{ Opportunities for College Musicians }

When I applied to Oberlin, I knew very little about the school except that it was a small liberal arts college with a phenomenal music conservatory. That was enough to get me to apply and as I did more research - discovering that the college was phenomenal,too, and that a $5 million gift for a new jazz building had just been announced - it became clear quickly that this was the right place for me. I came here as a college student hoping to profit from the conservatory without having to enroll, and although I was indeed able to do this, I ended up transferring into the double-degree program. In this post, I'm going to attempt to enumerate the various ways in which college kids can benefit from the conservatory; I am a jazz musician, and as such can only give personal testimonial to that aspect of the program, but I will try and relay pertinent anecdotes from other divisions of the conservatory as well. This post should be thought of as a supplement to the information available directly from the conservatory, rather than as the definitive account of the musical happenings at Oberlin.

From the outset, it's important to note that the conservatory and its faculty are first and foremost obligated to meet the needs of its students. It has been my experience that faculty members are always happy to meet with college students, but the extent to which they can adopt non-conservatory students depends on the size of the studio in a given year. I was fortunate during my freshman year that two freshman jazz drummers left the program; the jazz studio is relatively small in size and so this was a palpable loss and created a void that I was able to opportunistically fill. I first had to audition in order to be able to sign up for small ensembles, and upon being approved was easily able to find musicians willing to subject themselves to my playing. I was also able to sit in on a jazz performance class taught by members of the jazz faculty, which I credit as one of the most helpful learning experiences I've had at Oberlin in terms of getting up to speed as a jazz drummer. In this class I was introduced to Billy Hart, the jazz drum set professor, and after hearing me play he graciously offered to give me lessons, which I took for half credit during spring semester.

Billy Hart

Billy Hart with The Bad Plus (from left, Dave King, Hart, Ethan Iverson, and Reid Anderson) at NightTown in Cleveland, September 2007. After the show I interviewed Iverson for The Grape, which was great fun.

My experience is neither unique nor commonplace. Trying to study with a conservatory professor is like trying to take an upper-level seminar in a subject that isn't your major: if the instructor has room and if you demonstrate your willingness to learn and work at a high level, you stand a good chance of getting in. You aren't guaranteed a spot, but you also aren't summarily dismissed.

At the beginning of each school year, students interested in taking lessons and playing in ensembles must audition in front of the division faculty, and they are placed according to ability and availability. Conservatory students also teach secondary lessons, and anyone who is unable to study with a faculty member can receive a weekly half-hour lesson from a conservatory student. As the students giving lessons are themselves receiving instruction from the faculty, a lot of college musicians wind up following a regimen of study identical to that administered to conservatory students. Additionally, studying with someone your own age can be a lot less intimidating than studying with someone who's performed with the New York Philharmonic, and as such the lessons may wind up being more fruitful.

Classes in the conservatory are generally available to college students; you need to speak with the professor first and they will usually let you into the course if you can meet the prerequisites. But be wary: I was able to get into a 200-level music history class my first semester, but had to drop it almost immediately when I realized I was in over my head. Some courses are harder to get into than others depending on the program and the year. For example, the "Studio Techniques" class in the Technology In Music And Related Arts (TIMARA) division is one of the most coveted courses in the school, so don't expect to get into that without a sterling resume of relevant work and a fair share of tenacity.

Hanging out in Hales Studio A, the main jazz rehearsal space. It does the trick, but we're eager for the new building to open.

Oberlin is overflowing with musical ensembles. There are over 400 conservatory-sanctioned concerts each year, not to mention innumerable student bands, a capella groups, folk singers, chamber groups, a steel drum band, et cetera. I can say with complete certainty that anyone possessing even a modicum of musical ability will find a group willing to welcome them with open arms. It is understandably harder to get placed in some of the large ensembles like the Oberlin Orchestra or the Contemporary Music Ensemble, though certainly not impossible and probably a bit easier than getting lessons with a professor. Conservatory ensembles require an audition, and it is usually the same as your lesson placement audition. The auditions are based on merit and not on your status as a college or conservatory student: after all, the ensemble directors are the ones listening to your audition and they want their orchestra to sound as good as it can. If you're someone with a lot to offer musically, they'll take notice.

