The Oberlin Stories Project

On living the double-degree life

Nancy Chapple ’83

“There was no holding me back, and I plunged into both areas of study. My weekday schedule was intense ... the discipline to practice and study, the drive to learn came from inside.”

Nancy speaks in front of a whiteboard with phrases including Fun → Change, under pressure, why are we here?

Even before my conservatory audition, I was attracted to Oberlin’s double-degree program. As the daughter of a geologist and a cellist, music and book learning were equally emphasized at home, and I preferred not to attend an institution made up of only practice rooms and concert halls. Once I was accepted as a “connie” and settled into my dorm, South, it took a couple of attempts to become a double-degree student: in addition to the required paperwork and transcripts, I recall a serious interview, which stressed how heavy the double workload would be. But there was no holding me back, and I plunged into both areas of study.

At the Conservatory, my still-young piano professor Peter Takàcs showed a fascination for his students, bringing to life his childhood background behind the Iron Curtain in Bucharest and insisting on highly differentiated skills in listening to one’s own playing. I was drawn into my music history courses, reading about and listening to groundbreaking works of the 19th and 20th centuries; I found it more difficult to warm to the abstract study of harmony and counterpoint. Attracted by the relatively macho interactions and banter among the brass players, I became the accompanist of choice for trumpeters’ and trombonists’ junior and senior recitals.

At the College, though intrigued by literature and political theory, my papers didn’t garner the same high grades as in high school. My A+ in German was no surprise, as I’d made a head start on the language when my family spent a sabbatical year in Switzerland. French grammar and literature went well too. Since what most intrigued me was the structures of the languages—their grammar, their semantics—I devised an individual major: “Translation of French and German.”

My weekday schedule was intense. Every day, three or more courses at the Conservatory or King; hours in between usually spent accompanying my wind and brass fellow students’ lessons, or working with my piano trio or four-hand piano partner. Then the dash to reserve a good practice room after dinner, and the attempt to learn new repertoire and improve assigned pieces, to concentrate intensely on sound and technique from 7 to 11 pm. I didn’t wander the halls, but it wasn’t always possible to keep up an intense focus, and I was sometimes tired or uninspired. I didn’t allow myself to leave until they shut the place down. And then I headed for the library to read the required material for my college classes from 11 to 1. Only rarely did I break the pattern. The discipline to practice and study, the drive to learn came from inside.

Returning from a fall semester in Austria during my senior year, where I’d focused on my languages, my confidence was shaken—and then built up again—by a sabbatical replacement for my piano teacher. He didn’t appreciate us double-degree students: “You simply don’t work hard enough at the instrument. You stretch yourselves too thin, and end up giving nothing your all.” There I was, proud of my balancing act, and I was told it was neither fish nor fowl.

And yet he was very generous of his time and energy, devising group projects for the entire piano class and giving long lessons if you were well-prepared. In my first semester I had heard the storms of enthusiastic applause, the stomping feet in Finney Chapel for the winners of the concerto competition. I wanted to win and perform there with the Oberlin Orchestra as well. The dream came true, one of my proudest moments at Oberlin. And I devised a final project for my individual major, translating two short stories each from French and from German into English. There too I was pleased with the results of applying myself, of really coming to understand the grammatical and idiomatic nuances of my chosen stories and transfer them into flowing English prose. Of necessity, there was less fanfare around completing that degree.

Twenty-six years later, I have no qualms with saying I’ve led a double-degree life. Though I originally pictured I’d have some kind of office job during the day and would pursue my piano playing on my own time in the evenings after work, I instead started out as a musician. After Oberlin I went on to do a master’s degree in New York, and then worked for a number of years as a piano teacher and accompanist in Berlin. But in retrospect, the high point of my musical career was playing Bartok’s 3rd Piano Concerto in Finney Chapel.

After years as a working musician and teacher, I became a translator and editor in business. And I have now embarked on a new path that combines everything I’ve ever learned: I facilitate large groups (a kind of performing) to make critical business decisions using a creative process that includes artistic and musical elements, in both English and German. The searching has been incessant, and the right path hasn’t always been clearly discernible. But my curiosity and a willingness to start anew repeatedly were encouraged in the learning environment at Oberlin and helped make me who I am today.