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Classic Underclassman: Classy or Unclassifiable?

November 8, 2014

Ah, classes! We take them. We love them. We agonize over them before, during, and after the fact. I'm in the interesting position of gearing up to audition for the Conservatory in the spring, so I'm in a bit of a no-man's-land (or an every-man's-land, from another point of view). Friends in the College think I'm in the Con; Con friends think I'm in the College. It's safe to say at this point that I'm rather unclassifiable, or at least an interesting something that's not wholly Double-Degree, Conservatory, or College. Right now, I'm combining elements of everything, which I think is pretty cool.

My classes are split fairly evenly between the two departments and my schedule somehow allows for an orchestra or three as well as time for practicing. So, right now I'm majoring in Staring Blankly and Making Vague Arm Movements Towards the Con and College (or, at least, that's how I answer when people ask me what my major is). What follows is the puzzling balance I've attained (accompanied, of course, by suitable music):

Music Theory I

The first class of my Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. It's universally useful for anyone interested in studying music. If you want to know the particulars, there's rather a lot of counterpoint, part-writing, analysis, and IV-V-I involved. Also, there's plenty of singing, which is always pleasant first thing in the morning... (As in, through this class I have become a famous soloist of the schools of Wrong-Clef and Too-Flat.)

Neither in the wrong clef nor too flat, here's a lovely perfect Bach chorale that everyone should dream of emulating. Until, say, Theory III or thereabouts when stuff gets weird. Jesu, meine Freude, BWV 227, aka my theory class motivational anthem.

RHET 104: Negotiating Language, Culture, and Power

This is one of my favorite classes. It's taught by the passionate and persuasive Prof Joy Karega and investigates writing in the contexts of society, culture, and power. She's introduced us to writings by James Baldwin, Gloria Anzaldua, and many others (look here if you're interested). We also do a lot of work with our own writing, mindfully revising with an eye for purpose, effectiveness, and the specific techniques that make our writing that way. Far from being just another English class, this has definitely changed my views on traditional "academic writing" and is a very appropriate entry point into writing at Oberlin.

Music like Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 is supercharged with subtext and implications. If this was a piece for RHET 104, I'd be asking things like "Why did he choose to adhere to a Classical form?" or "How does the composer negotiate his own musical background and the accepted musical idioms of the day?" Shostakovich was famously conflicted between his own beliefs and those the reigning Communist Party imposed on him. This symphony is reflective of that struggle: he managed to please the Party while maintaining his own emotional integrity. Where they heard heroism, Shostakovich wrote suffering.

PHIL 200: Deductive Logic

I took this class out of a desire to complement my otherwise heavily musical and English-based course load. It requires a lot of individual sitting-down-and-sorting-out-of-things or some meaningful time spent in office hours, from my experience -- which is, by all accounts, a good experience in itself. As I quickly discovered, this type of formal logic has its own sort of language, integrating rather neatly with my study of musical language and my analytical take on the English language. It also serves as a gateway to philosophical studies and forms the basis of computer languages. First Order Logic (FOL) is interesting, if abstract at times. Iff you get nothing else out of it, you'll be able to spell 'if' with two 'f's' meaningfully without pleading typographical error.

Rules and structure and puzzling things out in an ultimately clear, impartial, logical way - logic class reminds me of Schoenberg and his tone rows. In compositions like his Piece for Piano Op. 33a he limits himself to a certain arrangement (a "tone row") of the 12 pitches of music where each note is heard as often as any other (essentially eliminating a key center). There's a certain sleek beauty within the confines of structure, which I feel goes along well with this class.

FYSP: Women Composers: Negotiating a Place

This is my other favorite class. You listen to juicy seldom-heard masterworks! You write about music and interesting musical women! You learn about the social and cultural aspects that caused said interesting musical women to have their juicy music go unheard! What's not to love? This class, like the rest of the First-Year Seminar Programs, is not to be missed. It's an excellent entry point into the college writing and learning experience, and if the seminar topic is particularly relevant to your interests, then it hardly seems like work at all.

Here, have some Dame Ethel Smyth (her glorious Mass in D...which uses a snare drum at one point. In a mass. Interesting). She is a certified Super Cool Lady. Outspoken suffragette and underperformed composer, she had much to offer the world. And, like most women composers, she deserves to have her work heard more often.

Fencing ExCo

Because who doesn't want to play with swords? Several years ago I put down my epee (aka long semi-pointy metal object that is heavier than the long semi-pointy metal object known as a foil) in favor of seriously picking up a cello bow. Though a certain satisfaction could be derived from gleefully poking stand partners in orchestra, it wasn't the same as facing another person and straight-up stabbing them (in a civilized manner, of course). To my delight, I discovered that Oberlin offered a Fencing ExCo.

What is an ExCo, you ask? In a nutshell, an ExCo, or Experimental College course, is a course dreamed up by students for students. In a non-nutshell, there's a great body of literature out there on the subject; I would expound, but this post is not the post for expounding.

Back to fencing: it's a great way to blow off steam and it doesn't take long to get into the swing (er, stab?) of things. The ExCo is taught wonderfully, with equal parts workout, technique, and actual bouting (organized stabbing). Through this course, also, I realized the importance of actually getting out and moving. Cello and studying are largely sedentary sports, and it's easy for some of us college students to not make time for physical health. It's necessary, though: I found that practicing after fencing class, even when my arms were jelly, was more productive and focused. The same went for studying. So, basically, fencing is a perfect sport: classy, cerebral, and leads to great calves. Also, you can stab people.

Even Bach played with swords. In fact, he allegedly challenged a bassoonist to a duel: apparently the bassoonist, a classmate of Bach's, was expressing doubt about the master's musical ability. Naturally, Bach called the fellow a "nanny-goat bassoonist," drew his sword, and moved to duel, but it eventually devolved into a brawl instead. Yeah, this guy who wrote this (Prelude from Cello Suite No. 6 in D Major). He pulled a sword on a dude. And invented the greatest insult ever. Bach is the best.

Other things

Aside from academic classes, I take cello lessons and participate in studio class (a type of environment where you perform for your peers). I'm part of an orchestra that specializes in works by Mozart, play in the Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra, and also participate in Cleveland's Case Western Reserve Orchestra through some black market cellist trade deal (or, they needed more cellists and a professor of mine recruited me and some others who obliged happily). I'm part of an informal chamber music group of College musicians that blows off steam by reading some pretty cool works.

It's funny; half of my classes have the word "negotiating" in the title, and I think that couldn't be more appropriate for my experience and for college in general. Everything in my divided life seems to work in harmony, but it takes work negotiating time and focus. Luckily, the two sides inform each other, and more than once I've carried some music into my writing class, just as writing bleeds heavily over into musical studies. Even if I feel "unclassifiable" right now, I suppose I could be labelled as a successful liberal arts student, drawing from all corners for a balanced education. And, right now, I wouldn't have it any other way.

As of now, I'm not too worried about my trajectory. I'm finding my footing, negotiating, and figuring out bit by bit what I want to do. That's normal and I'm happy. Soon though, the scramble that is second semester class registration begins, and my people-stabbing skills may or may not come in handy...

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