by Ronald Cox '76
I would like to praise Jennifer Taub '91, in OAM's Winter edition, for her insight and frustration that few of her classmates have kept in touch through the years. As a Conservatory graduate of 1976, I, too, understand the feeling of loss when you turn to your class year in OAM, and find nothing.
I transferred to Oberlin in 1974, graduating from the Conservatory in 1976. I had auditioned for admission at Steinway Hall in New York for Mr. Emil Danenberg, then professor of piano, and, later, president of the College. He sat hunched over a table, spoke in a gruff voice, and was quite diminutive in stature--a little disconcerting for a first-time acquaintance. I performed in a second-floor parlor on a Steinway that was such a fine instrument I couldn't believe how well I played. When I saw a smile on this little, gruff man's face, I realized my dream would come true. Little did I know then what an incredible musician he was, and what a fine human being. I recall the rumor that Mr. Dannenberg was quite honest with his disdain for harpsichord music, remarking that the harpsichord sounded to him like two skeletons having intercourse on a tin roof!
Those two years were, without question, the best years of my life. I relished the curriculum and its freedom to choose the courses I wanted and needed; basked in the incredible musical support and encouragement from the faculty; and was amazed at the level of excellence in my fellow musicians. There was fierce competition among the students; excitement in the practice rooms; hours spent in listening rooms of the Con library with scores to Wagner's Ring or all five Beethoven Piano Concerti; amazement at the library's vast collection of music, rare books, and recordings. I can only imagine what it must be today!
The plethora of courses was a musician's dream: Mr. Murray's "String Quartets of Beethoven;" Mr. Koberstein's "Piano Literature;" Mr. Darcy's theory class on the "Piano Music of Chopin and Schumann;" even a semester class on "The Piano Concerto." But it was not only the music courses. The College had a department known as human development, offering classes or encounter groups in human sexuality, human relations, and personal philosophy. Some were a little weird, unstructured though facilitated, but of value to me--the "developing artist" on the way to enlightenment and self-discovery. They certainly weren't courses offered at Louisiana State University or the other deep-South colleges, where I was from.
When I saw a poster announcing the initial meeting of the Gay Union, I decided to attend. How could I possibly forget the bizarre shock when the four of us who showed up included my roommate from old Noah Hall. We were both so taken aback I don't think we said a word throughout the meeting. And no, nothing convenient happened between us, but we became close friends, and, through that friendship, we learned more about ourselves through sharing.
Perhaps all these little anecdotes seem mundane, but my experience at Oberlin was the highest peak of my life. Through a wonderful friend and mentor in the Con, Joseph Schwartz, I began a metamorphosis of striving toward musical performance as a means of producing a small portion of the most beautiful classical music. Achieving that perfection was a goal never reached just diligently sought. Mr. Schwartz was a pianist of great talent, having studied with Rosina Lhevinne and Irwin Freundlich at Juilliard, and winner of the prestigious Naumberg Competition. His studio students would get together on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon and play two piano transcriptions, Liszt's and Beethoven's symphonies, sight-reading furiously for hours. These were experiences that shaped me, emotionally, intellectually, musically, humanistically.
I remember asking the dean of the Conservatory if a survey had ever been done to determine where Oberlin's brightest students were, those who were best-traveled on their roads of life. Of course, the Conservatory keeps track of each graduate. Several of the vocalists in my class became international opera stars.
I feel very sad that I have kept in touch with only two Oberlin friends over the past 22 years. Many performance students went on to graduate study; some, as I did, went on to New York and Juilliard, hoping we might get the chance at a career. It's my hunch that the majority ended up in academe and teaching, both very worthy professions.
But in losing contact with our friends and fellow musicians who were so gifted, I believe we have lost the opportunity to share our life experiences as musicians, performers, teachers--even with those who changed careers. Yes, we musicians are a funny sort, slightly inward, with our share of ego problems, insecurities, and difficulties in the career world. But all of us are missing the chance to compare notes on life when we fail to remember those friends and unique times at Oberlin. I believe that the majority of Oberlin's alumni shared, as I did, the best years of our lives at Oberlin.
My only connection with Oberlin today is through OAM and the alumni listserv. Those from the Class of 1976 are now in their 40s, and we will see the year 2000 in mid-life. There are some brilliant alumni among us who could share with us the roads they've taken; even if destination was disastrous. But, as with music, and the discipline involved with performing and studying it, one has to "give it back in order to keep it," as my teacher at Juilliard reminded me.
My mailbox is open, and you will hear from me, if you wish.