Oberlin Blogs

My First In-Person Oberlin Orchestra Concert

November 1, 2021

Ben Smith ’24

Ben and JY after their first Oberlin Orchestra concert!
Fall 2021: JY (left) and I's post-concert photo-op! Photo credit: Stephanie Manning

While adjusting to Oberlin last year—a new place with new people and new experiences—the reality that my class’s first year was unlike any other didn’t faze me. There was so much to take in between finding secure footing in this new place and adhering to all the COVID regulations. It was a particular kind of shared experience that bonded me to some of my closest friends, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m glad it’s mostly a thing of the past. No more playing in ensembles with duckbill-shaped masks nor having to sit what felt like a football field away from another living, breathing being. Never thought I’d be grateful for things like this, but here we are.

The start of the 2021–22 school year was buzzing with the news of having live, in-person large ensemble concerts again. And, now having taken part in my first one, I can say with full confidence that this is SUCH a welcome change. The concerts are being held every Friday this semester as part of the Fridays at Finney series. They are also being livestreamed like last year which is awesome! 2020's virtual advances do indeed have their benefits. 

I hadn’t taken time to think about it, but October 15, 2021 marked the first live concert I’ve played in since 2020. It was thrilling. Sharing the stage of Finney Chapel with the peers I’ve grown with over the past year felt so special. But it didn’t stop there—oh no. The stirring continued as I saw my friends filling in the seats of the audience, all the way from the front row to the balcony. Surrounded by people I’ve now grown close with—both on the stage and in the audience—the concert, a setting so familiar yet so foreign, revealed an untapped longing I didn't realize resided somewhere inside me. Some of my peers and I have had deep conversations about our musical journeys, our favorite concerts and performances. At the same time, we had yet to share in a musical experience together—something that truly solidified our camaraderie; we were on roads that were parallel but had yet to intersect. This concert was that moment: the crossroads into a new era of my Oberlin experience that I'll be very grateful for. 

Amidst all the trials and tribulations of the past year, one of the biggest opponents I faced was performance anxiety. Prior to coming to Oberlin, performance anxiety and I weren't well-acquainted. We only had little skirmishes every now and then. Encounters of this sort never deterred me from goals and I think, generally, I was able to keep a good head on my shoulders. My first year at Oberlin, however, whew. Not quite the same story. Performance anxiety was a never-ending mountain—reaching so far into the sky that there was no hope of fathoming the peak. Prior to any class or rehearsal where I was required to play for or with others (i.e. nearly every class), I walked in with tunnel vision. Stuck in my own head, the same slew of seriously unhelpful thoughts on constant loop. Connecting with others in this state was nearly impossible, but I couldn't get out of my own way. It's easy to say this retrospectively; living it was confusing, frustrating, debilitating, (the list goes on...).

Second semester, I took Introduction to Body Mapping with Professor Kelly Mollnow-Wilson. Of all the tips I could give on combating performance anxiety, I firmly believe taking this course would land near the top of the list. It's a course that covers performance anxiety, yes, but it centers the bulk of the material on understanding our bodies from a physical and physiological standpoint. Three words: just trust me. It was only an introductory course, but I would not be the same musician or person without it. I can say this now because, although I was nervous for my first live Oberlin concert, I was able to be present, enjoy the experience, and walk off stage knowing I was part of something wonderful. I wouldn't have been able to say this 6 months ago in May (and I have daily journal entries from Body Mapping to prove it!). 

All in all, Oberlin is proving to be a place filled with more surprises as each week passes by. I'm constantly inspired and invigorated. And, this year, I can look forward to Friday nights as a celebration—a time to see the showcased work of my peers and a time to take part myself every once in a while.

Professor Kelly Mollnow-Wilson and I holding alto flutes while wearing custom flute masks as part of the COVID-19 regulations.
Spring 2021: Professor Wilson and I wearing cursed contraptions (flute masks). Chilling.

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