Being a Conservatory Student at Oberlin: Expectations vs. Reality
“Going into music is not easy,” my past piano teachers told me on multiple occasions. They are definitely right, but by the way some of my past teachers described music school, it seemed almost like going into music was not only not easy, but not happy as well. I had certain predispositions about what being in a top-notch conservatory would be like: intense, competitive, and cut-throat. It made me question whether attending a rigorous conservatory, or even just being a music major, was going to be the right choice due to the negative effect that the competitive environment might have on my own happiness. Yet, if anything, the environment I’ve found within the Oberlin Conservatory has more than enhanced my happiness:
Fear: Cut-throat competition, everyone shut in a practice room 24/7, musicians fighting to be the best
When I took a tour of the conservatory as a prospective student, I remember our tour guide telling us, “We aren't like most conservatories, because everyone is so friendly here! The playing level is extremely high, but people are supportive of each other!” and considering that I'd heard those exact words from about five other conservatory tours, I truly had to question its validity.
I’d heard my fair share of absurd rumors about pianists from schools like Juilliard putting razor blades between the keys, and also had my fair share of unfriendly piano competition experiences. Although I’ve often participated in piano competitions out of a feeling of necessity, I don't always enjoy music in that setting. I believe music should be used as a way to connect people, not as a way to pull them apart.
Reality: Friendly, open, supportive people
My tour guide was right. The community of musicians I found here is amazing. Every once in a while, my friends – usually many of my studio-mates – and I get together in a practice room and perform for each other. We give each other constructive comments and genuine support. If I’m performing in studio class that week, I always know that I'll have a team of amazing people there to listen sometime during the week before and help me practice performing. While we do spend most of our day in the practice room and motivate each other to get our practice done, we have fun outside the practice room too.
Fear: As a pianist, I will feel alone forever.
When I was in third grade, I joined choir because I wanted to be a part of a community making music together. In high school, I played piano for the jazz orchestra, along with occasional band and orchestra concerts, but I couldn’t escape the fact that the piano was primarily a solitary instrument. I was envious of my other instrumentalist friends, who had found a sense of community within their symphony orchestra or band, where they got to connect and make music with like-minded people.
I’ve always been a bit afraid that I’d never find that same sense of community or belonging that I saw in a lot of my musical friends, that I would forever just be stuck at my own piano doing my own thing with no real relevance to the world around me. But I can definitely say I was wrong.
Reality: An amazing community I’m so fortunate to be a part of
There are eighteen or so piano majors in my piano studio. Every week, we have studio dinner together, for those who can make it. Here are some pictures of these amazing people:
The piano world isn’t lonely. I have found an amazing community within my studio, and not only that, but I get to make music with vocalists and instrumentalists. The collaborative atmosphere of music that I’ve been exposed to here has reminded me that although I may not play an orchestral instrument, I can still be part of an amazing community and connect with others through music.
Fear: I’ll get all competitive with everyone in a conservatory.
I went to a public high school, and we had a great music program, but I was never surrounded by the same conservatory-level musicians that we have at Oberlin. I was afraid that once I got to Oberlin, maybe I would fall into the trap of comparing myself to others and letting the fact that others are better than me destroy my self-esteem.
Reality: Being surrounded by so many talented people is inspiring, not intimidating.
When everyone is at this high level, there’s no use in comparing, because everyone has their own unique style, and I’ve found that I like when I can sit back during studio class and enjoy everyone’s playing, rather than judge it and compare it to my own.
Of course, there are always going to be those people who see the piano in a competitive light, but I think that this kind of a mindset is unhealthy, not only to forming relationships with others but also to achieving one’s desired goal. Several psychological studies have shown that “chasing superiority” may initially motivate one to do a task (ex. Practicing) but will lower the quality of the performance of that task (ex. Inefficient practicing) because the need for superiority actually interferes with the mental functions involved in the task.
So, in other words, it’s so much more effective to find motivation through the love of music, not through the desire to “be the best.” And here at Oberlin, I’ve never had to get stuck in that competitive mindset, because I’ve been able to surround myself with people who listen to my playing without judgment, who value me regardless.
Fear: It’s going to be the Hunger Games to find a practice room.
People have to practice. Pretty self-explanatory.
Reality: You can almost always get a practice room.
Oberlin has 238 Steinways. Out of the millions of times I’ve ventured to the practice rooms, I’ve only had trouble finding a room three times. That’s a pretty darn good number.
Fear: Due to spending all hours of the day in the practice room, I will have no time to be social!
With a full class schedule, 4-6+ hours of practice a day, personal responsibilities, and maybe even a job, how will I ever find time to have fun?
Reality: It’s busy, but it’s even easier to find social time than high school.
When your friends are living just down the hall or right upstairs, it’s not hard to find social time. Additionally, meals are a great opportunity for social time every day. I’ve found that despite the large amount of time I spend in the practice room, it’s even easier for me to find social time than it was in high school, due to the close proximity I am to my friends at every hour of the day. And I’ve also made a lot of friends who aren’t even in the conservatory! One of my best friends is in the college of arts & sciences and lives down the hall from me.
What’s great is that people understand that I need to practice, even my college of arts & sciences friends, and I never feel shamed for having to turn down a social event in order to go practice.
I don’t know what it’s like at other conservatories, and I can’t speak for others’ experiences, but the environment and community I’ve found here in Oberlin is one I wouldn’t trade for a nine-foot Steinway. Music doesn't have to exist in a cut-throat competitive environment to foster success, and, in fact, I believe that the freedom to express rather than impress makes the best, most individual and passionate musicians. And it’s that which makes me so happy to be a musician at this school and a pianist in my wonderful studio family.