If I had to describe the music of Oberlin, I'd say this: there's a lot of it. I never quite grasped the full scope of Oberlin's musical culture before I arrived here, so I hope to provide a glimpse of all that's going on. You can hear music of all kinds spilling out of rehearsal spaces and practice rooms, filling the air in Tappan Square, or permeating every bit of your life, if you so choose. Though I'm not in the Conservatory, I spend a lot of time making, thinking about, and working on music. I'm going to share just a few of the ways that us non-Conservatory majors can engage with Oberlin's music:
There are several classes in a department of music meant especially for College students. I'm taking one of those classes now, called Introduction to Western Art Music. It's a general survey course, investigating music from its origins and earliest stages to postmodernism. It's very accessible for people who have no formal knowledge of music and want to become engaged with the art form or know more about what they hear. This class serves as a prerequisite to more focused music history classes, which I'm looking forward to taking in the future. For those with more of a musician's knowledge of the art's history, however, the Conservatory version of this class is also available to College students.
At the same time, I'm taking a class called Introduction to Musics of the World. In this class, we explore different ways of thinking and being through the music of different cultures. So far, we've investigated the music of Egypt and the Mande music of Western Africa, among other things. Though some musical training is recommended for this class (we transcribe things! and read the notation of other cultures!), there is a parallel course offered in the fall semester that doesn't require this knowledge.
Also, I'm continuing my adventures in music theory this semester in Music Theory II, delving into the fascinating study of music's construction and structure. There's also a course called Aural Skills that trains and strengthens aural abilities like sight-singing and transposing and recognizing chord types. These courses contribute to the skills of a well-rounded musician; additionally, they're a part of the Musical Studies major.
I can't write about classes in music without mentioning Secondary Lessons. Auditions for these are at the beginning of the semester, and students who are accepted study with either a faculty member or a Conservatory student. I ended up in the studio of the wonderful Cathy Meints. Besides 30-minute lessons each week, I and her other secondary students participate in studio class and studio recitals. It's a nice, small studio full of talent and a sense of camaraderie. The excellence expected of us sometimes clashes with the practice time that's available, but there's certainly an understanding that balancing classes and instrumental studies is challenging.
For your listening pleasure, here's some music that I've come to know through my Musics of the World class: the music of the mbira, or thumb piano, from the Shona music tradition of Zimbabwe.
There are more ensembles here at Oberlin than there are hours in the day. Or, at least, very nearly so:
There is, of course, the slew of fantastic vocal and a cappella groups we have on campus. There's the Collegium Musicum, which specializes in the performance of medieval, renaissance, and early baroque music. There's also the College Choir, the Women's Chorale, and the Treble Ensemble. We also boast 6 spectacular a cappella groups: The Obertones (men's), Nothing But Treble (women's), the Acapelicans (women's), Pitch, Please (all-gender), 'Round Midnight (all-gender, jazz and folk), and Challah Cappella (all-gender). I'm not personally involved in these, but I do know that they are all absolutely fantastic and particularly beloved on campus.
On the purely instrumental end, there are a couple large ensembles open to us. There's the Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra (OASO), an audition-only group that is a pretty chill way to get together with other non-Conservatory majors and play orchestral repertoire. Last semester we paired up with several choirs and performed the Mozart Requiem.
The Oberlin Orchestra, Oberlin Sinfonietta, Contemporary Music Ensemble, and Jazz Ensemble are also open to non-Conservatory majors, but the audition process is more demanding than in OASO, and College students are offered a place only if there's room. These ensembles perform at a high level, offering several fantastic concerts each semester.
Additionally, there are some ensembles like the Gamelan and Talempong (traditional Indonesian ensembles), Taiko (Japanese drumming) and Oberlin Steel (a steel drum ensemble) that are alternatives to our usual Western music fare. These are sometimes taught as ExCos, which I'll detail below.
These are wonderful student-taught courses on student-selected subjects, and there are several classes that overlap with performance opportunities, as noted above. So far I've only participated in the Mozart Players, a group that exclusively performs the work of W.A. Mozart. Naturally, the repertoire is all fantastic, and often features student soloists on concerti and vocal works.
The Oberlin Marching Band is simultaneously an ExCo, a student organization, and a club sport. The band plays at football games and can be heard across campus.
Classes like Oberlin Taiko and OSteel are taught with the option of auditioning for the ensembles themselves at the end of the semester.
ExCo offerings vary with the interest and availability of students, but there is always some interesting musical opportunity to be found in the Experimental College.
There are opportunities in Oberlin and the surrounding areas for students to play, sometimes for compensation. Last semester, I played in two or three paid productions put on by groups in Cleveland where I ran into several Cleveland Institute of Music friends doing the same thing! It's a nice way for us college students to make money, but because of travel time and the fact that there are only so many hours in the day, I recommend caution in trying to do this. It is possible, though, to audition for jobs in the surrounding area. Usually, there are also several opportunities in the Oberlin Classified ads.
There are also more than enough musical productions here in Oberlin to keep you busy. This semester, I played in a Winter Term production and am lined up to be in a pit orchestra after spring break. There are often fliers hanging around the Con regarding auditions and pit orchestra recruitment. Also, there's no better way to bond with people than freaking out about those nasty key signatures that come out of nowhere and counting many rests.
I played in the musical The Last Five Years at the beginning of the semester, which speaks to the ambition and talent of our students. For those who don't know, The Last Five Years is a two-person show whose scope encompasses the whole of a five-year relationship between a rising writer and a struggling actress. One opens the show at the end of their five-year relationship and progresses backward, and the other goes in the opposite direction. Interesting, right? And full of great music. Even more interesting/awesome: though the parts were originally written for a man and a woman in a heterosexual relationship, our show's director made the choice to cast two (lovely, talented, and fierce) women. It definitely put a wonderful spin on the usual "guy/girl" romance stories and traditional gender roles. Yay Oberlin!
Good Old-Fashioned Jamming
With so many musical souls in such a small space, it's inevitable that they'll collide and something beautiful will occur. Play with friends, play with strangers; we all speak music, even if it's of different kinds. Several summer nights last semester were host to large-scale jam sessions in the arch in Tappan Square. Even dancers came out to share their talents! My friends and I try to play together every few weeks or so -- it keeps us sane and reminds us of what music is meant to be.
I would provide a recording for an example, but this is the sort of thing you need to see, hear, and feel to truly understand. Come join us!
This is by no means a comprehensive list of all the musical things that are going on in Oberlin; I'm leaving out all the concerts that happen on a weekly basis and all the little events like lectures and masterclasses and residencies that come up! But that would make a list that goes on longer than Pachelbel's Canon, because there is always something to see, hear, and play here.
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December 10, 2022