Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra Offers Non-Music Majors Access to Conservatory

May 14, 2019

Hillary Hempstead

Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra plays in Finney Chapel
The Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra, led by Visiting Assistant Professor of Conducting Tiffany Chang ’09.
Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

Led by Visiting Assistant Professor of Conducting Tiffany Chang ’09, the Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra gives students in the College of Arts and Sciences access to experiences in the conservatory.

The Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra (OASO) has evolved in the 10 years since Tiffany Chang ’09 was a student on campus. Chang has come full circle by returning to campus to head the large ensemble as visiting assistant professor of conducting. She recalls how different the group was at the time, before it was designated the OASO.

“During my fifth year, a few college string players approached me,” says Chang. “They wanted to start an orchestra for college students because they couldn’t find any opportunities to play. At the time, I was studying conducting and music education, and I was on track to study conducting in graduate school. I said, ‘Sure, I’ll help put this together.’ We rehearsed once a week on the weekend and performed once a semester.’’

Over the years, the group flourished and eventually became a curricular course. Today, the orchestra is an ensemble primarily geared toward students in the College of Arts and Sciences, but members of the Oberlin community, including faculty, staff, and Oberlin residents, are welcome to audition for a spot. The group performs several concerts annually in Finney Chapel.

Since returning to Oberlin in 2018 as a faculty member, Chang’s intention is for OASO to have a high profile in the conservatory and for students in the group to have access to conservatory resources.

“I see this orchestra as a place for high-performing, high-achieving students who may not want to major in music but who still want to keep that aspect of themselves alive,” says Chang. “This is a place for them to be engaged in music at a very high level.”

One way this is achieved is through frequent collaboration with conservatory faculty and other ensembles, such as the OASO’s March 2019 performance featuring Professor of Violin Sibbi Bernhardsson ’95 as a faculty soloist. Partnerships such as these help bridge the gap between the college and the conservatory.

Professor of Violin Sibbi Bernhardsson performs in the Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra
Professor of Violin Sibbi Bernhardsson performs as a faculty soloist. Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko.

“I believe strongly that having a rich and strong arts and sciences orchestra program is at the core of what a true Oberlin education is,” says Bernhardsson. “While students in the Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra may not pursue a career in music, most of them have spent a big part of their lives studying music in a serious way and have played in various youth orchestras around the world. While they may have forgone music as a career option, music remains a meaningful and enriching activity that many are neither willing nor able to give up.”

Miya Wang, a third-year musical studies major in the College of Arts and Sciences, is one  example of the many kinds of students the orchestra attracts. As a trained violinist who began playing when she was six years old, OASO offers her a place to engage with other musicians.

“I have always wanted to play in an orchestra with other players who are passionate about music as much as I am. The Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra was a perfect option for me. There are a lot of talented musicians in it, and I’m very motivated when rehearsing with them.”

Wang also views OASO as a way to access conservatory resources. “Joining the orchestra is also a good way to gain exposure to the musical scene in the conservatory,” says Wang. “You have your own locker in the conservatory, you see event and recital posters in the hallways, and even receive recital invitations in your locker from your conservatory friends.”

Gregory Ristow ’01, associate professor of conducting and director of vocal ensembles, collaborates with OASO through his role as conductor of the Musical Union. The final concert of spring semester 2019 was a joint performance with the groups. Ristow emphasizes the importance of these campus ensembles and the role they play in members’ lives.

“Both the arts and sciences orchestra and the Musical Union are made up of musicians who are making music at a high level for the sheer joy of it,” says Ristow. “We come together to create beauty and harmony for each other and for audiences because we need it, and the world needs it. Oberlin is a mecca for such talented musicians, both within the conservatory, the college, and the broader Oberlin community.’’

Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra on stage in Finney Chapel
Oberlin Arts and Sciences Orchestra on stage in Finney Chapel. Photo credit: Yevhen Gulenko

In addition to these types of faculty collaborations, Chang also intends to grow the group’s repertoire to encompass pieces that are unexpected.

“I’m hoping to expand the programming of the ensemble so that we are not just playing the standard orchestral repertoire,” says Chang. “I want to program something in every concert that no one has heard or played before. In each concert this year, there was always an oddball piece. This semester, we programmed film scores, and we played a lot of French music. My hope is to also expand the repertoire with women composers.”

For the 2019-20 season, Chang has planned a collaboration with TIMARA in its Kaleidosonic Music Festival; a concert with Professor of Piano Alvin Chow and his twin brother, Alan Chow, from the Eastman School of Music; and a concert featuring a major work by Beethoven that will be part of the conservatory‘s celebration for the 250th anniversary of the composer‘s birth.

Chang believes that Oberlin is in a unique position in that many students are highly interested and motivated when it comes to music, even if they don’t choose to pursue it academically. 

“There are students who come here who aren’t in the conservatory, but they have a very high work ethic in terms of music, and they are very serious about music. It’s what attracts them to Oberlin.”

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