Rick Trostel arrived in Alaska having made an important decision: It was time to give up on music as a career. Though it was his passion, he felt it wasn’t a realistic way to make a living, and lately it had seemed to him that the universe was telling him to let it go.
Fortunately, Alaska had other plans.
In 1988, while interviewing for a job as a math and science teacher at a school in Manokotak, Trostel got his first indication that Alaska was going to be a great place to reclaim that deferred dream.
“The assistant superintendent of the school, who was interviewing me, asked me, ‘Do you think you could teach band?’ That was a pivotal moment. (I thought) ‘Well, hell yeah!’”
Still, he stayed on the teaching track, traveling to Italy to get training as a Montessori teacher, before coming to Juneau with his wife, Chris, to start a Montessori elementary program.
“But music kept sneaking back into my life,” he said. “I taught in the elementary classroom less and less, and taught music more and more, until I finally just totally stepped off the elementary classroom boat and completely committed to music.”
Now, having established himself firmly in the music world, Trostel is preparing for another pivotal moment: Later this summer, he and his wife are moving to Oregon, where Chris has accepted a job as principal of a large Montessori public charter school.
“It’s a really happening place for Montessori, which is the big reason we’re moving,” Trostel said, adding that the couple will also be closer to their daughter in Olympia and Chris’ mother in Seattle.
Though excited about the move and the chance to explore new adventures, Trostel said he is heavy hearted in thinking about saying goodbye to a place that’s allowed him to make a career of doing what he loves.
“There’s a certain attitude about the arts and the meaning of arts in Juneau that has just been so incredibly rich for my life. It has enriched me personally. And allowed me to be more of who I am than any place I’ve ever lived before.”
“I’ve lived around the world. I’ve lived in Europe, I’ve lived in Latin America. I’ve lived in America, down south. I feel like I know a little bit about the world and I know how special this place is. I’m going to miss it fiercely.”
Trostel is well-known in the community as the conductor of the Juneau Student Symphony, and as a music teacher through the studio he founded, Thrush Hill Studios. He is also the Juneau Symphony’s principal trumpet player, an instrument he has played since he was 10, and he performs with other local music groups, including Salsa Borealis and Todd Hunt’s Amalga Chamber Orchestra, among others. He also plays and teaches piano.
Trostel said of all his musical roles, conducting is closest to his heart. He’ll be handing the JSS baton over to Tyree Pini when he leaves.
“Think about the role of a conductor,” he said. “The instrument you hold in your hand doesn’t make any noise, yet you have a physical and emotional connection with the music, with the composer, and with every individual in your orchestra. Hopefully, if you are a good conductor that last part is true. And just through your gestures and your will as a conductor, you make music. What’s more awesome than that? I mean, it’s magic! You have a wand in your hand for crying out loud, though we call it a baton.”
Trostel is the man responsible for changing the student symphony from a youth organization that involved only middle and high school students to an all-ages group. He took over the baton from Patrick Murphy, who took over from Julia Bastuscheck, who took over from Fred Mayer, who founded the group in the 1980s.
“When Rick Trostel took over, he decided to make it into the Student Symphony, which I think was a brilliant idea, one of the best ideas that I’ve heard for youth symphonies,” said Juneau Symphony conductor Kyle Wiley Pickett in an interview earlier this year. “It’s something that really has made this group thrive because there are adult beginners who wouldn’t have felt comfortable in a youth symphony, but in a student symphony they’re really excited to be there.”
And thrive it has. Currently the group is gearing up for a show in Portland at the end of July, to perform for the quadrennial International Montessori Congress. They’ll be playing the Alaska Sinfonietta, a piece the JSS commissioned in 2008, written by Thomas Reiner and based on a Tlingit mourning song, as well as a piece Trostel wrote based on Maria Montessori’s philosophy of human development.
Juneau audiences will get a chance to see the show first at the Juneau Arts & Culture Center on July 26 at 5:30 p.m.
