Oberlin Blogs

Secondary music lessons

August 14, 2011

Sophia Chen ’12

Secondary music lessons are probably my favorite academic perk at Oberlin. (They're known as "secondary" because in the case of conservatory students, they're not for your "primary" instrument. As a college student, I suppose my primary instrument is my highly effective brain.) I've been taking secondary piano lessons every semester since I got here: I took classical piano for two semesters, chamber music for one semester, and jazz piano for four semesters. Essentially, after auditioning during the first week of school, you get one half-hour lesson per week for two credits a semester. The lessons are with either a Conservatory student or a faculty member, which usually depends on what instrument you play and how well you do in your audition. Also, in the case of certain instruments like piano, you don't have to actually know how to play it to get lessons.

Secondary lessons are awesome because they combine the joy of music lessons with the flexibility that is necessary for college life. You can practice anywhere between two and a zillion hours a week. When I first got to Oberlin, I was really, really into piano. I was so into piano that I was going to audition for the Conservatory in the spring of my freshman year and do the double-degree program. I got lessons with a faculty member, and I was practicing more along the lines of a zillion hours a week. But by the end of my first semester I figured out that I didn't actually want to audition for the Conservatory. Even if I had gotten in, I didn't have the time or the work ethic for it. Plus I had discovered that I loved a different kind of little squiggly on a page--integrals and conservation laws. Thus, for the past four semesters of lessons, as my professors piled on the problem sets, I practiced around two to four hours a week, and lessons have become more relaxing than stressful.

Secondary lessons offer a great respite from the rest of your academic load. My second semester, for 1.5 credits, my pal Juliette and I signed up for chamber music lessons* with Sanford Margolis, a piano professor. We learned a four-hand two-piano reduction of Stravinsky's Petrushka, and the whole endeavor became probably one of my favorite memories at Oberlin. After a long day of schoolwork, Juliette and I would trudge wearily to a practice room to reinvigorate ourselves with the intentional dissonance of Stravinsky and the unintentional dissonance from my clumsy technique. We held a recital for our accomplishments, the preparation of which involved me learning about ten pages of music in about two weeks. Our encore was a poorly arranged piano-harmonica cover of Bob Dylan's "Honey Just Allow Me One More Chance."

On stage, Juliette plays piano while Sophia looks a bit frantic.
Juliette and I test the limits of awful fusion music in Warner Concert Hall. I'm on the left holding the harmonica while Juliette tries to hold the show together. Photo courtesy of Jiayu Lin.

I also developed a bromantic rapport with my first jazz teacher, Jacob. He's a double-degree student whose other major is physics, so outside of lessons, we did our homework together in the science library. Sometimes he would bring his earphone splitter, and we would listen to Brad Mehldau or Joshua Redman together while doing physics problems, or while bantering when we should have been doing physics problems. Probably about a quarter of the music in my iTunes library is music that Jacob has introduced to me. Occasionally, in the middle of listening to a tune, he would drop what he was doing and excitedly ask me if I knew what the time signature was. Because of this, I can no longer listen to music without first bobbing my head heavily to the beat and counting under my breath.

So those of you who are musically-inclined and want to keep up with music lessons, secondary lessons are your Polaris. For those of you who want to start learning an instrument, secondary lessons are your Southern Cross. They are as intense or as relaxing as you make it, and the people you meet along the way aren't half-bad, either.

Starry sky above silhouetted mountains and the sea
Yes, the last paragraph was a vehicle for me to post this picture of the Southern Cross (right), which I saw in Hawai'i this summer for the first time in my life!

*Okay, I'm kind of lumping two different types of lessons together. Chamber music lessons are not the same as secondary lessons. You don't have to audition, and they are completely different in terms of registration. But they're also a great opportunity to learn and play music at Oberlin.

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