“Why do you want to be in the Obertones?” Alex asked at my audition.
“Because I love to sing!” I replied instantly.
It was true--anyone who existed in earshot of me knew it. But as I would realize, this love was a postulate of the Obertones; something so obvious it needed no proof through audible declaration. Everyone in the Obertones loves to sing. If we did not, we would dissolve in a femtosecond. Yet, I would also learn that there’s more to collegiate a cappella than just singing.
When I found out that I had been accepted into the Obertones, Oberlin’s only all-male a cappella group, I was so excited that I hyperventilated. And singers never hyperventilate... right? As I huffed and puffed eraser shavings, fresh from my calculus problem set, my mind raced with expectations of rehearsal six hours a week, performances scattered here and there, and spring break touring. But nothing could prepare me for the amazing personalities I would encounter and the spiritual transformation that comes along with spending an entire year together plus an intense nine-day tour singing, driving, and sharing living room floors.
The Obertones met to sing, rehearse, and relax together three nights a week. During my first year I was amazed to find that classes, social obligations, relationships, and financial responsibilities would crank up the stress, but Obertones rehearsal every other evening of the week unwound the soul, dispelled negativity, and restored confidence and motivation. Yet these positive results should not have been surprising, considering the unique group of people one can get to know in an Oberlin a cappella group.
I learned tenor parts from the concertmaster of the conservatory at the time. I got advice about classes between songs from a beatboxing, break-dancing baritone who was also a biology honors student. I watched as the dynamic duo--a charismatic Korean Cincinnatus and a dude with perfect pitch, piano skills, and a booming bass voice--led rehearsals in which honors research students, aspiring actors, composers, anagram masters, and I stood side-by-side in a circle singing, harmonizing, and LISTENING! I could not help but leave rehearsal feeling revitalized and inspired.
As one can imagine, I came into the group feeling like a small fish in a big pond. I had a poor sense of rhythm, a soft wispy voice, mediocre range, and a modest high school theater background. I typed listening in all caps above because I did a whole lot of that. Not only was listening key to blending and staying in tune, but it also revealed to me the vital organizational scaffolding that enabled the Obertones to do what they did year after year: three seasonal concerts, midterms mini-concerts, community event concerts, auditions and spring tour. All of these events required administrative work, planning ahead, leadership, and personal responsibility.
I spent my first year helping to plan spring tour, e-mailing and communicating with high schools, friends, and families to arrange concerts and overnight stays in people’s homes while on the road in California. In each subsequent year, I have taken more leadership in this business, and the communications and event coordination skills I acquired in planning tours have served me well in internships and other extracurricular endeavors.
The Obertones also have the wonderful opportunity to perform during Oberlin’s Commencement/Reunion weekend. The amount of networking across college departments that this concert entails is an invaluable experience for a student trying to get something done on the Oberlin campus. The gem here is autonomy. Oberlin College’s student activity fund, administered by the Student Finance Committee, its supportive faculty and staff, and its connections across the world allow student-run performance groups like the Obertones to do whatever their passions dictate (tour Europe anyone?), as long as they can focus, raise the funds, get organized, and communicate clearly with other entities. How we make it happen all comes back to listening to each other, like a tight-knit family, but also like effective professionals. Useful in life, I promise.
Also, as to that sense of rhythm: I joined the Obertones not being able to keep a beat very well at all. Now, I am the rhythm section on some songs, beat-boxing my heart out and keeping the group in tempo. The bottom line is that the Obertones provided a healthy, inspiring environment in which to grow and excel in music and other useful areas.
Similar opportunities are available with all kinds of organizations at Oberlin. At Oberlin, the people you meet are accomplished, humble, friendly, and enthusiastic about making you a part of their developmental journeys, stories, and even a part of their families.