Trostel said one of the great things about the performance is that the group that will be playing in the concert represents age groups from seven decades.
“For the upcoming concert, we have musicians that were born in the ‘40s ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s and ‘00s ... That’s a really special thing about our orchestra -- it shouldn’t be special, but it is.”
The piece that Trostel wrote for the show highlights another aspect of his musical development, that of a composer. Trostel said the transition from conductor to composer is often a natural one, as conductors are sometimes asked to adapt existing scores to meet the needs of their own orchestra’s particular make up.
“Back in my Manokotak days, I had a band with four flutes, three saxes, a trumpet player and a percussionist. That was my band. What music is out there for that combination? As you can imagine there’s nothing.”
So he’d ask the kids what they wanted to play, and then he’d transcribe the score they chose into something they could actually play.
“That’s a really good exercise for a composer, and that’s actually how many composers historically learned their trade, transcribing music for other established composers.”
Also very influential in his stretch toward composing were his experiences with Cross Sound, a music festival organized by Juneau-born musician Jocelyn Clark that used to be held annually in Juneau. In addition to getting the chance to play with world-class musicians who came from all over the planet to play at Cross Sound, Trostel was able to spend time with Clark and composer Stefan Hakenberg, both of whom were very encouraging of his creativity. The festival itself was based on the idea of transcending cultural barriers, experimentation, and the creation of new work.
“Jocelyn Clark and Stefan Hakenberg, they had no fear -- and have no fear to this day,” Trostel said. “They said, ‘Well, you know how to compose, why don’t you do it?’” He laughed. “Their lack of fear and joy in the music was incredibly infectious and helped me to find my place.”
Trostel later commissioned Hakenberg to write a piece for the Juneau Student Symphony.
Another highly influential musician for Trostel has been his close friend, William Todd Hunt, artistic director of Opera to Go, and resident conductor of the Juneau Symphony. Trostel and Hunt played a concert together this weekend, along with pianist Rosie Humphrey.
“Todd is beautiful to perform with,” Trostel said. “He has all the technique and background and brains of any conductor I’ve ever played with but he’s got the heart of a real performer. Kyle (Pickett) and Todd have been marvelous mentors.”
Trostel also cites symphony conductor, William LaRue Jones, now director of orchestral studies at the University of Iowa, and Jones’ own mentor as big influences, adding that every conductor he’s ever played under as a musician has taught him something about the trade. Though conducting is his great love, he enjoys performing -- and teaching -- and views it as just a different kind of musical experience.
“Some people might think it’s hard for the chef to stand back and be the prep cook, but it’s a privilege to be in all parts of the musical kitchen,” he said. “You learn something different, you get different perspectives.”
Similarly, he tries to expose himself to as many genres of music as possible as a listener and as a performer.
“The longer I live and the more experiences I have, the deeper and richer my music becomes,” he said.
Trostel’s third area of expertise is in teaching through is nonprofit private lesson studio, Thrush Hill Music, so named not only as a reference to bird songs, but also in honor of the provenance of his last name, Trostel, which is derived from a German word meaning “thrush.” Thrush Hill Music, which offers Juneau kids training in piano, violin, cello, woodwinds, brass and voice, will continue in Trostel’s absence.
Teaching has been a huge part of Trostel’s life; being around kids is another passion for the local musician, who has also taught skiing at Eaglecrest for many years. He’ll continue doing both those things in Portland, and hopes to start another community orchestra when he gets down there. He also hopes to find performance opportunities.
“I have full time work but I don’t know exactly how I’m going to shape my life,” he said. “The beauty of my life in Juneau is I’ve been able to do professionally what I love to do.”
Trostel said he’s having a hard time imagining that Oregon can compare to Alaska, but he’s keeping a positive attitude.
“Although I’m extremely attached to Juneau, and love what it’s done for us, and don’t think there could be anyplace better, I’m hoping that I’m wrong.”
• Contact Arts editor Amy Fletcher at amy.fletcher@juneau empire.com.