Oberlin Blogs


November 25, 2020

Ben Smith ’24

As a blanket statement, I think it is fair to say this semester has posed some interesting challenges for everyone involved in the learning process–students and professors alike.

That being said, I like to think of these challenges as opportunities, and it is these opportunities that forged a learning process that many of us have never gone through before. It’s like we are pioneers in a way–maybe not pioneers by choice but rather by happenstance. Or maybe I’m just getting ahead of myself. 

Before arriving on campus, I had a general idea of what to expect this semester; the ObieSafe guidelines were made very clear and, if anything, I knew it was not going to be ‘‘normal.’’ Now that I am back home, I can attest the semester was not normal, but this isn’t to say it was some second-rate experience.

In fact, I am extremely thankful for this semester. And in the spirit of being thankful, I wanted to encapsulate three lessons I’ve learned this semester–lessons that, if it weren’t for the current global condition in which I attended college, I may not have learned in quite the same fashion.

Lesson 1 

The importance of knowing when you do and do not need to be heard. 

Accompanying any new social situation, there comes a set of social conventions that are generally followed. If it weren’t for this semester, I would not have known that these social conventions transcend in-person interactions and exist even in virtual settings. And what is this virtual setting? Why it is none other than Zoom–where the concept of knowing when and when not to be heard became especially apparent to me as I learned of proper muting and unmuting etiquette.

For example, when joining a Zoom call unmuted, the ensuing rush of static-y sounds are an absolute nightmare on the ears of those who are already in the call. In my first few Zoom calls, I was the culprit of this alarming social offense, but it only took a matter of time to figure out the mechanics of pressing the ‘‘Mute microphone when joining a meeting’’ preference in the audio settings to fix this issue. So, when joining a call for the first time, you don’t need to be heard–lesson learned. 

On the other hand, I learned the inverse of this in my in-person classes which, as a conservatory student, largely came from rehearsals. With the smaller ensemble sizes of around 10-20 people, being prepared was paramount. Much of the music being played this semester was modern, calling for ensembles with unique instrumentation, so each individual part was arguably more integral to the coordination of the piece as a whole than usual.

Following COVID-19 guidelines, the spacing between each musician was much larger than normal too–especially for wind instruments. To compensate, I often found myself having to play, what felt to me, quite loud. In orchestral playing with 50+ other musicians, there is some room for individual musicians to afford being lax on their dynamic terracing; what’s marked f does not actually have to be played at that musician‘s forte. But, in our new ensemble setting with each musician being more exposed and spaced apart, anything marked f meant it was supposed to be played with the intention of the individual's forte. In these moments, I learned very quickly that I needed to be heard.

Lesson 2

When life gives you lemons, you don’t have to just make lemonade.

COVID-19 affected people across the globe and upended the lives of many. There is something to be said for adjusting and overcoming hardship, but to turn this pandemic into something solely positive would be unrealistic; optimism is wonderful, but it can’t just be forced onto every situation. 

For some, the global condition caused a desire for an escape and a reprieve from the daily influx of unknowns. For others, the global condition encouraged a drive for self-improvement and a course of action contingent on productivity.

As a classical musician, I saw a similar divide between my friends, colleagues, and teachers. Some felt particularly motivated by their newly opened schedules and ability to dedicate numerous hours to their craft, while others felt quite hopeless with the fate of classical music falling into an unsettling gray area. As for my own experience, I fell somewhere in-between. I was on the 'self-improvement train' at first, but as the months progressed and the reality of our slowly worsening global condition began to really sink in, this did not last.

My love for music never went away, and I did continue to practice regularly–those things didn’t change. In fact, I felt that the global condition encouraged the behavior of staying shut up in a room and practicing for hours on end. What did change, though, was my spontaneous desire to learn a new language and aspiration to go through some sort of personal metamorphosis by the end of quarantine. I realized I did not have to come out of quarantine as this tip-top version of myself adorned with a set of newly acquired skills. Instead, I could just exist as a person taking in a situation as it came. Life gave me lemons and I chose to m̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶l̶e̶m̶o̶n̶a̶d̶e̶ take a moment of introspection and continue doing what I was before.

Lesson 3

Loved ones can be just a phone call away. 

This may be a rather personal matter, but I find phone calls to be stressful undertakings–especially ones that are out of the blue. There is just something about relying solely on a person’s voice and the desperation of their cellular connection that does not sit right with me.

Granted, I am well acquainted with social awkwardness, so my relationship with phone calls is a rocky one anyway, but I have learned through this experience with college during COVID-19 that phone calls do not have to be intimidating ventures into unknown, potentially-awkward conversations. In fact, I’d dare to say they can even be quite stress-relieving. It all comes down to who and what you are calling about–which is a simple concept but for some reason, it took a global pandemic and a new phase of my life for me to learn.

As I checked in with friends during quarantine in March-May and spoke with them again during our first semesters of college, I am here to affirm the value of keeping in touch with those you love. As we are all well aware of by now, the state of the world is quite isolating, but a small phone call can make a big difference in your own socially-distanced bubble. Take it from me: a person who previously held phone calls as one of their biggest fears. 

I’m looking forward to all the new lessons I have yet to learn in the coming semesters. While I don’t think any semester will ever be quite like this one, I am thankful for it nonetheless. 

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