A common refrain you’ll hear among Oberlin students is that their decision to attend was largely because of the school’s connection to music. It’s an understandable position – Oberlin boasts one of the most lauded conservatories of music in the country. The choice to attend the Oberlin Conservatory makes sense, but even students who are a part of the College of Arts and Sciences often cite Oberlin’s musical prowess as a contributing factor in their school choice. I have a friend who recently started taking secondary lessons for baritone, a practice she loved during high school, but had fallen out of touch with during her first semester here. Another friend has recently started learning jazz voice from another student, an area with which she had little prior experience, but now has the opportunity and resources to explore. Still others participate in musicals on a regular basis. Oberlin as an institution, even excepting the prodigies at the Conservatory, is full of musically-inclined people who come to Oberlin for its musical focus and opportunities, but – for a long time – I didn’t feel as if I could count myself among them.
It’s not as if I’ve had no interaction with music. I took piano from my grandmother’s friend throughout elementary school and played flute for most of middle and elementary school until my only option was to join high school marching band or continue to practice on my own. (I chose neither.) But, unlike many students on Oberlin campus, I am not particularly musically gifted. I cannot sing. My piano repertoire is limited to the first half of “Simple Gifts” (generally just the treble clef, but if I’m feeling particularly brave that day I can incorporate the bass). But the insistence of others on the ways in which Oberlin’s musical education factored into their choice of “Why Oberlin?” has prompted me to reevaluate my own reasons for attending.
The first time I visited Oberlin it was a chance encounter. My family was visiting my aunt and uncle in Ohio – a twenty-minute drive away, through the flattest expanses of land a girl from the Pennsylvanian Cumberland Valley has ever experienced. It was the first time we’d all (my grandparents and aunt and uncle and two small cousins) seen each other since COVID. I hadn’t been outside small town Carlisle in ages. Visiting Oberlin, essentially a variation on the same college-town-surrounded-by-farmfields theme, was eerily familiar and all while remaining completely foreign.
Before that summer I hadn’t heard of Oberlin. My aunt had mentioned it one day over breakfast. Oh, hey, there’s a college near here that you should check out. My family researched it as a group over pancakes which prompted a long discussion into the usage, definition, and origin of the word co-ed. (Our conclusion? Oberlin had been co-ed since its founding…whatever that means.)
I went on a tour with my grandfather (who assigned himself the job of determining whether Oberlin’s Philosophy program was up to snuff – I wasn’t planning on going into Philosophy at the time, but he figured it couldn’t hurt to be safe) and my mother (who was enjoying linking her arm in mine and pointing out various native plants she saw growing beside buildings and through Tappan Square – Do you see that one over there Hanna? It’s a sugar maple!).
The trip was largely uneventful, a blend of various other college tours I had been on that summer: the awkward introductions (Hanna Alwine, she/her/hers, not sure what I’m majoring in yet, maybe Comparative Literature? what about you?), the flimsy free totes and shirts, the anxiety of waiting for your backwards-walking tour guide to finally step on one of those branches she was skillfully dodging and fall flat on her face. It’s hard to get a read on a place in one afternoon.
But in one respect, my first trip to Oberlin was memorable. As my mom and I walked back through Tappan Square after a quick self-guided tour (i.e. snooping around in various buildings we hadn’t gotten a chance to look into during the official one), we saw a man walking towards us. Rather than taking the spoke-like black asphalt paths that run through Tappan, he had decided on a more direct route, taking his time strolling through the grass, belting out an operatic suite at the top of his lungs. I’m not sure if he saw us, or if he even knew we were there – my mother is still convinced the entire interaction was staged by the Admissions Office – but we stopped in our tracks and watched as he looked both ways before crossing Main Street, continuing his song as he did so.
I sometimes wonder whether or not that interaction was a significant influence in my decision to attend Oberlin. How large a part did the man singing opera in Tappan Square in small town Oberlin, Ohio have in determining the trajectory of my life?
I may never know for certain, but I will say that the type of musical interaction – these casual, everyday, chance encounters – have been one of my favorite parts of going to school here. Good music is everywhere.
I go to the Cat in the Cream for an oatmeal cookie and end up experiencing the most life-changing jazz of my entire jazz listening career.
I sit reading in Wilder Bowl and look up to see a man walking by playing a melodica as if his life depends on it.
I go to the Jellyfish Parade, a monthly Harkness House tradition that venerates the full moon, and skip around to fiddle music played by students wrangled from various corners of campus.
Even now, as I sit in bed writing this post, I can make out the faint strains of someone playing the piano in the Harkness lounge.
I am not a musical creator, but I am a musical appreciator, and I can confidently say that Oberlin’s musical scene is a part of why I chose to come here and a large reason I enjoy staying. I like going to open mic nights and going to operas and jazz concerts and getting classical music recommendations from my violinist roommate. Maybe sometime in the future I will return to my roots and learn the entirety of “Simple Gifts” on the piano. For now, I am content to sit and listen and let someone else’s piano lull me off to sleep.
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