Oberlin Blogs

And… the Juries Are Out!

June 18, 2022

Ben Smith ’24

One bonding point amongst all music students, regardless of our universities, is the collective misery surrounding juries (or “performance committees”). At Oberlin, juries are 8–10 minute performances used to qualify each first- and second-year student’s ability to progress to the next academic year, and the audience is comprised of each student's respective departmental faculty. If this concept sounds at all intimidating or even just a bit nerve-wracking, allow me to confirm that it is indeed, very agonizing!... Well, okay–that might be a tad overblown coming from an Oberlin student. Juries here are not the terror-inducing atrocities some conservatories put their students through. Still, though, I’ve seen the ripples of distress make their way through the student body. Wind instrumentalists, string instrumentalists, pianists, vocalists–juries are just one of those special shared experiences we all get to enjoy. Although they’re stressful no matter how you slice it, I wanted to share what made my jury this year special and why it will always be a performance I’ll remember. 

To start, I chose my jury piece towards the beginning of the spring semester. I knew it had to be something that resonated with me emotionally–I’ve learned that I tend to fare better when I have an intrinsic connection to the music that I am playing. Of course, the piece had to fit the time requirement of the jury as well, so I knew I would probably only get to play one or two movements depending on the length of the total work. Some students don’t mind if they have to make cuts in the work they choose for their jury, but I really wanted to avoid that–it seemed more meaningful to me for the jury to simulate as close to a complete performance as possible. After a week of searching for music, I purchased Yuko Uébayashi’s A Romance of Orcia and had my heart set on the first movement, "Blue Dawn," for my jury. It is not in the "standard flute repertoire" per se, but I believed in the piece and the first movement was approximately 8 minutes long, which fit just right.

I was then assigned a student pianist to work on the piece with me throughout the entire semester and perform with me at the jury. All piano students have to take vocal and instrumental accompaniment during their time at Oberlin, so this is nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, it is quite a fun part of music school–getting to meet another student who you wouldn’t have a reason to interact with but now you’re both having to buckle up and make it work! This semester, I hate to brag, but I got very lucky. My pianist, Jiaming Li, was absolutely wonderful. Our work together was the first time she had played with an instrumentalist, so we signed up to play at two Woodwind/Brass/Percussion Departmental Recitals and the Flute Studio Recital throughout the semester as a way of preparing for the jury. This gave us time to get comfortable playing with each other, with our nerves, and with our piece, of course. Through all of our performances and lessons together over the course of the semester, we maintained an upwards trajectory that was incredibly motivating. By the week of the jury, I really felt like we were a duo. 

Ben and Jiaming standing and smiling in front of the Oberlin Conservatory koi pond.
Jiaming and I post-jury!
Photo credit: Jonathan Yuan

The night before the fateful day, I planned a "jury run-through soiree" with the other first- and second-year flute students in a Bibbins classroom at 9:00pm (it was a bit of a last-minute plan, but I figured we would all be up and anxious so... better to put those nerves to use, right?). After our runs, we were all feeling calmer, but something inside me was still not feeling 100% satisfied. As we were heading back, I split off from everyone and went to the practice rooms on the third floor of Robertson Hall; I just wanted some space to focus solely on getting myself together and to go through a few more spots. It was about 10:15pm. At this point, I was the only person in my hallway practicing, so I put my head down and got to work. 

When I took a break at 11:05pm, I noticed there was another person practicing in my hall. It was a pianist, but the sound was pretty distant. I carried on with some stretching but something caught my ear. I couldn’t quite make it out until–wait. Is this what I think it is? I peaked my door open and, sure enough, there was a reason the sound was so familiar to me. The person practicing was Jiaming, and she was playing the piano accompaniment to our jury piece. I couldn’t help but smile. I considered running over and knocking on her door to see if we could just play together, but that didn’t feel quite right. There was something special about knowing we were working together yet separately. Even now as I am writing, I can’t quite put my finger on it. All I know is that I left Robertson Hall that night feeling that we were ready for whatever the next day had in store.

All in all, the jury went well. It was the first performance I’ve had at Oberlin where I felt sure of what was going to happen. I knew the performance was never going to be perfect (and there were small things that did happen), but on that day, at that time, Jiaming and I did the best that we could. That night before the jury was a magical moment, though I actually never spoke about it with Jiaming (which, if you are reading this, Jiaming: Hi! You are legendary!!). This entire experience has earned a special place in my memory and I am grateful for the journey my second year has been. And with that, we are onto the next–!


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