Even if you choose not to participate in any ensembles and take no lessons, you still stand to benefit from the music at Oberlin simply by being immersed in Oberlin's musical culture. Some of the most important learning I've done at Oberlin has been from watching my peers perform. Concerts are one of the main recreational activities on campus; student bands perform in Wilder Bowl on Fridays when the weather's nice; every party has a band or a DJ; aloof voice majors stroll through Tappan Square humming themes from Schubert's "Die Winterreise." Not only is there music everywhere, but it's very good music. I went to a party at a certain small liberal arts college in my home state of Maine (rhymes with "toad in"), and listened to what I was told was the only student band on campus, and they were abysmal. At Oberlin, you get to see live music that people in the real world would pay a $15 cover charge and two-drink minimum to hear.

Practice room
My practice room at the beginning of the semester. (Add about 40 empty coffee cups, scraps of paper, two large stacks of books, and a bunch of Ginger Chew wrappers to get an idea of how it looked at the end.)

The confluence of music and academics at Oberlin really does make it one of a kind. I looked at several liberal arts schools purported to have good music programs and none of them even began to approach what Oberlin has available in terms of material and intellectual facilities. (200 Steinways, 150 practice rooms, and a TIMARA lab are readily available for all students, not to mention the world-class faculty.) It is difficult to adequately discuss what opportunities are available for college musicians in the conservatory because of the variance in performers' backgrounds. I've tried to cover my bases but if you have any questions please ask me and I'll do my best to give you an answer specific to your circumstances. Also, I would encourage you to get in contact with some of the faculty in the conservatory dean's office, who are infinitely more knowledgeable about this subject than I and who can direct you towards more pertinent information.

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{ Responses To This Entry }

Hey Will, I'm considering Oberlin and I've been looking at your blog. I'm a saxophonist, pianist, a guitarist and just an all around dedicated musician. However, I will most likely major in English/German. The music scene you describe here sounds great, but as someone outside of the conservatory I'd want to make sure I could get some instruction and play in the wind ensemble at the very least. I was hoping you could just tell me some more about the opportunities I'd have to play music at Oberlin. Specifically, if you happen to know how competitive the wind ensemble is, or anything about the saxophone teacher(s). As someone in the jazz program, how hard would you say it would be to play sax in a jazz ensemble or combo? Thanks alot. I like the blog.

Posted by: Ben Sandman on November 7, 2008 3:25 PM

Hi Ben, thanks for writing. I asked a friend of mine who plays in the wind ensemble, and unfortunately she said that being a college saxophonist will put you at an unusual disadvantage, in that the wind ensemble is one of only two conservatory ensembles that require saxophonists. (The other is the Contemporary Music Ensemble.) As such, positions in both ensembles get filled up by the saxophone studio pretty quickly. But if you're playing classical saxophone at a very high level it's not outside the realm of possibility. The classical saxophone professor is Paul Cohen and if you contact him via e-mail I'm sure he'll be able to help further.

As far as jazz goes, it's quite a bit easier to get into a combo (provided you've got the chops), and most groups are always willing to throw another horn in the mix. The oberlin jazz ensemble might be tougher to get a seat in, but also well within the realm of possibility. And I don't know if you'd be able to get for-credit lessons with Gary Bartz, but from what I've seen and heard of him (and if he's anything like the other jazz faculty members here) he'd be more than happy to toss some wisdom your way if you showed up at his studio with a sax in hand.

