Oberlin Blogs

Identity Crisis

April 27, 2009

Will Mason ’10

There is a tendency, I think, among both current and prospective members of the Oberlin community to view the double degree program with some skepticism. Certainly no one would dispute the novelty of the program - this is the only place where a world-class conservatory and top-ranked liberal arts college share the same campus - and its existence plays a large role in shaping the distinctive atmosphere of Oberlin. But the idea of compressing eight years of education into five gives pause to many considering enrolling in both the college and the conservatory.

Let me first say that I am positive that, at one point or another, every double degree student here has contemplated whether or not they were stymieing their development as a musician or a scholar by pursuing both degrees simultaneously. The answer to that question is highly personal and based on a number of variables, but the 50% drop-out rate for the program (that's 50% who decide to just pursue one degree, not 50% who go so nuts from the work that they abandon college entirely) should not be construed as an acknowledgment of the sacrifices that must be made to attain both degrees--people drop one of their degrees for all kinds of reasons, ranging from the financial burden posed by a fifth year to poor time management skills to the overall stress of the workload. My experiences so far have been very positive, and so I'd like to share those in hopes that they allay some concerns about being double degree at Oberlin.

I came to Oberlin as a college student and then transferred into the conservatory my sophomore year, so having worn both hats let me start off by saying that I don't believe I'm working that much harder now than I was freshman year. At Oberlin, you will fill your waking hours with activity no matter your academic status. Freshman year I took hard academic classes in areas that didn't play to my strengths, which took up a lot of time. Now, save for a computer science class that I'm taking this semester, I really am only taking college classes relevant to my Politics major. I also participated in a number of extracurricular activities that I no longer am a part of, though I still have time to work as an editor at The Grape, one of two campus newspapers. Other things I can find time for even in light of my academic workload include: working two jobs, recording a CD and performing with a rock band , volunteering for Barack Obama, reading for pleasure, composing, watching old episodes of The Simpsons, arguing about the myriad flaws of libertarianism with my friends/disciples of one particular Oberlin philosophy professor, and hanging out on my friend's porch on beautiful spring nights.

So, at least in my opinion, my extra-curricular and social lives have not suffered as a result of entering the double degree program. But that's only part of the question at hand: have I made compromises with either of my two degrees? Yes, I definitely have, and it kills me that I'm going to graduate college having not taken a class in the English or History departments, or taken more than one 300-level politics seminar, or written an honors thesis, all of which are impossible given my tight supply of credit hours.

My sacrifices in the conservatory have been fewer, especially now that I've successfully implemented an independent major. I practice an average of two hours a day, which isn't as much as I'd like but actually manages to be pretty close to ideal. This winter term I spent the entire month of January practicing for eight hours a day seven days a week, and I learned an important lesson: I reach a point of diminishing returns fairly quickly once I break the five-hour mark, so even if I didn't have any academic obligations at all, I still would probably not spend all the added time practicing. That's something worth keeping in mind, though there are plenty of people out there who aren't as unfocused as me and who can, in fact, sit in a 10x7' room for ten hours and get some real work done.

Of course, there's a more obvious reason why I'm a double degree student: I have no idea what I want to do professionally. Or, more specifically, I have about ten ideas, with varying degrees of overlap between them. I see myself working in journalism, or researching public policy, or going on to graduate school to become a professor of either comparative politics or ethnomusicology, or teaching at the high school level. You'll notice that "Professional Musician" isn't on that list; I feel differently about that ambition depending on which day you catch me, and the reasons for that deserve to be the subject of a different post entirely. But the point is that I have a lot of options, and I want to keep my options open for as long as possible. I'm an opportunist at heart, an unattractive predilection but one that has been justified repeatedly in my experiences in life so far and here at Oberlin - the recent successes afforded to Like Bells, the aforementioned rock band, are a perfect example of this. So since I have so many interests, it makes sense that I should strive to cultivate each of those interests as much as possible, the understanding being that it's easier to anticipate an opportunity arising than it is to anticipate an opportunity in music, or politics, or whatever. There is undeniable romance in the notion of sequestering myself in a practice room tirelessly pursuing "My Art," but there's also much to be said for opening doors instead of closing them. My feelings right now are that the double degree program opens more doors than it closes.

If I felt that the benefits of the double degree program were outweighed by the sacrifices, I would drop it. The fact of the matter is that I'm a better musician now than I've ever been and I know more about American and International politics than I could have dreamed of knowing back at the start of freshman year. Fundamentally, the double degree program does necessitate compromise, but that cost shouldn't eclipse the immense benefits that can be reaped from this program.

