The Oberlin Stories Project

On starting a band at Oberlin

Jamie Helmsworth ’13

“The music scene is merely a symptom of an infectious enthusiasm that pervades Oberlin’s student body. The zeal with which students here plunge themselves into their personal pursuits is unparalleled.”

Two electric guitarists play with enthusiasm

Some three years removed, it seems like I spent about half my waking hours during my junior year of high school trying to decide where to apply to college — leafing through guide books of biblical proportions, taking an SAT prep class full of kids that made me feel like an idiot, even giving up my spring break to go on virtually identical tours at colleges on two different coasts (turns out every college has a gym, a library, and a cafeteria — who knew?). By the time my senior year started, I felt like I had learned everything about all the colleges on my not-so-short list, from their relative sizes to their distribution requirements to the selection of intramural sports that they offered. Yet a nagging question rose above all the minutiae. When I thought about attending each one, the question that loomed in my mind like a wave about to break was:

What’s the music scene like?

I asked either that question, or “Are there any student bands on campus?” on every college tour. These questions were met with furrowed brows, blank expressions, and, once or twice, an eye roll. “Um, we have two a capella groups and a jazz band,” the guide would stammer, but that was never what I meant. You see, I desperately wanted to be in a band — a rock band.

While I had formed a few groups since picking up the guitar in middle school, these were frustrating endeavors. A lack of an all-ages venue in my hometown would have prevented my friends and I from ever performing on a regular basis — if ever we got to that point. The real problem was that no one was as dedicated to being in a band as I was, save my friend Parker, who would later (not so coincidentally) attend Oberlin as a jazz drummer. Though I got rock ‘n’ roll tunnel vision every time I picked up my guitar, other kids I played with were lured away from our garage rehearsal space by everything from videogames to girlfriends.

But when I asked my tour guide at Oberlin about bands, she answered with a smile and a nod as she skirted around snowdrifts outside the Science Center. “There are lots of student bands here, especially outside of the conservatory.” My own research revealed a long list of bands with origins in this Northeastern Ohio school, while a large portion of the accepted students message board consisted of arrangements to jam.

As I sent my formal acceptance of acceptance back to Oberlin, I was excited, but nervous. Would all of the virtually jamming message board kids ultimately attend? Would they be any good? Would they be too good? Would the kids in the conservatory snub me? All of these fears turned out to be completely trivial. Orientation week saw a whole host of instruments being unpacked and played late into the summer evenings by students of a wide range of ability levels, from humble strummers to conservatory jazz piano virtuosos. Whenever I had the time during my freshmen year to extricate myself from the elliptical mysteries of my economics textbook, whenever I needed to give the heroes of The Iliad a break, I was either jamming away with my newfound friends or preparing myself for the next session.

Since coming to Oberlin, I’ve gone from being my high school’s “weird kid that’s into guitar” to a member of a horde of musicians that regularly gigs, releases recordings, and gobbles up live shows at the ’Sco. Anonymity has never made me happier; it means that there is a real music community at Oberlin, where you can find musicians, a place to play, and an abundance of great ideas. But the best part is that the music scene is merely a symptom of an infectious enthusiasm that pervades Oberlin’s student body. The zeal with which students here plunge themselves into their personal pursuits is unparalleled, whether they’re actors in the latest theater production, activists en route to the Capitol, or the daredevil leaders of the Storytelling ExCo.

I played my first formal gig at Oberlin in December of my sophomore year in the living room of Johnson House. While the better part of three semesters might seem like a long time to get my act together, I spent this entire time starting other projects and having them fizzle out. These fledgling groups suffered everything from personality clashes to a lack of rehearsal space. But because I persevered, and because new musical opportunities were constantly available to me, Leave Me Alone, Mom was born in the common area of my quad in East last fall. Since then, we’ve (d)evolved from a ’50s cover band to a (sort of) pop-punk outfit, played gigs across campus, and released an EP. Lounging in Keep Cottage after a particularly successful show, we realized we had enough songs, friends at other colleges, and experience performing to go on tour; we have plans to do so this fall. As I grinned at my friends, I realized I had accomplished one of my life goals. I was in a band, a real band that played shows and went on tour. I firmly believe that this happened because I attend Oberlin.

Let this story be an answer to those of you who are nagging the tour guides with the questions that I did. Yes, there is a music scene here and it’s excellent. Yes, there are plenty of student bands, all equally excellent. There are also plenty of places to play, and plenty of people to play with. So pack some extra picks and a change of strings. You’ll be surprised at how quickly you go through them.