The Oberlin Stories Project

On finding his place at Oberlin

Jonah Berman ’03

“For me, the goal in truth was not to become the best saxophone player there ever was. It was to experience the incredible wealth of opportunities that Oberlin had to offer.”

Jonah plays alto sax at the Cat in the Cream coffeehouse

When I arrived to Oberlin in the fall of 1998 with my saxophone in hand, I believed I was there to become the best jazz musician I could be. But then a funny thing happened along the way: I learned what it meant to be a complete person. Don’t get me wrong: I entered as a double-degree student and had always taken my academic studies seriously. But in the last two years of high school, music had become my passion, and it was Oberlin’s jazz studies program that truly drew me to northeast Ohio.

Very early into my freshman year at Oberlin, I realized I was going to have to make a renewed commitment to both music and academics. Most students who are accepted into Oberlin - both college and conservatory - are standout students or musicians (or both) in high school, but the faculty at Oberlin made it clear that the demands and expectations would be much greater at a top-notch school like ours.

I’ll never forget my first OJE rehearsal with Director of Jazz Studies Wendell Logan, or my first private lesson with former professor of jazz saxophone Donald Walden. For the first time in my musical career, I was challenged. If I missed a note or played something with the wrong inflection, I was (gasp) informed of my mistake, and forced to do it again until I got it right. This was a new, and often harsh, experience. It was hard to appreciate at the time, and in that first year I often left rehearsals and lessons feeling dejected. But I’ve heard it said that if people criticize you, it’s because they truly care and know you can do better. It was hard to appreciate at the time, but that was no doubt the case with my music professors, and it applied to my arts and sciences professors as well: they truly cared. They never let me off the hook easy, and constantly challenged me.

At a certain point in my sophomore year, I came to a crossroads. I would see my fellow musicians spend hours upon hours in the practice room, and sometimes felt I lacked the focus or dedication to make the same commitment myself, and wondered: did that make me a bad person? Impassionate? Uncommitted?

And then I realized something. My passion for music remained. But my passion for the liberal arts, and what I had thought of previously as my “second” degree, was equally strong. For me, the goal in truth was not to become the best saxophone player there ever was. It was to experience the incredible wealth of opportunities that Oberlin had to offer. If that meant practicing my horn fewer hours in the day, but dedicating more time to doing sociology research in Mudd, or working on a paper for my course on Buddhism, so be it. Oberlin had so much to offer outside the practice room, I wasn’t going to miss out. I had friends who knew that music was all they wanted, and I admired and respected that. But for me, I needed more. And Oberlin allowed me to seek it out.

Case in point: consider a sample course schedule for one of my semesters. In addition to my private saxophone lessons and participation in a small jazz ensemble, I took a course called Mind, Brain and Behavior (Neuroscience 101), Sociology of Mexico and Brazil, Jazz Theory, and a course on Holocaust Literature. I also took an EXCO on the writings of William Faulkner, and wrote for the Oberlin Conservatory Magazine. I felt that it was equally important for me to be able to play John Coltrane lines on my saxophone as it was for me to hold my own in an intellectual discussion about sociological theory. And Oberlin allowed me to manage my time in such a way that I could feel comfortable in both of those environments. That is what I mean when I refer to becoming a complete person. Oberlin fosters that type of development in individuals, and it certainly did so for me.

I finished my Oberlin career with a successful senior jazz recital, but I chose not to pursue a career in music performance upon graduation. I was fortunate enough, however, to be able to combine my love of music with the writing skills I gained in my liberal arts courses. A summer internship with JazzTimes Magazine before my senior year turned into a 4-year long stint as a freelance contributor to that magazine. During my senior year, I wrote the liner notes for the debut jazz album of a friend and Oberlin alum, and later contributed to both Chicago Jazz Magazine and the Berklee School of Music’s website. I was lucky to get a chance to work for SFJAZZ, the leading non-profit jazz institution on the West Coast. And I continue to be a fan and lover of music of all kinds - due in large part to the incredible variety of music I heard coming through the doors of the Oberlin Conservatory.

People often ask me if I miss playing music every day, and the answer is undoubtedly yes. While I still pick up the horn from time to time, it’s rather infrequent these days. But music is woven into the fabric of who I am, and it always will be. I chose to follow a different path, but I am not disappointed with the way it turned out. On the contrary, I now work in higher education and am pursuing an MBA, and am quite pleased with where my career has taken me.

In his book Make the Impossible Possible, Social Entrepreneur and Jazz Producer Bill Strickland writes of moments that “swing.” He says:

“Swing is a term used by jazz musicians to describe those transcendent moments of musical alignment when rhythm, harmony and melody all fall into a sweet convergence...those moments of freedom are what jazz musicians live for. I’ve taught myself to live for them too. We all can, and we should...creating moments that swing is not a difficult thing...and these moments of transcendent alignment aren’t limited to artistic activities. You can experience them while walking in the woods, knitting a sweater, or playing with a child. It’s the act of seeking them out that has made all the difference in my life.”

My life is about finding moments that swing. Oberlin taught me how to find those moments.