When I first headed to Oberlin, I had a lot of big questions on my mind. What will I major in? What will it be like living with my first roommate? Is everyone at Oberlin as weird as they say?
There, ever-present among those worries, was the question of what would happen to my musical career once I left home. I remember as a high school student talking to many of my college-bound orchestra buddies, people to whose musical prowess I had long aspired. I was so disappointed to hear any number of them tell me that within a week of beginning college classes, they had already stopped playing music altogether.
Although I was not in the conservatory, music was one of the biggest hooks that initially drew me to Oberlin. I had been playing violin for 10 years, and I definitely did not want to end up like the rest of my friends. I knew that I would not pursue music professionally, yet at the same time it seemed a shame to waste the hours of nightly practice I had put in through high school, not to mention the joy that I might get from continuing to play.
Thus, during my orientation week, I immediately signed up for all of the musical activities I could find: violin lessons, a music-related freshman seminar, and playing in a quintet and the College-Community String Orchestra. I even did a violin-related winter term project that January. Though it took an active effort, I discovered that there are a lot of opportunities for the committed college violinist.
The most challenging, as well as the most enriching, musical experience that I have had at Oberlin would unquestionably be during the second semester of my sophomore year, when I played as a second violinist in the Oberlin Orchestra. Although it is a demanding orchestra meant to help conservatory students prepare for their future musical careers, any Oberlin student is allowed to audition, and there are always a few college students who make it in. I had long since lost my high school musical hubris, so I was excited just to be accepted to the orchestra. Still, the first rehearsal was a rather shockingly humbling experience. I was placed way in the back, so far that I could hardly even see the conductor, and our first sight-read through the music struck me like a bolt of lightning.
The orchestra rehearsed three times a week for two hours at a time, led by Ms. Bridget-Michaele Reischl. I am pretty sure everyone in the orchestra was utterly terrified of her. She was really nice to speak to in person, but she had extremely high expectations of her students. Although the thought alone of the triweekly rehearsals was enough to make my palms sweat, in retrospect I am really glad that I did it. The lessons I learned there promoted my growth not only as a musician, but also as a person.
The orchestra challenged me to shoot for perfection in my playing. True, there were some passages of music that I just never managed to master, as I was just not as skilled of a violinist as conservatory students, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t try. In a world where “good enough” is often actually good enough, I think it’s valuable to remember how much more we can achieve when we set our goals high.
Second, it reminded me that the creation of great music is a very interactive process. I had to be constantly aware of what was going on with the students around me and ready to respond to any unexpected changes in an instant. No matter how well everyone learns their parts, they will never mesh with the orchestra until they are able to recognize their role in the greater scheme.
On top of that, orchestra members must learn to rely on each other, since that is really the only way to make it through the hours of grueling practice in a stiflingly hot rehearsal hall. Great friendships can be formed from the shared experience, and uncomfortable episodes can be transformed into a fond memory. The same principle applies to the rest of life as well; although it is important for each of us to do our best at our own occupations, we also must be responsive to our peers and keep the bigger picture in mind. Studying from textbooks is important for my grades, but the insights gained from my not-so-strictly-academic experiences at Oberlin are even more important in giving me a perspective on my life.
I never made it out of the back of the orchestra, but even so, my growth as a musician was immediately noticeable once I played in any other ensemble. I would encourage any uncertain college musician to pursue their playing at Oberlin as much as they can, even though it might be intimidating. For myself, I am happy to say that I have continued with my chamber music ensemble and the College-Community Strings through every semester that I have spent so far at Oberlin, and I hope that is something I will be able to take with me into the future.
At Oberlin, there is something available for any skill and interest level, and you never know what you will learn or who you will meet until you try and see.