What can you do with a double degree from Oberlin? Just about anything.
This story originally appeared in the 2018 issue of Oberlin Conservatory Magazine.
During my time at Oberlin, I often joked that as a double-degree student with majors in clarinet performance and English lit, I would make an exceptionally erudite waiter. As it turns out, I do write on notepads for a living now, but not as a server: I’m the classical music critic and reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
I entered Oberlin thinking I’d play professionally with an orchestra someday, never dreaming that I would wind up penning prose about the performances of others instead. During my second year, however, I discovered a zest for writing, and so I later enrolled in journalism and music criticism courses and worked for the college newspaper. I actually did chat my way through a very brief stint as a server while studying arts journalism in grad school at Syracuse University. And after a spell working on staff at an orchestra in Texas, I was recommended by a former Oberlin teacher and mentor for the Post-Gazette.
Every day, I juggle interviews, deadlines, concerts, newsroom meetings, and a handful of freelance projects. And every day, I draw on my conservatory training as well as my critical writing chops. Do I enjoy reviewing and investigating the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra more than I’d have liked playing in that orchestra? Actually, yes. It’s fun. It’s fascinating. I love the rush of hearing the final glorious cadence of a Bruckner symphony, basking for a moment in that post-concert glow, and then dashing through the snow or rain to a wi-fi hotspot near the concert hall and frantically typing my thoughts in time for the next day’s paper.
It’s a path that would not have been open to me if I hadn’t been a double-degree student. The Double Degree Program remains one of Oberlin’s most attractive features, especially for those looking to broaden their post-college options. While some alumni lean more heavily on one degree than another, others—like me—have merged their interests, often seamlessly.
Of course, balancing full course loads in both the conservatory and college isn’t a cakewalk. In each graduating class at Oberlin, about 40 students earn a double degree. And while
five years is typical for completion of those degrees, more than a third of them finish in less time than that.
The following interviews with Oberlin double-degree alumni show a unity in appreciation for the program and incredible diversity in occupations, from sound editors to journalists to doctors—and of course, musicians. The limits to what you can do reside solely with you.
THE PETER PAN EFFECT
Faith Seetoo ’88, conductor
Oberlin majors: Piano and Psychology
As a conductor of touring Broadway shows, Faith Seetoo isn’t in the business of psychoanalyzing her musicians. But her studies in that field certainly inform the work she does today.
“Psychology at the very basic level is people skills, or being able to read a room,” she says.
The Los Angeles native first developed an interest in musical theater while seeing Peter Pan when she was around 12 years old. “I was beginning to understand that I was interested in girls, so here I was, watching Sandy Duncan as Peter Pan, playing the role of a boy, which was very exciting for me,” she says with a laugh.
A young Seetoo wrote to the conductor asking how to become a Broadway pit keyboardist. Practice hard, and it’s who you know came his reply. Seetoo took those words to heart, following her Oberlin studies with additional work at the Grove School of Music, where she met a musician who had been the best man for the keyboardist of the Phantom of the Opera tour. Eventually, Seetoo launched her Broadway career subbing for that keyboardist.
As she found her interests drifting to the conductor’s stand, she studied in New York for a time before landing a gig conducting the Phantom of the Opera tour. She’s currently on the road with Aladdin.
Seetoo likens conducting to riding a horse and giving as much rein as possible. “That way, people have ownership of their performance, and they feel free to contribute,” she explains. “And my psych studies totally play into this. I use my training all the time, just not in a technical manner. It’s about being able to see how different people respond to different things.”
FROM BJÖRK TO BUZZ LIGHTYEAR
Kendra Juul ’01, animation editor
Oberlin majors: TIMARA and English Literature
Kendra Juul studied in the English and TIMARA departments at Oberlin, and her first experiences after college included work in sound design and video editing for educational toys, movies, and animation. So now she works—of course—at Pixar.
