Oberlin Blogs

Music Opportunities for Non-Music Majors

June 28, 2009

Zoe McLaughlin ’11

First, a bit about my own experience in music. I started playing violin in fourth grade, thanks to my school district's awesome music program. It turned out that I had a certain knack for violin, so at the suggestion of an All-State judge, I started taking private lessons. Along the way, I also taught myself a fair amount of recorder (and not just soprano), a little bit of flute, and was shown the basics of cello and double bass. Violin is definitely my primary instrument, but I put "making music" whenever people ask my hobbies, because there are a lot of other instruments involved.

Now, on to the various ways that someone who's a not a music major, or even a Conservatory student, can still make music at Oberlin. These are listed in no particular order, just in case you're concerned that I'm exhibiting bias.

Option Number One: ExCo's
As mentioned before, I've taken the Music of North India ExCo for the past two semesters. The ExCo is taught by a very qualified, very talented woman. Generally, she teaches sitar, tabla, and voice; however, there are a few students who take private lessons with her on other instruments. These range from other traditional Indian instruments to Western ones, like my violin. I take lessons with a violist, and there is also a double bass student, who is very, very good. The lessons are fun, and a completely different style of music than anything I've experienced before. I've taken a slightly different route with these lessons--there's no prior experience necessary, unless you want to take the route that I have.

This isn't the only ExCo involving music. One that I've had my eye on for a while now is a program bringing music into the local elementary schools, but this little thing called time has prevented me from exploring it so far.

Option Number Two: Winter Term
There are several different organized Winter Term projects that involve music. I haven't participated in any of them, but they look very interesting. Want to make your own banjo out of a gourd? You can do it. Want to be part of a gamelan ensemble? You can do that, too. And of course, if none of these options really appeal to you, you can always create your own.

Option Number Three: Ensembles
There are quite a few large ensembles to pick from, if that's your sort of thing. I am a member of one of them, College Orchestra (recently re-named Oberlin College Symphony). It's a student-run orchestra comprised entirely of students from the College with the occasional composition major thrown in for good measure. It's a great, low-pressure ensemble.

There are also two other ensembles specifically for College students: College Community Strings and College Community Winds. As the names suggest, the former is a string orchestra and the latter is a wind ensemble. Both are conducted by faculty members from the Conservatory.

Besides these, there are other opportunities--you just have to find them. I've had the chance to play for several pit orchestras, most notably for OGASP (Oberlin Gilbert and Sullivan Players). I've found that it's not so hard to find a pit orchestra to play for, even if I'm not a Conservatory student.

Option Number Four: Secondary Lessons
One really great thing that the Conservatory offers for non-music majors is the opportunity to take secondary lessons. After an audition (which, take it from me, isn't as scary as it sounds), you're assigned a teacher. In my case, I've had two great teachers, both Conservatory students. Depending on the instrument, you may be assigned a student or a faculty member as a teacher. If you are assigned a student, you still get chances to play for a faculty member.

Option Number Five: Small Groups
Finally, with a lot of people who play instruments, there is always the option to form small groups, both formally and informally. Again, I haven't taken advantage of this, mainly due to the time issue. However, one of my friends, working with another student, rehearsed and performed an arrangement of Stravinsky's "Petrushka" for two pianos. They received coaching from a faculty member, though only one of them is a Conservatory student, and put on a very nice rehearsal at the end of the year.

Responses to this Entry

Thanks for the enlightening post! I'm going to be a freshman next year in the college and I play oboe (and electric bass but my question has to do with oboe) and I plan on auditioning for everything I can. I was told that I can audition for the conservatory orchestras like Oberlin Orchestra and Contemporary Music Ensemble, although the orientation schedule made it seem otherwise. My question is whether you know anybody who is a college student and in one of the more serious orchestras? I'm most likely not good enough to get in anyway but I want to challenge myself and want to know if I'd be in over my head in your opinion. I plan on majoring in Neuroscience with a minor or maybe double major in Physics, if that makes a difference. Thanks for any insight!

Posted by: Alex on June 29, 2009 4:21 PM

Alex -
I'm not the author, but I can take a stab at your question, having come to Oberlin in a similar situation (as a flute player).

They do accept a number of college students into the large conservatory orchestra each semester. Unfortunately, I've only ever known them to take string players--because the section sizes are limited for winds and percussion, they usually reserve them for conservatory students who need the professional experience. Nevertheless, I think it's definitely worth a shot to audition, and at the very least it will prove that you're serious about pursuing music in college, which might help to get you lessons with a professor or an "in" for a chamber group with con students. Make sure to find out which excerpts they're asking for this year (I think they usually tell the incoming frosh around July 1) so that you'll be prepared. And finally, definitely look into the College Orchestra if your con auditions don't work out! I had a great experience with it (in its original fledgling stage, no less) even though it was very different from the well-oiled machine of a youth orchestra that I played in throughout high school.

Hope that helped.

Posted by: Martina on June 29, 2009 8:05 PM

A really good question, Alex, that I totally should have addressed in my post. And, basically, Martina has got it right. You can definitely audition for Oberlin Orchestra or the Contemporary Music Ensemble, though I agree with what she said - it might be a long shot. I've had friends get in, but they all play string instruments. But definitely give it a go and see what happens.

I'm not clear on the specifics of the audition process, but I'm asking around, and I can hopefully let you know about that soon.

