Oberlin Blogs

To New Beginnings!

November 7, 2020

Ben Smith ’24

Nothing says, “Welcome to college and the start of your world-class conservatory experience!” quite like dropping and damaging your instrument on the first week of in-person classes and rehearsals.

It all happened so fast. One moment I was practicing with only my headjoint and in the process of putting my flute together; the next, said flute is sprawled out on the floor of my dorm room. A few seconds passed. Reality set in. Great. I picked my flute up and, to no surprise, it was going to require some maintenance. 

To paint a clearer picture, my second day of in-person instruction was rather full: classes in the morning from 9-11 am, practice session blocked from 2-4 pm, Prima Vista (woodwind chamber music class for first-year students) from 5:30-7 pm, and flute excerpt class from 9:30-10:30 pm. Of course, when I ran down my schedule the morning of, I had no awareness of the fateful event that had yet to come.

On top of this, everything about college was still new; I was still growing accustomed to campus, classes, and how to manage my time. To say the least, adding the dynamic of a broken instrument definitely spiced that up. 

A little spoiler: This story does not have a bad ending. It doesn’t necessarily have a good ending (my flute was undoubtedly in need of repair), but I had a backup flute on hand for situations like this. Admittedly, I am a rather clumsy person, so this sort of thing is not entirely new to me. After the incident occurred, I was afraid to really analyze the damage that was done, so I immediately called Prof. Alexa Still (professor of flute here at Oberlin Conservatory, lovingly referred to as “Alexa”) and ran to her office. Without any tools present, there was not much that could be done on the spot, so my accident would be impeding on Alexa’s schedule in the coming days when she had time to take a closer look at it. However, I was assured that there was no major damage done! Hooray! It had not even been two weeks and I already had firsthand experience with the willingness of the professors here to help their students in dire circumstances. If it weren't for her, I would have been completely lost.  

The following hour was a blur. I ran back to my dorm room to check out my backup flute and all I remember thinking was: please work, please work, please work. The flute was purchased during my 8th-grade year and, though it is a good instrument, it had not had routine maintenance in a few years.

After pulling it out of the case and playing a few notes, a wave of relief washed over me. The flute was not in the best condition, but the biggest takeaway was that I was going to make it through the rest of my day with an instrument—a miracle. At that point in the day, it was 4 pm. I had some time before my next class (Prima Vista), so I used all of it to practice and get back into the swing of using my old flute. I was not entirely sure if my chamber group and I would have to play in Prima Vista, so, equipped with some wishful thinking, I silently hoped today would not be the day. 

When I arrived at Prima Vista, I was too ashamed to let any of my chamber group members know the distressing mess that was my past two hours. I wanted nothing more than to just float on by the class (ideally, sans playing); perhaps we’ll just be talking and discussing all the new parts of Oberlin we still don’t know!  But, just as fate would have it, this was not the case as each chamber group was required to rehearse for the class—sort of like a masterclass where the audience will get to see the instruction take place.

All of this to say: I would be playing. It was just not my lucky day, but there was nothing I could do other than make the best of it. Besides, I felt that it was a given that every person in the class felt vulnerable, so I tried not to worry more than I already was.

Sparing the details, the class went well, and the problems I had with my flute while playing were noticed by … me. And only me. No weird glances from group members or classmates. Nothing. Huh … maybe they didn’t notice? It’s not like I expected all eyes to be on me at each and every moment, but part of me was particularly self-conscious during class. Once we were finished, I walked with a friend from class to dinner and, after I explained what happened, his response surprised me: “Oh, really?! I noticed you may have sounded a little different, but I had no idea that was why.”

Though the whole situation was far from ideal, a lot of comfort came out of it. Besides my flute professor and the friend to whom I confided in, no one noticed or was aware of what happened. Something so glaring to me went completely unseen (and unheard) to everyone else. The human psyche is weird like that. Everything about ourselves is magnified—especially small insecurities that largely go unnoticed by others. It is an odd phenomenon, but I’ve just come to accept that it is part of the human experience. We are all our own worst critics. So, to anyone beginning a new experience and especially to fellow first-years, take it easy on yourself! And take care of your belongings, too.

Update: The events discussed in this blog took place in early September. Shortly after the incident, Alexa provided me with a very nice school-owned flute to use while mine was sent to Detroit to be worked on. It is now November and my flute is back and in good condition.

My flute in its case resting on the ledge of my dorm room window.
My flute now!


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