“This is kind of the synthesis of everything I’ve done up until now,” she says. “Animation editorial has a lot of opportunity for creative participation on the story level, which pulls on my English degree in terms of thematic development, character development, plot structure—down to even wording choices and being able to suggest lines. And then on the TIMARA side, as an animation sound editor, we do a lot of sound-effect design and sometimes even temp music cutting.”
Juul grew up in New Jersey and started college at New York University before realizing that she craved a small-school experience. At Oberlin, she experimented with various courses before falling in love with TIMARA. “It just kind of blew my mind,” she recalls. “I was a huge fan of Björk and all of these women using multi-track recorders and electronic sounds. I wanted to know how they were doing what they’re doing.”
After Oberlin, Juul moved to the Bay Area and started working in sound editing and animation for LeapFrog, a children’s educational toy manufacturer. She later edited video for post-production companies before starting at Pixar about two and a half years ago. She’s working now on the upcoming sequel Toy Story 4.
“It really is a fabulous place, not to toot Pixar’s horn,” she says. “It draws on a lot of the various aspects of what I learned in school and all of the work history that I had up until this point. It’s pretty wild.”
THE BEIJING SCENE
Terry Hsieh ’12, trombonist and school administrator
Oberlin majors: East Asian Studies and Jazz Studies
“I enrolled in ancient Greek during my first year at Oberlin and absolutely hated it,” Terry Hsieh remembers.
He had studied Latin and Spanish in high school and intended on declaring a classics major at Oberlin. But Greek proved a fortunate roadblock.
“I didn’t realize that was the hardest part of the classics major at the time, at least for the Latin students,” he says. “So I pretty much did a 180-degree turn and bailed.”
Though he’d never envisioned himself becoming a professional musician, Hsieh loved to play, and he auditioned for the conservatory as a jazz trombonist during his sophomore year. He left classics behind in a formal sense, but he retained a love of language and learned to speak fluent Chinese.
While studying in China during the summer of 2009, Hsieh happened upon the small but vibrant jazz scene in Beijing. He returned to the city in 2010 and in subsequent years to tour with his ensemble, the Terry Hsieh Collective.
Now he runs a jazz program at the International School of Beijing. (“I always tell my students that I thought the Double Degree Program was one of the coolest opportunities anybody could have,” he says.) He also founded the Blue Note Beijing Jazz Orchestra and plays with various jazz and pop groups, some of them quite famous throughout Asia.
“Jazz is still really fresh here,” Hsieh says. “It’s a tight community of great musicians, so being involved with that is a no-brainer. There’s not a lot of job security, but there’s a lot of work. There’s a lot more work here for a jazz musician than in the U.S., I think.”
Hsieh relies heavily on both halves of his education in every aspect of his career, for which he’s constantly working with local Chinese musicians and non-native artists.
“Running bilingual rehearsals can be taxing if you’re not completely fluent,” says Hsieh, who has maintained his affinity for language and the classics even though his path ultimately led him in a different direction. “Sometimes I still like to sit down and read Latin because I love it, and because I can. It’s sort of like climbing a mountain.”
SONG ARM OF THE LAW
Marisa Novak ’15, law student
Oberlin majors: Vocal Performance and History
Marisa Novak is no stranger to the spotlight. A trained opera singer, she recently completed her first year of law school at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she’s digging into entertainment law. Now the poise she developed on concert stages will serve her well in the courtroom too.
“A lot of people here are like ‘Wow, why did you major in opera?’ It completely baffles them,” she says. “But even though I’m not pursuing classical music as a career, I have absolutely no regrets about doing that. Being a voice major gave me a lot of intangible skills.”
Much as she loved singing, Novak decided during her third year at Oberlin that a career in opera wasn’t for her. She had been considering law school for years and took a constitutional law class during her fifth year. With that, she was hooked.
After Oberlin, she interned at the American Opera Project in New York City, then worked at 21C Media Group, the PR firm that represents many of the biggest names in classical music. She spent her free time studying for the LSAT and applying to law schools, ultimately settling on UCLA.
