Oberlin Blogs

The Myth of Grad School

November 15, 2023

Ben Smith ’24

Hi, if you've stumbled on this blog, just forewarning that this falls into the territory of a "rant": not typical thoughts I would display for public viewing but here we are.

Viewer discretion advised.

Going to be frank here, I’m not loving my experience with graduate school applications. You know how I’m not alone? You clicked on this blog. You may not have the same degree of unpleasant feelings about the process nor the same specific discrepancies as me, but I’d bargain to say no one is a fan of putting themselves under a microscope for evaluation. That may be oversimplifying the “academic process” that is grad school applications, but as someone going through them for the next eight months (mhm, eight), it sure doesn’t feel like it.

I’ve spoken ad nauseam about my grand ol’ time with performance anxiety, and I’ll be honest, after some inner-personal work and experimentation with beta blockers, I’ve made some pretty great strides. But nothing flares it all right back up like recording does. It might seem strange to struggle with performane anxiety during the recording process because... well, there is no audience when you're recording. This time around, though, I've felt the process to just feel more unnatural than usual. Many of the pieces I'm recording I've had the chance to perform live. To now put this same music in a space where my only audience is the dead air of an empty concert hall, I'm not finding it fun. My friends have had to remind me what music is all about, what I hope to express and communicate, bla bla bla, but it's easy to lose sight of that. Hi, I’m Ben, been blogging for three years about performance anxiety, and guess what, I’m still here!... doing that.

Back to graduate school gripes. 

I’m not just talking about graduate school applications in the US, oh no. After doing travel in Europe every summer the past three years, then going to France at the beginning of this year, then competing in a flute competition in Germany last month, which then allowed me to do even more travel in Europe afterwards, nearly all of the schools I’m applying to are in, guess where, Europe. The timelines for these schools are later than schools in the US (March-June) and, despite the fact that I’m equipped with the best, most organized Google spreadsheet I’ve ever made in my life, I still get overwhelmed sometimes. 

And here's the thing, no matter where you go, no matter who you meet, you can travel the world and still feel lost–take it from me. As of right now, I have a pretty good idea about where I want to take things, but meeting a bunch of fancy music people from around the world didn’t get me to that point. Meeting them was nice, but at the end of the day, I had to sit with myself and really think about where I wanted to go with things. 'Tis a journey.

In music, you spend a lot of time working one on one with a single person, your primary professor, and the reality is that all people are just people. They can be the coolest, most amazing X, Y, and Z, but y’know the thing about people: some are great, some are  strange, some seem really great but then… sigh. You know that feeling? And the trial lesson phase where you’re just getting to know a new person in a quasi personal-professional setting (because that’s what a private lesson feels like at this point), I'll be the first to admit that I've had my fair share of awkward moments. 

Another reality is that graduate school isn’t for everyone. Most of the time Oberlin can feel like an echo chamber of the following, *ehem*:

“Where are you applying? Which internship? Which festival? Which graduate school?? Which professor???”

It’s for this reason that I’ve noticed myself and a few of my fellow seniors limiting the amount of time we spend in the conservatory–it can just be a lot this time of year. The thing is that everyone is on their own path doing their own thing: some may have a more streamlined path while others may take the road less traveled by. Unfortunately, you won’t get all the answers to what someone is doing from a drive-by question in the hallway.

I'm not trying to be a cynic about this entire ordeal, but to suggest I'm walking around campus with the usual pep in my step would be more illusion than reality. December 1st is soon (15 days from the time of writing this) and trust me I am counting down. Although, with European auditions later in the year, the recording process will be something I revisit in two months. Perhaps my thoughts will have evolved by then. 

Rant over.

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