The Oberlin Stories Project

On their Winter Term project

Andrew Flachs ’11

“Touring as the saxophone and classical guitar duo Syzygy proved to be a defining moment in both of our burgeoning musical careers.”

A musical duo with acoustic guitar and soprano saxophone

Few undergraduate musicians ever get the opportunity to tour a program to colleges and universities. However, Timothy Ballard and I were given the opportunity to do just that. Touring as the saxophone and classical guitar duo Syzygy proved to be a defining moment in both of our burgeoning musical careers. A generous grant from the Oberlin Conservatory left us free to concentrate on publicity and logistics, rather than gas prices or food. Embracing Oberlin’s commitment to sustainability, we purchased carbon offsets to mitigate the CO2 emissions from travel and purchase recycled paper for our programs. To our surprise, learning an hour-long set and setting up concert locations was the easy part; we weren’t asking for money and Oberlin’s reputation served as sufficient credentials for booking concerts. The difficulties came where we least expected: reeds drying out, fingernails proving unreliable, bad strings, and bad parking advice. It’s always the details that cause trouble.

After two and a half weeks of intensive rehearsals, we embarked for the first of nine concerts in four states on a snowy Tuesday evening, January 20th. The drive from Oberlin to Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania is about five hours long, a period which we spent listening to the Pimsleur Essential Czech language course on audiotape. At midnight we met Steve, the classical guitar student who lent us his couch for the night. After parking the car where Steve directed us, we brought our instruments inside to keep them safe and lay down for a good nights sleep.

The next morning, after a cold, restless night with too few blankets in an unheated apartment, we headed off to pay the parking ticket that our host had inadvertently earned us. Our first show was for an appreciative audience of Bloomsburg music majors. Despite a few problems, the show went well, and throughout the tour we transformed from nervous college students into competent performers. Over the course of our twelve days on the road, we tightened up as an ensemble and relaxed into the music as the set became more familiar. Even our Czech improved!

Undergraduate conservatory students rarely perform a set of pieces more than two or three times. As we discovered on the road, multiple performances of the same music allowed us to become completely comfortable with the repertoire and also develop a stage personae. During each show, we explained the music, the nature of our duo, and, in keeping with the ‘green’ spirit of the tour, urged the audience to recycle their programs.

The tour was also professionally rewarding. With each new destination, we had the chance to catch up with acquaintances or meet new professionals. We arranged our first two of our performances the saxophone and guitar group Duo Montagnard. After we arranged for them to play at Oberlin in fall 2008, they invited us to play in Pennsylvania, jumpstarting our winter tour. It wasn’t all business though—Joe Murphy, the saxophonist of Duo Montagnard, was generous enough to open his home to us, feeding, housing, and beating us in table tennis for two days of our tour.

While we enjoyed experiences with familiar faces, most rewarding were our concerts arranged with folks we had never met, especially our evening performances at the University of Gettysburg’s Sunderman Conservatory, at Western Carolina University, and at St. Matthias Church, as well as community outreach concerts at a retirement community in Pennsylvania and a high school in North Carolina. Everyone was extremely hospitable and gracious, and gave us the enjoyable opportunity to talk shop with professionals. Without fail, nearly every stop along the way led us to Oberlin graduates and friends of Oberlin professors; we couldn’t seem to escape it!

Naturally, we faced performance problems, and we addressed these as we grew accustomed the tour lifestyle. Broken reeds and unbalanced strings? The show must go on, and so we found solutions to these problems as we went, changing equipment as necessary and learning to communicate effectively on stage. We discovered that unexpected transportation time and performance logistics would often cut into our warmup time, so we grew accustomed to playing cold, literally and figuratively. When a sudden snowstorm threatened to close the roads in the Appalachian Mountains, we had to change routes and stay with friends in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, driving nine hours the next day before our 8:00 p.m. concert in North Carolina.

Our lengthy car rides served triple-duty between transportation, Czech language instruction, and ping-pong ball fingernail shaping. Stressful? Sometimes, but the experience gave us a crash course in the demands of life as a professional musician and the opportunity to network with faculty and alumni up and down the East Coast. Only Oberlin could provide a relatively untested guitar and saxophone duo with this incredible opportunity. As Oberlin musicians we, of course, could only have done it on a carbon neutral budget while learning Czech. Na shledanou, Oberlin a dkuju.