“It’s a way to merge all of my interests,” she says. “I would love to do music law, but it’s a very niche part of the industry, in general. The goal is to work for a small boutique law firm—doing music law—or for a bigger entertainment company in their business and entertainment division.”
She still sings in a lawyers' choir called Legal Voices. “I know, I know—you can laugh at the name,” she says. “It meets like once a week, and it’s super fun. There’s just something theatrical about being a lawyer!”
Julia Steyn ’96, auto industry executive
Oberlin majors: Piano and Economics
Julia Steyn arrived in the U.S. from Volgograd, Russia, with $30 in her pocket and a full scholarship to study piano at Interlochen Arts Academy. She was accepted to Oberlin on a full scholarship as well.
“In Russia, the way careers work is you start something really young and you get really good at it, and it becomes your career,” says Steyn, who began playing piano at the age of 3. “I never dreamt that I could do more than one thing, so when I discovered that you could pursue two careers at once at Oberlin, it was such a shock to me.
“And I thought to myself why not?”
Steyn marched to the chair of the economics department and asked to join the program. After breezing through the required math tests, she was accepted.
She finished her degrees in economics and piano a semester early and began consulting for a Chicago business firm before earning an MBA from the University of Chicago, fully intending to forge a career in finance on Wall Street.
“I was also sure that I only wanted to work for one firm—Goldman Sachs, thanks to a lot of movie watching, I am sure,” Steyn jokes, recalling her days with the once-beleaguered investment company. “I got my wish, and I have to say always be careful what you wish for, because it might happen.”
Steyn now works for General Motors as VP of urban mobility and Maven, where she’s helping pioneer a car-sharing service that she says could help the auto industry adapt to changing market forces.
Though she only plays piano for fun now, Steyn credits music with helping to develop her business acumen.
“In a way, music is pattern recognition,” she explains. “So when you come to a problem in business that’s undefined, that’s where it really helps. I need the puzzle pieces to come together in my head. All of these things are transferable to whatever profession you choose.”
HI-HATS & HARD HATS
Edward Kennedy Ellington Scott ’15, acoustics consultant and percussionist
Oberlin majors: Jazz Studies and Physics
“The original plan was to be a mechanical engineer,” says Edward Kennedy Ellington Scott. “But when I got to Oberlin and saw all the music, I ended up doing a change of status.”
Scott switched his major to physics and added jazz studies during his second year. During winter term of 2014, he interned with Akustiks, the noted architectural acoustics consulting firm, to get a taste of what the job was like. It turned out to be a good fit.
“This job is the perfect mix between art and science, and I still get to be around music,” he says. The consulting business requires a lot of travel, but he takes his drumsticks everywhere to keep in practice, and he still gigs on occasion.
The job consists first of drafting and drawing up specifications for builders. When construction on the hall nears completion, the consultants drop in for a “hard-hat concert,” during which they help the musicians learn how to play in the new space.
“As the orchestra plays, we’ll tweak some of the adjustable acoustics like the curtains, the angle and height of the ceiling panels, the angle of the orchestra shell, and so on,” Scott explains.
That’s where his training as a musician comes into play.
“I’ve gone to one hard-hat concert myself: Gaillard Center in Charleston, which opened in 2015. I actually conducted a bit—I was scared out of my mind. My boss said, ‘Just wing it, man!’ He usually does the conducting, but he wanted to walk around the hall to feel it out.”
Scott’s been at Akustiks for three years now, and he departs in the fall to begin studying for a PhD in architectural acoustics at the renowned Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
THE PIANO (AND MATH) MAN
Tony Weinstein ’02, teacher and accompanist
Oberlin majors: Piano and Math
Tony Weinstein’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine when he was 14. He comes from a long line of musicians and music teachers, and he recalls that the Double Degree Program is what drew him to Oberlin in the first place.