Posted by: Will on November 7, 2008 3:26 PM

Hi Will! Thanks so much for writing this blog, it definantly helped me get a better understanding of the music scene at Oberlin. I'm a junior at an arts high school in Toledo, OH, and am starting to consider colleges and look into visiting. I'm a flutist, and I am the director of two flute choirs, a chamber winds ensemble, and also play in and help lead my jazz band (plus a wind ensemble and a studio orchestra...I'm a busy kid!). I know I definantly want to major in flute performance and maybe also major in Music Education. What I want to know more about is the jazz program at Oberlin. Is the program mostly big bands, or do you also have (smaller) combos? Right now I play in a combo, with a drummer, vibes player, trumpter, bassist, guitarist, and violinist. I'm used to smaller groups, and have never played in a big band. Most groups around Toledo don't want a flutist, because I don't double on saxophone, nor do I want to. Would there be a place for me at Oberlin in the jazz program? Its not something I want to give up! Also-can I person play in both a jazz ensemble and a classical ensemble? Is there a limit to how many ensembles you can play in? Do Oberlin students ever just get together outside of class and jam? Do Oberlin students ever create their own groups outside of class and gig? Thanks in advance for answering all my questions (I have a lot of them!) I'd just like to know from a student who is in the jazz program what you think of it. Thanks again! -Katelyn

Posted by: Katelyn on November 7, 2008 3:27 PM

Hey Katelyn, thanks for all the great questions. The jazz program at Oberlin only has one big band in the traditional sense, the Oberlin Jazz Ensemble. Students are then able to form combos on their own, which meet weekly for a coached rehearsal. The fact that we can make our own combos is one of the nicer parts of Oberlin's jazz program, and I think we all kind of take it for granted. At NEC or SUNY Purchase or other jazz programs comparable to Oberlin, combos are assigned by the faculty based on an audition, and you have no control over the songs you play. Totally lame. If you are proficient on your instrument you should be able to get into a combo no problem. You'll have to audition, of course, and demonstrate your abilities as an improviser, but once approved you have free reign to join any group that wants a flute. There are only two people I know of in the jazz program who play flute, and both double on other instruments, so it's definitely not a competitive instrument. There's no limit to how many ensembles you can play in, but you can only register for credit for one ensemble, and each coached ensemble must have at least two members signed up for credit. (This keeps the number of coached small ensembles at around 20 a semester.) Oberlin students jam all the time; the most readily available jazz jam is at Professor Beers every Thursday afternoon, though there are others. And Oberlin students definitely form groups outside of class and gig -- this fall, a band I'm in, "Like Bells", is performing at the Grog Shop and (tentatively) the Agora Ballroom, two of Cleveland's largest rock music venues. Jazz groups also have performed in Cleveland (the Bop Stop and Night Town are the two big jazz venues in Cleveland though obviously there are other places that hire bands) but, as with everywhere else in this crazy mixed-up world, jazz gigs are considerably harder to get than rock/pop gigs. Hopefully that's helpful, sorry it's all one big muddled paragraph. If you have any more questions don't hesitate to ask.

Posted by: Will on November 7, 2008 3:29 PM

Wow. I can't imagine a better source of information for what I want to know right now about Oberlin and music. Thank you. I'm a senior, right now trying to narrow down my list of colleges. I've been really into Oberlin lately, but reading about the music scene and conservatory opportunities makes me want to drop all the other LACs on my list and apply to Oberlin early decision. This blog was great for me because I am also a jazz drummer. I've gotten really into jazz this past year and play in a quartet. I use a book by Billy Hart and the fact that he teaches at Oberlin and you study under him gives me the chills. Although I have no intentions of applying to any conservatories, I thought for a second about the double degree because it's so unique. I decided against it because I'm too into so many other things (languages, science--these are good at Oberlin too, yes?) that take up my time. My question is the same as Ben's, if I keep up my chops and go to Oberlin will I be able to take classes, take lessons with...Billy Hart?!, and get involved in bands? Two more questions: I've been looking at that college in Maine that rhymes with "toad in" as well; I'm into the outdoors and love the location. Is the difference in the student body between this school and Oberlin huge? And, do you see a outdoorsy crowd at Oberlin? are they able to fulfill their desire to do things outside? Thanks a bunch! -Greg

