what I did.
As a part of that, I was a student worker in the Curtis library. Now they assign jobs to the kids, but when I was a student, you had to go out and get one. I actively sought that out because I had library experience in high school.
After I graduated from Curtis, I had a great summer at both Spoleto festivals. Then I drove cross-country and I came back to Philadelphia and realized, “Uh oh: now it’s September, what do I do?” The Curtis library needed an archives assistant. I’d already worked in the library for three years as a student, so I started working there again as an alum.
At the time I was just playing with Symphony in C [formerly Haddonfield Symphony] and I started to build my freelancing up from that. Of course I had to earn a living while I was figuring out how to build my performance career. I didn’t want to move out of the area because I had kind of already done some freelancing in Philadelphia.
So, I started in the archives part-time, and then I worked full-time at the circulation desk starting about a year later, and I worked there for seven years.
Taking off work from the library was really a challenge because somebody had to cover when you were gone. So, that’s when the summer festivals stopped. I did one more year of summer festivals but then I couldn’t really get away because of the full-time job. I think 1994 was my last glamorous summer of international festivals. That was one of the sad compromises of working full-time. But that’s almost the only compromise I can think of.
Additionally, I was an organist and choir director for the first five years after I graduated. I had played piano since I was seven, and I had taken a one-semester conducting course at Curtis, and I volunteered as an organist in high school. I had no organ lessons, but I auditioned for a church job in Roxborough [a neighborhood in Northwest Philadelphia] as organist/choir director.
I had two choirs, a bell choir, and I played the organ prelude and postlude (which I basically sight-read every week for four and a half years). I loved it. I loved the people there and the money I stashed away from that job was just what I needed to put a down payment on my first house.
But that meant every weekend, I’d get home from a gig at midnight on a Saturday and have to be at the church sight-reading a prelude and postlude and leading the choir every Sunday morning. That was pretty intense.
Were you able to take off work for local/shorter jobs, like Symphony in C, throughout the season?
Yes. I would consider them carefully but I’d basically say yes to everything I could. Early on, I won auditions with the Lehigh Valley Chamber Orchestra, Delaware Symphony, Lake George Opera, and I started playing with the Bach Choir of Bethlehem. But I had to quit the Lake George Opera after my first year because I couldn’t be gone for five weeks in the summer.
So that was another sad casualty of working full-time. I’ve since played with them a couple of summers but I had to give up my tenured job there to maintain my job at Curtis.
I have the Curtis job as the equalizer, as it were, of the hills and valleys of freelancing. It gives me health benefits, steady income, and a retirement plan. I was really lucky with freelancing early on and got a couple of what I call my “anchor” gigs, and the rest filled in and it grew from there. But I’ve been full-time off and on at Curtis for almost twenty years.
How did you manage to prepare for all of the auditions?
Well, I’m not a practicer in general. I hate practicing! But I did what I needed to. For some of the auditions, I would go home on my lunch hour, because I lived close to Curtis, and I’d practice for forty-five minutes. I’d also practice for twenty minutes in the morning and more at night. Those were isolated events around auditions that I won.
Mainly, my strategy was to use rehearsal time so effectively that I didn’t need to practice so much outside of that. I’d get there super early and do a really thorough warm-up. As a bass player you have to get there early anyway. I’ve always been really attentive and intense in rehearsals, and that’s how I got away with that. I would step it up and prepare more when I needed to if the engagement involved a harder piece or the group was at a higher level.
Note: that this is exactly the opposite of what I tell my students in my career class here, which is, “Don’t let the gig determine your level of playing.” But that’s kind of what I had to do because I was working full-time. So, I didn’t go out of my way to learn a lot of bass concertos or solos unless I was called upon to do so. That’s how I compromised.
My biggest struggle throughout all of this was figuring out a balance. Because when you’re like me and you say yes to everything it starts to snowball into, “Gosh, I have a full-time forty-hour-a-week job and I’m also playing every week.” So, when I was freelancing and working at Curtis and the church, I was figuring out: “Yes, I can do all of these things, but how long can I sustain it without going crazy?”
After seven years in the Curtis library, my Curtis work intensified when I became Director of Student Services. There were fewer staff members at Curtis then, so the Director of Student Services dealt with international students, most non-curricular things, housing, and even student gigs. So it was not really a forty-hour-a-week job. It was a think-about-all-day-keep-me-awake-at-night job. I also started on faculty at Curtis at about that same time.
I didn’t realize until a year or two after starting the Director of Student Services job that I’d really tipped the scales too far toward my full-time work at Curtis, and I was turning down gigs because of those responsibilities.
So, I think I’ve finally figured out the balance. In 2004, I left the Director of Student Services position and started working at Curtis more part-time. They’ve been very kind to me here, letting me find a niche that works for me and my freelancing.
In the last ten years of my freelance career, I typically get between twenty and twenty-five 1099’s and W2’s each year from all of the groups I play with. So I have a lot of variety and most weeks are booked, which is nice, and my Curtis schedule allows for that. In my mind, I’m moonlighting at Curtis.