“By about my junior year of high school, I knew that this was going to be what I wanted to do,” Weinstein says of his life at the keyboard. “But I grew up kind of as an academic wunderkind, and I knew I’d want to do a second major. I felt the program at Oberlin would be the easiest way to make that happen.”
Weinstein studied math in the college and piano in the conservatory. Although he considered finishing both degrees in four years, he met his future wife, Karina Avanesian ’02, during his sophomore year and decided to spend an extra year with her on campus while practicing for graduate school auditions.
He earned a master’s degree and doctorate in piano performance from Indiana University, and he teaches and is a staff accompanist at DePauw University. Though he doesn’t use his math degree in a direct way, Weinstein says the abstract thinking and pattern recognition that he learned as an algebraist helps him musically.
“I get asked what the connection is fairly often,” he says with a laugh. “But I don’t really have a good answer other than you bang your head against the wall a lot until things make sense in both fields.”
THE JAZZ DOC IS IN
Calvin Barnes ’02, radiologist and saxophonist
Oberlin majors: Biochemistry and Jazz Studies
Calvin Barnes has been called the Jazz Doctor of Savannah. A mild-mannered radiologist by day, he breaks out his saxophone at night and performs with combos and big bands in clubs around the city.
Barnes wakes up at around 4:30 every morning to practice before starting work for the day. He loves being a musician, and he loves being a doctor.
“As a radiologist, I’m not involved that much in direct patient care for the most part, but I do a lot of pain injections,” he says. “Music helps to break the ice with a patient I might only see one time. Having the vocabulary to talk with just about anyone who walks through the door is really helpful.”
On the flip side, Barnes says that the discipline of being in medicine helps keep his practice sessions grounded and productive, especially working on those keys and patterns that might not be the most comfortable to review at 5 a.m.
“I chose Oberlin specifically for the Double Degree Program, and honestly I thought it was harder than med school,” Barnes says. “I was one of the few hard science double-degree students, but professors and staff worked with me to make sure I could get to all my rehearsals and labs.”
After Oberlin, Barnes attended the Yale School of Medicine, popping down to New York City for studio recording sessions on weekends, before completing a residency in St. Louis and a fellowship at Duke. He moved to Georgia to be closer to family. It’s there that he experienced a “musical revolution,” as he puts it, finding the inspiration to perform regularly.
“Life is what you make it, and you have to be willing to be unique, which is hard to do,” Barnes says. “Our culture wants to categorize people, and you have to be OK with being outside of a category. Sometimes that’s where you find your happiness.”
Sophia Yan ’09, television reporter
Oberlin majors: Piano and English Literature
An editor at Time magazine once told intern Sophia Yan that if she had the guts to get up on stage and play the piano in front of everyone, she had the guts to go up to people and ask them how they think.
(That editor was Michael Duffy ’80, whose wife, Demetra Lambros ’82, had studied piano and English. Obies everywhere!)
Since those days, Yan has reported for Bloomberg, CNN, and CNBC International. When we spoke with the East Coast native in May, she was on assignment in Hawaii, reporting on the volcanic eruptions there.
“I’ve covered earthquakes in Taiwan, the making of Obamacare, major violent protests … oh—my first story was covering President Obama’s first inauguration,” Yan says. “And now a volcano. Things stay interesting!”
Yan entered the conservatory as a pianist and applied to the college during her first year. She says she wouldn’t have become a journalist if it hadn’t been for Oberlin. “The small class sizes really opened my mind, and I started cultivating a real love for learning,” says Yan, who wrote for the Oberlin Review throughout her years on campus.
She embraces the challenge of reporting stories that fall outside of her immediate realm of expertise—and she used to call her former economics professor for advice on recommended reading as she delved into business reporting early on in her career.
“Mostly, I cover international affairs,” she says. “Most of my stories have been based out of and on Asia. I do food and travel stories every now and then. I always joke that I could order a lavish meal at any restaurant in the world.”
You may also like…
June 6, 2022
June 1, 2022
May 16, 2022