Posted by: Greg S on November 17, 2008 6:41 PM

Hey Greg, glad this was helpful! Again, it's hard to predict exactly what you will and won't be able to do here, but I'll do my best. If you continue to pursue music with at least a passing degree of seriousness then you will have no trouble finding people to play with. Rock bands are very easy to get together, so I wouldn't anticipate any trouble there. As far as classes go, most of the intro-level music courses are open to college students, and you can pursue it more if you get consent from the professor (which is not hard to obtain). Courses in jazz theory and jazz history will definitely be available for you to take and you might find them very helpful.

As far as lessons with Billy, that's a much trickier thing. As I said, I was able to get lessons with him as a college student, but it was very much through blind luck on my part--he happened to be at a performance I was in with a jazz combo, and offered to give me secondary lessons based on that. (He also had one student drop out and one student transfer, so he had more time than usual to take on extra students). By and large he's very busy, and he's also not here too often -- maybe seven weeks a semester, for three days a week, and he teaches and coaches ensembles non-stop during that time. But even though for-credit formal lessons (insofar as he gives "formal" lessons--they're usually more like conversations) might be hard to secure, he's always happy to have students and non-students stop by his studio when he's here and so you'd definitely have ample opportunity to pick his brain.

With Bowdoin, I can only relay what little anecdotal experience I have from hanging out there, which should be regarded for exactly what it is--hearsay. Bowdoin seems to me to be very "preppy", which Oberlin decidedly is not, and there are about 1/3 as many students. I can't speak to the academics there, having never sat in on a class, but it's almost certain that Bowdoin, like Oberlin or Bates or Grinnell or any of the other "top" liberal arts colleges (whatever that means), is very strong academically. It's a gorgeous campus and I can write for hours about how beautiful I think Maine is, but I definitely think Oberlin has more going on in just about every possible way.

The best thing for you to do is visit both and see for yourself, but the way I see it is that at all the schools in this level you're going to get superlative academic quality, so the deciding factors then become the less "tangible" elements. In terms of available resources, campus size (a pleasantly moderate size of 800 kids per class versus something like 200 at bowdoin), music, art, culture, the co-op system, etc. etc., I think Oberlin wins handily. But again, I don't go to Bowdoin and never really considered going there, so this is all circumstantial. My friends there would just as readily list off reasons why Bowdoin is a better choice. (But I bet most of the reasons would have something to do with their dining hall, which, while awesome, should not be the sole persuasive factor in college decisions...)

And as for outdoors-- Yes, Oberlin is by and large very "outdoorsy." Regrettably, you won't find an equivalent for New England's beautiful mountainous landscape out here in the midwest (Kentucky's got some good hikes, but it's at least 4 hours' drive...granted, that's also how long it takes to get to the White mountains or Katahdin from Brunswick), but there's a special kind of beauty to rural flatlands that deserves mention, and we have an outing club that goes on long camping trips over school breaks, usually at least partially if not fully financed by the college. Lake Erie is right nearby which affords some outdoor recreational opportunities, and cycling trips all across northeastern Ohio are common if that's your thing. Do keep in mind that your schoolwork will likely take up a considerable chunk of your waking hours, which will make outdoor excursions difficult at any college, let alone Oberlin.

So that's been a very long answer to your questions, and I hope it was at least partially helpful. Feel free to ask for more specifics if there's something I still haven't satisfactorily covered.

