Like many students I know, I arrived at Oberlin with a lot of plans. I wanted to learn how to sing. I wanted to learn how to direct. I wanted to learn as many languages as I could and as well as possible. But I knew that to achieve my goals—and to start reaching for opportunities at Oberlin and elsewhere—I needed some guidance.
Jessen is an educator and bassoonist who helps Oberlin students cultivate their own paths in music. In addition to her role at Oberlin, she performs as a solo bassoonist and as cofounder of Splinter Reeds, a San Francisco-based reed quintet with a commitment to contemporary music. Thanks in part to her own life on the stage, Jessen’s knowledge of music-industry challenges is wide-reaching, current, and genre-spanning.
Jessen teaches the conservatory’s Professional Development for Musicians course and curates the Professional Development Speaker Series, both of which draw on her expansive network. (In recent weeks, visiting speakers have included NPR music director Lauren Onkey, bass-baritone Dashon Burton ’05, I CARE IF YOU LISTEN editor Amanda Cook, and flutist-entrepreneur Valerie Coleman, among others.) On the rare occasion Jessen can’t answer a question, she knows someone who can.
“The Professional Development Speaker Series gave me such a firm sense of It’s going to be OK, regardless of what happens,” says Joshua Rhodes ’21, a bass performance major from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who transferred to Oberlin. “There were such diverse stories; it was such a diverse group of speakers from all different areas of the music industry—and related industries as well. Hearing Ivy Newman ’04 talk about how she started as a composition student, then did a master’s in arts administration at Columbia, and now owns her own marketing firm—it’s the idea of using the transferable skills that we have as musicians for other large things.”
These transferable skills are taught from the very first year. In the vocal studies division, all first-year students take the Vocal Studies Seminar, which covers managing finances as a singer, applying for summer programs and graduate schools, and—of course—working with the Professional Development Office.
During my first year, Jessen brought along her peer advisor at the time, mezzo-soprano Olivia Cosío (pictured with Jessen, top), who presented a brief overview of her own Oberlin experience. I was hooked. I set up an individual meeting with the office, during which Jessen discussed her professional development course, which I enrolled in for the following fall. Taking that class—and taking it as early during my time at Oberlin as I did—were two of the best decisions I have made. The class involved study of seemingly every possible career option in music and covered topics such as cultivation of multiple income streams, gigging, taxes, public and private arts funding, and—most important—artistic and financial independence. (The two are pretty much synonymous.)
“Working with Dana, both one on one and in Professional Development for Musicians, helped me understand that there are so many different career paths available to musicians,” says Hannah Allen ’23, a harp performance and French double-degree student from Connecticut. “Although there are so many amazing opportunities already available at Oberlin and elsewhere, it is entirely possible to create those that don’t yet exist. Oberlin encourages students to explore subjects outside of their majors, and I think everyone should take advantage of this—not just to discover new passions, learn more, and meet people, but also to qualify yourself in multiple areas and increase your versatility.”
Through the Music Leadership Career Community, a career-readiness program available to third-year students through Oberlin’s Career Development Center, students participate in workshops with faculty, staff, and alumni for course credit. At the end of the program, students apply their newly acquired skills in the field through financially supported micro-internships or research-based projects. Afterward, they can continue to reach out to their mentors—including Jessen—for advising as they apply for fellowships and grants.
I was part of the inaugural Career Community class, and with the support of Jessen and fellow mentor Darren Hamm, executive director of the Oberlin Center for the Arts, I applied for and earned XARTS and Conservatory Student Success grants, two internal funding sources offered though Oberlin’s Center for Innovation and Impact and the Career Development Center.
This year I joined the Professional Development staff as a peer advisor, guiding musicians from both the college and conservatory. This past semester, I used the skills I learned in the Career Community to apply for the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals (CBYX), a cultural exchange fellowship with Germany co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of State. I was selected, and will spend the next year in language school at a German university and interning in the opera industry there.
In addition to Career Communities, Oberlin provides numerous resources for life after graduation. Nick Petzak, director of the Office of Fellowships and Awards, leads a Winter Term project on procuring fellowships that prepares students for the application process. Petzak’s guidance was crucial to my CBYX application. He coaches Oberlin students through mock interviews, checks in regularly, and connects students with previous program participants when it’s time to accept or decline offers.
Across campus in Oberlin’s Career Development Center, Associate Director Dustin Evatt-Young and Executive Director Dana Hamdan just wrapped up Senior Launch, a rigorous program designed for spring graduates. Almost every weeknight for four weeks, students engaged in discussion, watched lectures, and workshopped practical skills like interviewing and negotiating salary. At the end, every senior received a professional portrait session and $400 toward professional expenses.
If those professional development opportunities aren’t enough, Oberlin always has more. Students can enroll in the Organization Grant Proposals course, which teaches grant- and fellowship-application writing skills; they can take Arts Management, a course that specializes in leadership skills for the arts industry; or they can explore Oberlin’s musical pathways, a curated collection of interdisciplinary minors and concentrations meant to foster collaboration between the conservatory and college.
The world seems extra-big right now. For those in the performing arts, it can feel even more uncertain—especially as graduating students. Even when I watched my older friends graduate in years prior, I don’t think I truly understood the way your last year on campus feels like leaping off a cliff.
My four years at Oberlin were a time of self-discovery, of opening unexpected doors, and of making connections far and wide. This year, as the Conservatory Professional Development peer advisor, I presented to first-year voice majors as Olivia Cosío had done for me—knowing that, yes, there is and always will be uncertainty, and yes, Oberlin’s Professional Development team is standing by to help you build your future.
Charlotte Maskelony ’21 is a fourth-year vocal performance major from Arlington, Virginia.
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