Some of what I’ve done for Curtis for the past eight to ten years is work I can do from home and it’s super flexible. I’ll be playing the Bethlehem Bach Festival in May, and working on my laptop during breaks in a field outside of the chapel. I’ll come in for the chorus cantatas and leave in the solo arias.
Now that you’re working in HR, do you have any specialized training for that?
Well, no, since I’m an HR assistant. But at Curtis, I’ve done almost every job here or touched on it at one point. I’ve worked in every department; I know the cast of characters; I know the hierarchy.
So, stepping in and helping HR was actually a pretty easy fit. I have certain training for our Annual Security Report, which is part of HR’s responsibility, but nothing other than that. I’m good with numbers and I’m quick with data entry, and those are some of the skills needed for the HR job.
So, my formal education is a Bachelor of Music in Double Bass Performance from Curtis, and a lot of life experience and work experience. I temped a lot in offices during the summers in high school and college. I was always quick with databases, and that’s some of what I do now.
What aspects of your musical training and your musical career help you in your other work? Particularly the jobs you don’t need to be a musician to do, like HR and some of the other administrative work.
The intensity and focus that you have in music can be applied toward any office project and make it go quicker. And my freelance career is so varied that I don’t “think in a box.”
Are there skills from your other life that you take into the music world?
It gives a better perspective into how the music business is run and how to interact with the folks that make it run behind the scenes. Because my full-time work is at a high-level arts organization, it’s a very good fit. I don’t think it would be like that if I were working in a lawyer’s office.
My readers have asked me to focus more on how interviewees fit in family time.
My partner Glenn Finnan plays clarinet with the Kennett Symphony a few weeks out of the year. He’s also a composer, so most of that work is from home. And he’s the Secretary-Treasurer of AFM Local 21 in Wilmington, Delaware, which is just three half-days a week under ideal circumstances. Right now with the Delaware Symphony situation, it’s more.
But, we don’t have kids; we don’t even have pets. So, I can go away for a week or two for a job and it’s not a problem. Scheduling vacation is a challenge. I say, guiltily, “Here are the two weeks I have free in May for a vacation. Is that ok?”
But that’s a hard balance sometimes, because I am gone a lot. Glenn comes to many of the concerts, if I can get him tickets. But luckily with freelancing, you’re your own boss and there’s so much flexibility you can build in if you choose.
I feel like the last couple of years, I’ve actually had more time to spend with my extended family than I have in the past. This summer I took a four-week trip out West in my trailer. My gigs ended July 26 and I had a one-month window and I could do my Curtis work from the road.
So I just got in my trailer and with no reservations drove cross-country with the end goal being a family reunion on the West Coast. I was able to do that because of both Curtis and the freelancing being flexible. So I feel like even though I have two careers, I have enough time for family.
How do you keep track of the schedule?
I’ve combined my work and freelancing schedule into one Outlook calendar since 1998. I color-code each gig and each group has an abbreviation that I’ve used for years. I’m always consistent about what I call something so I can search for it. It’s useful for my taxes, too, because I print out the entire year. (sample month below)
I spend an intense day or two in the summer with the upcoming contracts, because my freelance career is based in two camps: One is contracted, AFM-type groups that send me the upcoming season schedule over the summer. It’s such a rubric of, “How many can I miss from this group without losing my contract?” Then, the second tier is, what do I really want to play? Of the remaining concerts, are there concerts that I like better artistically? And then, what fits in with my Curtis work and teaching schedule?
I have the Outlook calendar synced to my phone. I’ve had it synced to a mobile device since 1998. It was a Sharp “Wizard” back then. I put the directions and the rep on the calendar entry the first day of the series so I can always find what we’re doing, directions, and links to where I’m going to go. It’s intense, all the colors…December is insane, with Nutcrackers, Messiahs, New Year’s Eve concerts, and sometimes Bach Choir. There are some Decembers where I have forty performances.
I’ve always had the work and freelance calendars combined. I can’t figure out when I need to be at Curtis until I know my freelancing commitments and vice-versa. I could not keep two separate calendars. Knock on wood, I don’t think I’ve ever double-booked.
You’ve figured out how to logistically do all of this, but how do you stay sane?
I combine vacation with a lot of my orchestra engagements. I have a 19-foot Airstream trailer and I camp at many of my jobs. For instance, last weekend, I was playing with the NEPA Philharmonic and I camped in Lackawanna State Park for three nights as part of it. It’s a tax deduction, because it’s lodging, and I woke up in the forest and went hiking, which was great.
This also helps with balance. I’m playing amazing music from all eras at a high level. Then after a concert I drive into a campground at 11 o’clock at night wearing my tails and hear campfires and crickets chirping. It’s very bizarre, and it makes me appreciate what I do more when I have that juxtaposition.
Also, Glenn and I started to have a rule at home that we can’t talk about certain orchestras after 8 PM. Certain groups are so infuriating that we have a mandate not to discuss them.
