Like Only Oberlin Can

Conservatory students reflect on a remarkable fall semester—and stay vigilant through the spring.

March 30, 2021

Charlotte Maskelony '21

Bassist practicing with a pianist.
Malcolm Bamba '23 practices in Bibbins Hall during fall semester 2020.
Photo credit: courtesy Malcolm Bamba

“When we first had to leave Oberlin in March, my stance was Okay, I’ll go back,” says bassist Malcolm Bamba ’23, recalling the frenzied week during spring semester 2020 when everything, everywhere changed. Though his optimism persisted through most of the summer, he ultimately decided to return to campus from his Colorado home only weeks before the fall semester began.

Bamba’s experience—filled with hopes for a speedy return, coupled with months of second-guessing as the scope of the pandemic continually changed—was common among Oberlin students. But most of them returned, either in fall semester or spring 2020, and they are making the most of a season of change.

In order to remain on campus, Oberlin students, faculty, and staff adhere to ObieSafe guidelines, a set of expectations established in conjunction with area health professionals including Cleveland Clinic. The academic calendar was reconfigured from the usual two terms to three in order to promote dedensification; faculty designed new courses; and staff rearranged community and living spaces to allow for social distancing.

“We did that because it’s a labor of love,” Oberlin President Carmen Twillie Ambar said in a video to students right before move-in. “We did it because we have faith in you; faith in our students and how they will return to campus. We did it because we know Obies. We know your commitment to each other, we know your commitment to this campus, and we know your desire to be here is so strong and so vibrant that you will do what needs to be done.”

So how have things actually gone?

Alejandra Williams-Maneri.
Alejandra Williams-Maneri

“I expected myself to feel pretty paranoid and afraid, but once we started getting very few positive tests, I felt very reassured,” says Alejandra Williams-Maneri ’22, a jazz piano and environmental studies major from Barre, Massachusetts.

“I was actually able to have a college experience: I can still hang out with people in Tappan [Square]. I can still grab a coffee with someone and go for a socially distanced walk. I can still have rehearsal and play on my friends’ recitals. Obviously, things are very different, but I feel like I witnessed most people on campus become used to the way things were happening, and because of that collective community decision, things felt normal even though they were very much not.”

A fourth-year student, Williams-Maneri had the advantage of an established community amid the pandemic; younger students, like those who make up the Orb Quartet chamber ensemble, faced the added challenge of making new connections at a time when connecting hasn't been easy.

“Before I got to Oberlin, I had low expectations,” says Orb member Caroline Cornell ’24, a violin performance major from Naples, Florida. “It was so much better than what I thought it would be; it sort of felt almost normal because everyone was going through very similar experiences.”

“I was expecting more limitations,” says Isabel Aronin ’24, a viola performance major from Bethesda, Maryland. “With the quartet, I was expecting it to be very awkward, playing with distance—but it ended up being just fine.”

Not surprisingly, the desire for community—in any form—is a recurring theme.  “It had been months since I had played in a room with anyone else,” says Aaron Lieberman ’25, a cello performance and classical composition major from Baltimore. “Oberlin was different than a normal chamber music experience, but it was better than no chamber music at all.”

String quartet musicians practicing.
The Orb Quartet practiced in opposite corners for weeks before facing inward in advance of their fall ChamberFest performance.

Opportunities to play with top ensembles as an undergraduate draw many students to Oberlin. That’s still the case, of course, even if ensemble logistics have looked a little different this year.

“At one of the summer camps I did, we had this exercise called Four Corners,” says the Orb Quartet’s Amina Knapp ’24, a violin performance major from Shoreview, Minnesota. “We all turned our backs to each other and played in the four corners of the room. It’s meant to sharpen our listening skills and ensemble playing: How do you collaborate when you can’t see each other?

Throughout the semester, the quartet used Four Corners to stay socially distant while training their ears. They finally turned around in time for their ChamberFest performance just before winter break.

In the jazz department, where ensemble playing is an essential component, students took to making music in unusual spaces.

“There were some jam sessions and rehearsals on the roof of the Kohl Building,” Williams-Maneri recalls. “That was kind of cool; I had a rehearsal there, and some high school kids just happened to walk up the stairs. They were sitting socially distanced and just listening to us, which was nice. That was a community moment that definitely wouldn't have happened before.”