Posted by: Will on November 17, 2008 6:43 PM

Hi Will, I have been reading your very helpful blog, and you seem to have been in a position very similar to mine when you entered Oberlin. I want to pursue neuroscience, but I also want to play music. I have two simple questions, hopefully you can answer them-- I already play two instruments, oboe and bass guitar, and I would like to continue to pursue them. Would I have time to adequately pursue both of them or would I probably have to focus on one, do you think? Also, is bass guitar accepted among the jazz players there? That leads me to my next question-I also want to start playing upright bass, and I may be able to start before I go to college, but if I can't, how supportive is Oberlin for starting a new instrument, in other words, could I get an instrument from them, could I get a teacher to give me the basics? Thanks so much for any insight you may have.

Posted by: Alex on December 15, 2008 5:59 PM

Hey Alex, thanks for writing. How much time you have to pursue music is pretty variable; obviously, neuroscience is a demanding major and will take up a lot of your time. It's certainly possible to pursue both instruments along with your college degree, but it won't be with the same depth that you might have if you just focused on one. But yes, I suspect you'd have time to pursue both to an adequate degree.

As far as bass guitar vs. upright, all the jazz majors here play upright and most also are able to play electric. (I suspect a lot of them got their start on electric before switching to upright.) It's unorthodox to have electric bass in a small ensemble, but it's not unheard of either. With the jazz groups, everyone's pretty easy-going, and the prevailing sentiment is that if it sounds good, it is good. Amplification requirements be damned. And of course a good electric bass player is a highly valuable commodity on the student band circuit, so you'd have no shortage of opportunities there.

Oberlin will be very supportive of the switch from electric to upright. There are basses available though I am not sure just how available they are. You'd want to audition for secondary lessons during orientation, and then your student teacher would be able to hook you up with a usable instrument.

Hope that helps!

Posted by: Will on December 15, 2008 8:31 PM

well I'm in my junior year going on to my senior and I've been searching for colleges. I have an idea of what I want to pursue which is meshing my two talents together-writing and my knowlege of music. Currently I go to an IB school and am taking music higher level, I play the flute and sing. but I do not want to pursue either of the two seriously, would I still be able to get into oberlin and study music even if i dont play? Oberlin sounds like an amazing school, but I dont want to go there and feel left out because I only want to study music theory and not becoming an instrumentalist, also I wouldn't want to take the spot from someone who does.
any suggestions?

Posted by: Kathy on April 19, 2009 8:14 PM

Hi Kathy,

Thanks for writing. It sounds like you're a good fit for the College Music major, which includes theoretical work, musicology, and ethnomusicology but not performance.

It would also be possible for you to declare an individual major in any of those three areas (music theory, musicology, or ethnomusicology). As someone who declared an individual major (albeit in the conservatory, not the college), I can speak very highly of it as a great resource here at Oberlin and one worth pursuing, especially if you have a fairly specific understanding of what you want to study here.

More info on the IM: http://new.oberlin.edu/dotAsset/832179.pdf

More info on the College Music major: http://new.oberlin.edu/arts-and-sciences/departments/musical_studies/requirements.dot

Posted by: Will on April 19, 2009 10:04 PM

Hi Will,
I'm Julia and will be entering the college class of 2013 next year. First of all, Thanks for the post! I've been hunting for answers to this question for a while, and this helps a lot. I know you may not be able to help me with this question, but I'm a serious violin player and was wondering about chamber music opportunities for college students. String quartets, and what not. Do you know anything about this or know anyone that might be able to help me? Thanks!

Posted by: Julia Ruby on April 28, 2009 8:14 PM

Hi Julia,
I asked around and if you're playing at a high level you should have little problem finding a chamber group to join. Auditions are held during orientation or the first week of classes, just like for lessons, but of course many chamber ensembles are formed outside of the auspices of the conservatory as well. Keep your ear to the ground when you get here and I'm sure you'll find all the information you need.

Posted by: Will on May 2, 2009 5:33 PM

Hi, I was wondering if there are musical opportunities at Oberlin for those who don't play any musical instruments at all but would like to learn?