Other than that, I love both aspects. Sometimes, one thing dominates and makes me crazy. But you’ve always got a backup plan when you’ve got feet in both camps. It’s very calming to know that if Curtis were to shut down tomorrow, God forbid, I could survive on my freelancing, and vice-versa. If my arm were horribly damaged in a trailer accident, I’d still probably do my Curtis work.
There’s a certain security in being diversified in that way, which is nice. On the other hand, it’s a little hard to feel you’re committed to each equally when you’re so split, but I’m fine. I love that. I’m in a very calm place; having those two worlds is comforting.
They play off each other well. If I’m having a crappy day at Curtis I know I’m about to play a Brahms symphony; and if I’m playing a crappy performance of a Brahms symphony I can go back to Curtis the next day and do something tangible there. At the end of the day, I can point to something and say, “That’s done,” versus a concert that is played and goes out in the air and it’s gone. The music side is satisfying in a different way, but it seems less permanent to me.
Do you feel that you’re less of a musician if you take on non-musical work?
Well, as a Curtis student, I often felt embarrassed about it, because there was a stigma to those who didn’t just perform. But I do both, so I had to accept that, no, it doesn’t make you less of a musician. But there are certainly compromises.
Would you say you are passionate about working at Curtis?
Oh, yeah. I love this place. I loved it from the moment I walked in as an auditionee in 1989. It felt like stepping into my grandmother’s home and she and her friends were going to teach me how to be a musician. It felt like family instantly. I’ve never second-guessed my choice to come here.
My colleagues are great; the place has always felt like home. I don’t know how I could live without Curtis in my life in some way. This place has done so much for me and everyone that comes through here. It’s always felt like a friendly place. I knew I would get lost at a larger university if I went that route. It’s certainly got its quirks and it drives me crazy sometimes but every place that you get really close to probably does.
Did you ever take auditions for full-time orchestra jobs and really desire your career to go in that direction?
Certainly, that was where I thought I was headed for the first ten years of my career. I did succeed at many auditions, getting past the first round. But I eventually realized that I’m not that person who can spend four hours a day practicing to get to a level that a major orchestra audition committee would think is ready to be in that group.
Part of why I freelance so well is because – like I said earlier – I’m really intense and focused in the moment, and people who hear me in that way usually want to hire me again. Even before I worked full-time I was not focused enough to get to that level of detail to not miss a note and play perfectly.
I’ve gotten feedback from the groups where I won auditions that they heard something special in my sound, and that’s why they hired me. It seems to me that the same special quirk somehow turns off larger orchestras. I also respond so much better playing with at least one other person. I’ve auditioned really well at the regional orchestra level, so half of my bass work is great jobs I’ve won in that realm mixed with other freelancing.
Freelancing is intense, because if you suck for a week, you’re not going to be asked back. If you don’t show up, or you’re a horrible person, or your stand partner doesn’t like you, you’re not going to get asked back.
But yeah, I did want to get the big orchestra job at first. Then I realized that I don’t think I would have been happy if I had done that. The variety of stuff that I do as a freelancer – from solo work, chamber work, chamber orchestra, large orchestra – makes each week totally different, and I love that.
I’m not sure I would be happy with the same stand partner for forty years and playing in a large orchestra. The financial security would have been nice, but I’m kind of glad that I didn’t go that route.
When you take your summer vacation, are you practicing in order to keep in shape?
True confession: this summer, I put my bass in a corner on July 27, and it did not see the light of day again until about six days ago, when I took it out for half an hour for two days prior to my series with the NEPA Philharmonic. That series was hard. My muscles ached; I had little spasms behind my shoulders; and my calluses are coming back.
But as a bass player, I can do that. I like to put it away for a couple of weeks because it makes me love it more when I play again.
Throughout the year, I freelance so much every week – there are some weeks I’m doing six or eight shows – that I’m always in shape. I like to take a long break in the summer, but that makes September painful. I am really bad at coming back since I hate to practice and play by myself. I’d much rather have a “starter gig” where I’m playing pops and whole notes and make that a paid warm-up for the rest of my season than sit at home. Even if I do sit at home I’ll play with a recording.
Who are your role models?
Bob Fitzpatrick [retired Curtis dean]. He was so well-rounded, especially later on in his career. He had a great sense of balance between his personal life and Curtis, and let me figure out what my role at Curtis should be.
And a couple of great freelancers: Anne Peterson, Miles Davis, Steve Groat. So many bass players in Philadelphia are people everybody would want to hang out with. I use them as models of how to play at a high level and be professional at jobs while still being fun and collegial.
This is a hard question for you because you teach a career development class. But, if you had to distill your advice for young musicians who are considering performance careers, what might you say to them?
But in your early years you have to take an opportunity and decide if it’s for you or not. Don’t close yourself off; don’t put yourself in a box too early. In my class, it’s been shocking, over the years, when I ask students to do that. A pianist will say, “Play harpsichord? Play jazz?” The look of terror; of, “Why would I ever do that?” Not realizing, ten or twenty years from now you might either like that or that will be the way your career path takes you. Why shut that off in a no-risk zone?
When you’re young, you can try anything and it’s not going to come back to haunt you if you do it badly. It’s an opportunity, and you learn from it. Just try it.