This is a complex issue, and, if you'll pardon my indulging in a moment of meta-blogging, I don't think I've done a particularly elegant job of writing about it (and I wrestled with this post for a fair degree longer than I usually do). I think ultimately the best advice about whether or not the double degree life is right for you is simply to try it out; you're likely to ascertain within the first year if it's a good fit or not, and it's exceptionally easy to drop either degree and still finish Oberlin in four years. And if you discover, as I have, that it is a good fit, you'll find yourself in the enviable position of being able to step back from even the most stressful days and remain ever grateful for the opportunity.

Responses to this Entry

Will, this was... really good to read. I'm currently not knowing whether to try out double degree... I know there are sacrifices, but I'm not sure I'm 100% cut out to be a hardcore performance major anyway. After reading about your individual major, I've thought about the possibility of that (only a very little bit), simply because sometimes I feel like my con education is just too narrow. I'm interested in more than just Western classical music and performance. I want more. But then, it might just be another case of trying to spread myself too thin and ultimately accomplishing nothing.

This will sound bad, but I'm glad you also have no idea what you want to do professionally. I feel strange sometimes, not knowing what I want to do, especially being a performance major...which is really a pre-professional kind of program.

So, I guess... it's reassuring to know that other people have been confused/dissatisfied with their education/have set their education onto a new and more well-suited course. That's good to know, thanks.

Posted by: Megan on April 28, 2009 1:52 PM

Glad it (might have) helped, Megan. I will point out, though, that it IS possible to reconcile being a "hardcore" performer and also an academic. This semester I played in four for-credit ensembles, plus five recitals, which is a pretty heavy load for any performance major. I'll also point out this guy as an example of someone who graduated Oberlin with a BA and BMus and went on to do pretty well for himself :-) http://jeremydenk.net/blog/

Posted by: Will on April 28, 2009 3:28 PM

Interesting blog article. I think you're right in some respects. Double degree students, while in the midst of it all, tend to be very hard on themselves(i.e., "I should be practicing more," or "I should be delving into this research project more intensely"). All of the angst, of course, we attribute to the fact that we don't have enough time because we're double degree students. With almost a decade of hindsight after Oberlin, I now fondly understand (in the sage words of Radiohead) that "we do it to ourselves."

We are intense people. In or out of Oberlin, double degree students tend to be more multi-faceted and curious creatures than your average bear. The double degree doesn't happen to us, we choose it because we long for a little bit of both worlds - only it's not dabbling, we jump in head first. I only discovered this after graduating from Oberlin - even without a regimented double degree program, I always have my hand in at least two different pots, and I don't mean casually, I mean intensely. If I'm working in a corporate law firm, I'm also neck deep in the arts community "on the side." I can't say it's always the best way to live, but I think with some refinement (i.e., time, trial and error, etc.), I'll learn how to balance and embrace what's really important to me, and perhaps accept the fact that I've chosen this life with so many challenging but beautiful dimensions.

Posted by: Mandy Tuong on April 28, 2009 4:11 PM

knockknock, Mandy.

This... "In or out of Oberlin, double degree students tend to be more multi-faceted and curious creatures than your average bear."... is so true.

All of my double-degree friends are some of the busiest, most active students around.

Posted by: Aries on April 29, 2009 1:50 AM

Nice post, Will. Also, your band sounds great! Clearly you still have time for your musical endeavors given your performance schedule. We should play a show together sometime! Looks like you're playing with my friend's band, Rosella soon, too. Good stuff.

Posted by: Jesse Hernandez on May 7, 2009 10:56 AM

Thanks, Jesse. That's cool that you know Rosella; the Kent show is one of the few ones where we hopped on a pre-existent bill rather than putting the show together ourselves, so I don't quite know what to expect though I did check their music out and liked it a lot. Let's definitely set up a show(s!) for next semester!

Posted by: Will on May 8, 2009 1:54 AM

Awesome- thanks for the info. I was wondering if connies have a set amount of time allotted for them each day for practicing in the practice rooms?

Posted by: Emily on May 12, 2009 12:22 AM

Hi Emily,

Nope! One of the many perks of picking Oberlin over its city-dwelling competitors is that facilities are abundant. The conservatory/practice room complex does close at midnight every night, which I find a bit irksome but hardly precludes me--or anyone else--from getting meaningful practicing done earlier in the day.

Posted by: Will on May 12, 2009 1:21 AM

Reading this actually helped me a lot, thanks. I didn't even know that such things like double-degrees (forgive me if I have that wrong) existed. I'm set up to graduate from High School a semester early, and, kicking myself for not working a little harder and graduating at the end of my Sophmore year, or first semester of this year.

I'm sure all of you know, it's pretty hectic looking for a college, and, knowing that there are different types of programs, like the double-degree program, makes me want to get some more in-depth information for the colleges I'm looking into. Not sure, exactly, what I'm going to do yet, but I've loved music, always have... Even though it gets on my family's nerves at times. Thanks for the info.