Posted by: Caleb on December 22, 2009 4:37 PM

Hey Caleb,

There are, but not through Oberlin. The Conservatory will put you in touch with a list of student teachers willing to give lessons, but you will have to seek them out + pay them out of pocket (at the going rate of $7.50 per 30 minute lesson). Lots of people do this, though I will say that I've overheard some people say that they find the idea of learning a new instrument intimidating at Oberlin...that depends on your attitude entirely, though, and all you'll find from people at Oberlin + from student teachers is encouragement.


Posted by: Will on December 23, 2009 11:50 AM


First of all, thanks for all the great info so far. I'm a senior and Oberlin is one of my top choices right now. However, it's kind of the odd one out on my list. I'm a guitarist and songwriter and although I love music, I'm not really interested in pursuing performance. So, I applied to a lot of music industry programs (USC, NYU, Drexel)as well as a bunch of big universities where I can mix a study of music with business offerings (BU, UPenn, etc). Still, I was really interested in Oberlin, and I figured with the great music scene there, I could make something work.

So, my question is, would I be able to create my own program preparing me to work in the music industry? I know Oberlin has no business classes but when I spoke with an admissions officer, he said that he had seen students design arts management programs and things like that. While I love the intellectual atmosphere that I perceive to be present at Oberlin, I'm worried that the school's approach to music might be too theoretical for me given my career goals.

Finally, I absolutely need to study music history in college. I'm especially interested in contemporary music studies like the history of rock, etc. Does the conservatory have these kinds of classes or is it more geared toward periods like baroque, classical, etc.? Also, is that recording studio you mentioned really available to all students??

Thanks a lot,

PS- how is the music scene in Cleveland and do kids venture there often?

Posted by: Megan on January 26, 2010 4:42 PM

Hi Megan,

I hope you don't mind, but I responded to your question by way of a new post because I thought it was an interesting set of questions and wanted to try to open a different discussion up.

The post is here, hopefully it's helpful! :


Posted by: Will on January 26, 2010 5:59 PM

Dear Will,

I am a senior and have been seeing Oberlin as one of my top college choices, partly because of its fine music facilities and conservatory. I am not planning to major in music. Now that the decision is closer I am appraising whether I will actually get to play music at all because of the quality of the music program at Oberlin. How difficult is it to audition into an orchestra or symphony at Oberlin? I am a violinist, I am concertmaster in a quality private symphony in Atlanta and have been concertmaster at my school for some years. I love my music and it is a must that I continue it through college. I would like to participate in the Oberlin Symphony and/or the Oberlin Chamber Orchestra. As a non conservatory violinist how likely is it that I will be able to?
Thank you.


Posted by: Jane on March 17, 2010 5:19 PM

Hey Will,

I'm an alto saxophonist, and I've been admitted to the 5-year program for next year at Oberlin (I actually talked to you briefly after I saw you perform at The Cat last week and asked you a version of this question). I'm deciding between NYU and Oberlin, and I'm leaning towards Oberlin, but I still have the one basic concern that the general jazz scene pales in comparison to NY because, really, everywhere but NY pales in comparison to NY. I know there is a lot of modern or progressive music at Oberlin, and a lot of jazz, but is there a strong culture of modern jazz? I saw some stuff during my visit that is exactly what I'm looking for (what you were doing at forum, some other shows around campus that I saw), but I know that the program is a little more traditional (or at least I think...comments on that?). Are there people who want to jam, but not necessarily swing? People who want to play free? I know this is really general and varies from year to year, but I'm just wondering about your experience at the school. Also, are there places to play at night...I know there's plenty of jamming on porches or outside etc. but are there places with kits and amps and stuff open for student use? Do you know if there will be in the new jazz building (on that note, what do you know about the new jazz building? I've tried to find plans of it but I can't...)?