Posted by: Zoë on June 29, 2009 10:55 PM

Thanks so much, both of you! I've been practicing all the excerpts and stuff since they came out so hopefully I'll be ready (although my instrument is holding me back from some of the fingerings...grrr). How would I go about joining the college orchestra? I can't find anything on oberlin's website, I guess because it's a student run thing. I think I'd be pretty happy just playing at all, but I figure it doesn't hurt to aim high.

Posted by: Alex on June 30, 2009 12:05 PM

I would definitely recommend taking music history 101. It's a required class for all Conservatory students, but I took it as a College freshman and loved. Prof McGuire is awesome.

Posted by: Liz on June 30, 2009 1:06 PM

Alex - So after discussing things with my contacts, the consensus is that you can e-mail Ms. Reischl, Oberlin Orchestra's conductor, at bridget.reischl[at]oberlin.edu to set up an audition. Though since you've already got the excerpts, that's probably half the battle.

As for College Orchestra, you can either get in touch with me once the semester starts and I can let you know when the first rehearsal is, or (if you want to be more legit about it), you can e-mail Anna Ernst at Anna.Ernst[at]oberlin.edu and let her know that you're interested.

Posted by: Zoë on June 30, 2009 7:25 PM

In addition to everything that Zoë has mentioned, I'd like to point out that the College Orchestra (officially named the Oberlin College Symphony, OCS for short) has its own facebook group. Though the info hasn't been updated from last semester, I'm sure Anna will be updating with more info in the fall. We have our conductor picked out and everything, and I'm looking forward to playing in the group again in the fall. Oh, I'm a rising junior, and I play trumpet. In case anyone was doubting my credentials :)


Posted by: Patrick on July 9, 2009 5:23 PM

Good call, Patrick. Thanks! I always forget about the Facebook group...

Posted by: Zoë on July 10, 2009 12:37 AM

Great post! I'll chime in with my own thoughts on the matter, from a previous post:


Posted by: Will on July 10, 2009 6:44 PM

Are there any opportunities for singing for those of us non-music majors? I've always wanted to take voice lessons or sing in a choir to try and improve my singing, but never had a chance. I'm too intimidated to compete with the voice majors (who sing like angels), but I'd really like a chance to start singing.

Posted by: Rachel '13 on July 15, 2009 11:54 PM

Rachel, I am not well-versed in opportunities for singers at all. I can ask around and see what I can find out for you. I know there are several a capella groups that you can join (one of my friends sings for one, and their concerts are always great to listen to).

During orientation, there's an optional meeting you can go to that talks about music opportunities for college students, and I definitely suggest that you attend that and ask what groups there are that you can join.

Posted by: Zoë on July 18, 2009 12:53 PM

Thanks for all the help! With two weeks until I'm there, it's now been posted on the audition page that wind players can't audition for the conservatory ensembles until the second semester, and that's if they win faculty lessons. I'm wondering if I should bother emailing the conductor since it's pretty clear but I have had some correspondence saying otherwise, although that was before they change the page. Do you think that'd be worth it? I'm just trying to get a sense of what I can and can't do once I get there-but I know I'll definitely be looking into the college orchestra. And Will, I'm the guy who asked you about electric bass in the jazz ensembles..I play oboe too. I don't think I'm going to have enough time for anything!

Posted by: Alex on August 11, 2009 12:54 AM

I guess my advice, especially since you've gotten some information to the contrary in the past, is to e-mail the conductor just to make sure. After all, that can't really hurt anything. Good luck!

Posted by: Zoë on August 11, 2009 11:04 AM

A few random things, and some more opps:

1) Gamelan won't be offered this winter term unless there is enough demand and a student teaches it...which might happen. We'll see, but it only happened last year because of massive funding.

2) Gamelan however -is- an exco in addition to a performance ensemble, and people interested can contact me and I'll send them an application come the first day of school (or they can find me at the exco fair). If they have experience in gamelan for any reason, then they can apply for the course with Profesor Fraser!

3) Though rare and not advertised on the class list like other secondary lessons, composition lessons are available as well to non music-majors. Contact the composition department for details- I know I and a few others would love to teach them if there is enough interest this year.

4) I second the suggestion to take Music History 101. Ethnomusicology courses are also very easy for college students to get into because there isn't an official Ethno major or minor. There is even an Ethno 101 course for non-musicians, if you feel so inclined.

This is a sweet blog entry, and I am really glad to see someone point all of this out. A comp major who doesn't really play anything at a con-level, I would've died for some of this knowledge before I started registering.

Posted by: Sean on August 18, 2009 11:22 PM

Hi Zoe,

Interesting blog. :-) I wanted to ask someone like you a question that's a little off topic. I am a professional musician and do well with it, but I've always wanted to understand music theory better than I do. I tried it once with the conservatory of music here in Australia but I only got as far as a pre audition course teaching basic music theory and I was lost. It was like playing tennis all your life right handed and then switching to the left. My question is do you think it would be detrimental to my playing if I started learning music theory from scratch rather than the patterns (I'm a guitarist/vocalist) that I am so used to? Thanks for your thoughts. Your blog is very well written :-) Kind regards, Tod.

Posted by: Tod Woodward on August 18, 2010 3:21 PM

Hi Tod!

I definitely encourage you to try learning music theory again. I don't think it would be detrimental at all to your playing right now. For me, it provided a new way to look at the music that I already played. I hope that helps. :)

Posted by: Zoë on August 22, 2010 10:48 AM

Thanks Zoe. Maybe you're right and it will add another dimension. :-)

Posted by: Tod Woodward on August 25, 2010 12:02 PM

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