Posted by: Luca on May 13, 2009 8:23 PM

Hey Luca, glad it was helpful. The double degree program is actually pretty unique to Oberlin and entails getting a BA and a BMus concurrently (hence the name). If it sounds like something that may be of interest, you can read more about it here: http://new.oberlin.edu/applying/double-degree.dot

I'd recommend looking around the Oberlin website as a lot of the information is a) helpful for figuring out if Oberlin is a good fit and b) helpful for applying to college in general. Also feel free to ask me or any of the other bloggers any questions you may have. (FYI, John West and Chris Gollmar are also double degree and I think Megan Emberton is flirting with the idea.)

Posted by: Will on May 14, 2009 12:34 AM

Hello, I'll be coming to campus in August as part of the class of '13, and am hoping to try for the conservatory next year. I was wondering if the practice rooms are open to non-Conservatory students?
On a completely unrelated note, is it feasible to do work study and the hours required for a co-op?

Posted by: Christine on May 15, 2009 2:58 AM

Hey there, I took a tour of the conservatory/college this summer and am interested in doing a double-degree with jazz sax, and maybe creative writing? I'm not sure, but im only a junior in high school now. This is a great article, it helped a lot. A few questions; how difficult is it to get into the conservatory? If you don't major in music can you still play a considerable amount in groups/combos? thanks.

Posted by: Jesse Steinmetz on August 29, 2009 10:31 PM

Hey Jesse,

How difficult it is to get into the Conservatory depends on how good of a musician you are. The standards here are very high and they're only getting higher--each year of incoming freshmen, at least in the jazz program, have been better than the last. (This year is no exception -- holy crap! Nothing lights a fire under your butt to get into the practice room better than hearing someone three years younger than you play better than you ever have. But I digress...) And yes, if you don't enter the conservatory you will be able to do plenty of playing provided you take the initiative to meet people, go to jam sessions, et cetera.

Posted by: Will on August 30, 2009 10:00 PM

Hey Will,

Your blog is very interesting. I love it! I'm thinking of applying as a double-degree student (Voice, Jazz Studies and Undecided!) or just to the College. I was wondering if there are any vocal jazz groups in the college/conservatory? Thanks so much! (Please email me!)

Posted by: Saul Priever on November 4, 2009 3:37 AM

btw my email address from above is srp061891@ucla.edu

Posted by: Saul on November 4, 2009 3:40 AM

Hi Saul,

There are no vocal jazz groups in the conservatory, however there are a few vocalists. The bar is high; vocalists dramatically change the dynamic of any group that they're in, and so people probably aren't going to invite you into their small ensembles readily unless you're really able to floor them with your abilities. You would, of course, be able to put your own group together easily enough. (I've written about this a bunch already if you want more information.)

Where vocalists really get to do a lot in the jazz program is the Big Band, and you would certainly have opportunities to perform with them, which is probably more fun for a vocalist anyway in terms of repertoire.

Because there isn't much of a precedent for voice here, you'd be very much on your own and your time here would be what you make of it. If you're a strong self-starter, you'll benefit a lot from the resources here. If you think you might allow yourself to fall through the cracks, you might be better off looking at a music program with more of a specialty in jazz voice.

Posted by: Will on November 7, 2009 1:22 PM

That sounds absolutely fine, Will. Thanks for your response. I actually intend to only apply to the College, but I still hope to participate in choirs and study music at Oberlin. I don't mind that there aren't any vocal jazz groups because I have just recently started singing vocal jazz and I'm more comfortable/experienced in classical choirs.

Posted by: Saul on November 9, 2009 3:09 AM

Your opportunities to sing in classical choirs will be pretty limitless here.

Posted by: Will on November 9, 2009 10:19 AM

Hi Will;

I'm really interested in double majoring at Oberlin in violin and politics. How do you like the politics courses? And do think you have had time to take all the courses you wanted while practicing drums a fair amount?


Posted by: Lena on January 17, 2010 12:38 AM

Hi Lena,

Sorry it took me a while to get back to you, Winter Term has been busy. I love the politics courses; it's one of the larger departments here so there are a wide range of course offerings. Every semester I have trouble deciding which course(s) to take because there are so many of interest.

I have had a hard time taking all of the courses I wanted to take here. I'll graduate having never taken an English class, for example, and I would have loved to take more American politics classes even though my interest within the politics major is elsewhere. That's not to mention all of the awesome upper-level music theory and musicology courses offered as electives in the conservatory. But to some extent this is true for everyone, regardless of whether or not they're double-degree: there are a lot of cool courses at college and only so many credits available per semester. I do think that double-degree students have an even harder time squeezing everything in. It depends on how broad your interests are too, I think. If you come here knowing you want to major in politics and don't feel like you need to spend freshman year taking a wide swath of intro classes, you'll probably find that you're able to enroll in just about everything that interests you.

Posted by: Will on January 26, 2010 4:55 PM

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