The Oberlin Stories Project

On musical training and non-musical careers

Matt Rivers ’04

“I hadn’t been in law enforcement for long before I realized that many of the same characteristics of police work are similar to playing in a jazz group.”

Matt salutes. He is wearing the dress uniform of the Urbana Police Department.

On September 11, 2001, I woke up as many of us did: with a phone call. Students at Oberlin watched the horror of that day unfold in front of us on televisions in dorm lounges. We all had difficulty processing it, and understandably so. Our world had changed dramatically. The next morning, in Peter Dominguez’s Jazz Improvisation class, we all sat looking at each other at the beginning of class, unsure if, and how, we should make music. After several minutes, Professor Dominguez’s message was simple, but it resonated then, and it continues to: “We are musicians. This is how we celebrate, this is how we heal.”

I continued my Oberlin education and was fortunate to make friends who also happened to be world-class musicians. My time at Oberlin was not limited to notes on a page, however. Oberlin taught me how to listen, how to process information, both musically and academically. I learned that working together with talented individuals in pursuit of a common goal is something that provides tremendous professional and personal satisfaction. I was constantly challenged to excellence, both by my peers and by my instructors. Robin Eubanks, in particular, encouraged me to find my musical voice with my trombone and through musical composition. Jim DeSano allowed me to participate in his trombone choir, one of the most fulfilling musical experiences of my Oberlin education.

After graduating, I furthered my musical study at the University of Maryland under Chris Vadala and Jim McFalls. An unexpected thing happened along the way. It was during my graduate study that I realized that I wasn’t satisfied with playing music in a professional capacity. I did well enough in some auditions to pursue a career playing for people, but my heart wasn’t in it any more. I was frustrated that I had spent so much time and energy attaining a high-quality education that I seemingly wouldn’t use.

A short time later, I moved to central Illinois with my then-pregnant wife, Christy. We played music to our unborn daughter, Ella, and marveled at how she preferred some genres to others. Unfortunately, trombone wasn’t one of her favorites. She’s coming around now.

In an unexpected career twist, I interviewed and was hired by a local police department to be a patrol officer. This was a very strange choice to some of my Oberlin classmates, as jazz music and law enforcement don’t often go together, if at all, and I had received no training that would assist me. Sometimes I wonder how it is I ended up doing it myself. I think a big part of it was 9/11 and how that changed my world view. I knew that I still wanted to be doing something bigger than myself. It seemed right.

I hadn’t been in law enforcement for long before I realized that many of the same characteristics of police work are similar to playing in a jazz group. This, I had been trained for. Patrol work is incredibly fluid and improvisational in nature. No situation is ever the same, even though you’re often going into calls for service with the same players, or shift mates. You need to be able to change your approach to meet the situation, sometimes rapidly. You need to see, hear, and react according to what’s facing you, all while facing an element of danger. Jazz is a social language. So is policing.

Police work involves talking to people, many of whom are much different than I. On a daily basis, I am able to engage people and appreciate the differences between us. It helps me to better understand the problems that people are facing and help them toward a positive resolution. I would not be able to do this without my Oberlin experience.

As it was in college, the quintessential professional satisfaction continues to be working with many people to put together a high-quality product, though these days, it’s more often in the form of a complicated criminal investigation rather than a musical performance. When each person contributes excellence, dedication, and professionalism, it truly is a work of art. I’m still active musically, always expanding my comfort zone. Without the pressure of playing for pay, I’m able to better enjoy music as an extension of my personality, both in composition and in playing. My three children are getting old enough to learn more about music, and I’m eager to share with them how music moves me on a daily basis, and how it can do the same for them.

On September 11, 2011, I was able to put all of these things together into one day. I spent the morning in church, performing a concerto to celebrate the baptism of my newborn son. The accompanist, our church organist, is a fellow Oberlin alumnus. That afternoon, I had the privilege of leading my police department’s Honor Guard during the observation of 9/11 ceremonies, the playing of “Taps” being one of the Honors rendered. I am pleased that music continues to be how I celebrate and heal, and that Oberlin continues to be a part of my life that inexplicably ties things together.