Oberlin Blogs


November 25, 2009

Will Mason ’10

While Oberlin students do venture out of town with some regularity, by and large we tend to be a pretty insular community. Particularly, and unsurprisingly, we are saturated with music. Musicians of Conservatory and College pedigree alike are given ample opportunity to perform, and there is a reliably built-in audience of friends, peers, fans, et cetera. Jazz combos, orchestras, chamber groups, singer songwriters, and rock bands all have at least two opportunities to perform a semester, and so many find their performative desires well sated. Nevertheless, there are some of us who find the idea of any less than one performance per week unacceptable. Spillover into neighboring cities is common: Akron, Kent, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Toledo are all within reasonable distance, but I'd like to talk in particular about opportunities for performing in Cleveland.

I have of late become increasingly focused on what I think of as the "business" end of music: marketing and selling a product, in this case a performance. This development is primarily circumstantial: I am graduating and will need to make money. But there's also the simple fact that you can't perform unless you can get on stage somewhere, and so knowing how to get a foot in the door at clubs and performance spaces is critical in order to maintain even the most rudimentary existence as a performer. Cleveland has provided me with a great way to develop those business skills while still being safely shielded by the bubble of college student-dom.

I cannot really speak to what opportunities are available for classical musicians; the Conservatory has a gig referral service that seems pretty effective though I've never used it myself. Wedding gigs, corporate functions, and other smaller-level private gigs can get sent to the Conservatory, which in turn posts them for students. String quartets, pianists, jazz trios, etc., are in demand for these sorts of things, and the gigs always pay very well (though not as much as the rate for a "professional" performer, which I imagine is partly why these places contact the Conservatory in the first place). But I haven't heard too much talk of student classical groups going out into neighboring cities on their own to find gigs. There are also plenty of opportunities for folk musicians; I know that Helena's folk group just played at a coffee shop in downtown Cleveland, for example.

With Like Bells, a rock band I'm in with two other Oberlin seniors, I've found getting gigs in Cleveland to be more or less comparable to other cities; they're out there, and they're not hard to get provided you're persistent. I've played at The Grog Shop, which is one of Cleveland's larger rock clubs, and I've played at Pat's In The Flats, one of the sketchiest establishments I've ever frequented. (Though it was still a fun show!) Cleveland's live music scene certainly isn't as vibrant as some other major US cities, and it's no secret that the city has been hit hard economically for the past few decades. But we've always had great experiences and found people to be supportive and welcoming.

Having said that, I will admit that we've started to downplay our connections to Oberlin. Part of this is simply that we are graduating and plan to continue as a band after our time here is done. But we've also had this image of us as "music students" dog us a little bit; an article about us in my beloved Cleveland Scene magazine featured the headline "The Conservatory Kids," which probably didn't do us many favors. There's a stigma attached to institutional support in the rock music world and we're trying to tread lightly. So we find ourselves in the interesting position of making music that has been profoundly affected by what we've learned and experienced here at Oberlin and yet trying to avoid the criticisms that sometimes come up as a result. (The word "over-intellectualized" is, in my opinion, the gravest insult anyone can level upon a musical work.)

Interestingly, the opposite has been true in my new Cleveland gig, a bi-weekly stint with my jazz trio at the Arts Collinwood Cafe + Bar, located near the Beachland Ballroom. The Oberlin connection has been good for us, and in fact probably helped us get the gig in the first place. It's a free show and the central focus is definitely the bar, not the music, but it's been fun to play for people. (I am a strong proponent of performing in places that serve alcohol; in my experience, the audience tends to be a great deal more receptive the drunker they are, and usually there's a positive correlation between inebriation and cd sales.) We're not a traditional jazz trio in any meaningful sense, and some of our songs are definitely a bit "surprising," but we've heard no complaints so far. And in addition to being fun, having a regular gig is also an important learning experience: it's a challenge to prepare two hours of interesting music for people, and an even greater challenge to perform it. I have yet to make it much past the 80-minute mark before having my energy wane, and that's something I've got to deal with. Here's my chance.

There are other opportunities too, of course. I just performed with percussionist / Oberlin professor / my current drum set instructor / badass Jamey Haddad at Severance Hall in Cleveland last week. He took a handful of kids from his frame drumming classes here and at CIM, as well as some other Oberlin student musicians (the bassist in the aforementioned jazz trio, oboe, saxophone, guitar, etc.) to give a great concert in the foyer of Severance. 

Hopefully this has been helpful; I realize this isn't directly related to Oberlin but it was something I wondered about when I was applying here. I'd be happy to answer more questions about this, and invite others reading to chime in if they have any experiences with performing as a student in Cleveland that they'd like to share.

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