In addition to jam sessions, the department also presents Jazz Forum, a weekly concert that allows ensembles to hone their chops in front of their peers and professors. An Oberlin tradition, Forum normally happens at midday on Fridays at the Cat in the Cream, Oberlin’s student-run coffeehouse. In the fall, the department facilitated outdoor Forums at the Tappan Square bandstand, and Noah Sherman ’22, a jazz percussion performance major, organized a weekly jam session to raise money for the Black Trans Travel Fund.

“That was amazing,” says Williams-Maneri. “I got to meet a lot of underclassmen that way, and I definitely wouldn't have had those connections if it hadn’t been for Forum and the jams.”

Morgan Wolfe.
Morgan Wolfe

For Morgan Wolfe ’23, a classical voice major studying from her home in Suffern, New York, the experience of collaboration and performance was entirely different. In an act of true COVID creativity, when Wolfe’s Opera Theater course presented a cabaret of arias and monologues, she dragged her cat tree into her kitchen, perched her laptop on the highest level, and performed there.

“I just missed acting so much, I didn’t care where I was as long as I got to act and perform,” she says. “Being online took some of the nervousness out for me. Of course, everyone is watching me do it, but in person their eyes would be on me, and then I’d get so nervous!”

Despite the distance, Wolfe was able to grow as an artist and to connect with her classmates.

“Everyone in my class was so sweet. We were all so kind to each other: constant praise, constant affirmations. It was just nice to participate in that class, online or in person. It was just refreshing to act and perform again.”

Time to Go the Distance

Thus far, Oberlin’s stellar results from fall—incredibly low COVID-test positivity rates and near-universal adherence to ObieSafe guidelines—have carried over into spring, as warmer weather begins to blend with an optimism born of decreasing infection rates and increased access to vaccines. In the coming weeks, Oberlin students will have the opportunity to be vaccinated on campus, a step that brings the community another crucial step closer to the reality of a normal fall semester—and even a more normal summer term before that.

In recent days, the ObieSafe motto for everyone at Oberlin has become “Go the Distance”: Continue to do what it takes to maintain our extraordinary results, so that we can realize that normal future sooner than later.

So what now? How can students best prepare for the rest of spring and summer? The  experts share their advice.

Wolfe: “I think we really have to get creative and reach out if we need help. When you feel isolated, it’s hard to reach out for help from others, because you get so in your own head. It’s okay to ask people for help! This is a tough time, and we need to stick together.”

Malcolm Bamba in formal attire.
Malcolm Bamba

Bamba: “Have a good system of self-care and organization. Not just academically, but also in organizing your life: when you wake up, when you do certain tasks, when you talk to people on the phone, or even seeing people in Tappan. And reach out to your professors if you need help. We were getting to the end of the semester, and I reached out to my professors and was like ‘Hey, I’m struggling, could I get some extra time? And they were like ‘Sure, of course.’”

Lieberman: “There are a lot of things you can’t do, but there are a lot of things that we’ve recently started doing that are really beneficial. We might never have done the whole Four Corners exercise if we didn't have to stay socially distant.”

Williams-Maneri: “Be intentional about connecting with people. It’s easy to just stay isolated, but if you can really find time and to connect with people in a safe and comfortable way, that’s really the main thing.”

Across the board, students reflected surprise at the sense of routine and regularity they came to feel with Oberlin’s COVID-19 safety guidelines.

“It was surprising how normal things would feel,” Williams-Maneri reflects. “I got super-used to wearing a mask and going through all these protocols. It felt like ‘Oh yeah, I’m at college, doing college things, and I’m still feeling community.’”

“Socially it was really good,” Bamba adds. “Oberlin’s small, and we had a really safe protocol in place. I think I was able to have a good social life, a lot of opportunities to see people consistently, so in that way, it felt like a really good semester.”

“As a remote student, I was so surprised by how it felt like we were all in the same room, even though we were on Zoom,” Wolfe says. “Being apart, being so distanced, kind of made us tighter as a family, because we’re all going through this—as artists, as musicians, as people.  We’re all feeling this way, and in my remote courses, that kind of united us. Whenever we return to in-person classes, we can all say that we felt the burnout, we’ve been through this, and we came out even stronger.”

Charlotte Maskelony is a fourth-year voice performance major from Arlington, Virginia. She writes for the Office of Conservatory Communications.

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