I know I'm getting really nit-picky, so answer whatever you can if you can, and whatever you do is appreciated. I'm just trying to get a sense of if I'd be missing out to not go to NY in terms of modern jazz, which is my greatest interest. I obviously am ready to get a really good jazz education in general, including bebop, swing, etc. which I love and really need to work on, I just want to know that there is a jazz environment that I'm going to connect with outside of the classroom.

To give you a sense of the stuff that I really love and hope to pursue, here's a list of my favorite modern jazz albums that I keep...hopefully it will help you understand what it is I'm worries about missing if I don't go to NY.

“Suspicious Activity” (The Bad Plus), “Youth Oriented” (Happy Apple), “Little Things Run The World” (Ben Allison), “Gently Disturbed” (Avishai Cohen Trio), “Underground” (Chris Potter), “Out Louder” (Medeski, Scofield, Martin, & Wood), “Elastic” (Joshua Redman), “Largo” (Brad Mehldau), “Critical Mass” (Dave Holland Quintet), “End of the World Party” (Medeski, Martin, & Wood)“Me Not Me” (Marco Benevento), “Outre Mer” (Garage a Trois), “Tiny Resistors” (Todd Sickafoose), “Season of Changes” (Brian Blade & The Fellowship Band), “Fly” (Fly), “Best Reason to Buy the Sun” (Benevento Russo Duo), “Emit” (Chris Speed), “Seven Days of Falling” (Esbjörn Svensson Trio), “Invisible Cinema” (Aaron Parks), “For” (The Claudia Quintet), “Canvas” (Robert Glasper), “Mistico” (Charlie Hunter Trio), “This Meets That” (John Scofield), “The Morning World” (Chris Morrissey), “Thru My Eyes” (Michel Camilo), “Thunderbird” (Cassandra Wilson), “Live at Tonic” (Christian McBride), “Flow” (Terence Blanchard), “Lil Tae Rides Again” (Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey)

Thanks again, hope I'm not being too persistent on this subject,


Posted by: Nate Mendelsohn on April 25, 2010 8:56 PM

Hey Nate,

Good to hear from you. You're correct: there's no substitute anywhere on earth for New York City. Cleveland does alright for itself in terms of bringing jazz concerts (and concerts in general--it's a convenient stopping point between Chicago and NYC and so a lot of big artists end up playing here), and Oberlin also usually does a good job though truthfully this past year has been abysmal. But if a constant supply of diverse live entertainment is really important to you, you can't do any better than NYC. There's a ton that goes on here, and for a rural school it's unparalleled, but it's not a cultural hub nor is trying to be.

As to the nature of the jazz program, it is no more traditional than anywhere else from what I've heard friends tell me. I know people who currently study at MSM, Eastman, and NEC for jazz, and I've talked to a few people who've gone to NYU, and if anything their curriculum sounds a lot more rigid than what Oberlin has. Here you get to pick your ensembles, and you get to play what you want in them (minus the occasional required Jury tune), which is a big deal and which is not really the case at other schools. "Modern Jazz" is a pretty broad label, but yes, it is certainly alive and well as an aesthetic here and there really aren't that many students trying to only play in the tradition of 1950's/60's bebop--there really aren't many young people anywhere trying to do that anymore because of how far removed we are from that music at this point, but I digress.

The program is not traditional. There are too many weirdos here for it be traditional. You'll interact with a lot of weird people making a lot of weird music and it will have an effect on you. I would have never guessed as a freshman that I would get really into serialism, for example, but here I am. There are lots of people who want to play free improvisation; there are always jam sessions happening and they're easy enough to organize on your own; as a jazz major you'll have access to the three rehearsal rooms in the new building; non-jazz majors have access to a rehearsal room in Wilder, the student union (though you have to bring 100% of your own instruments, including drums).

Do realize that you will have to play standards/bebop here at least a little bit. That will be true everywhere. But as I told you in person, none of the saxophonists here right now are really gung-ho about playing free, so that would put you at a distinct advantage.

When the new jazz building opens I am going to blog about it and bring a camera with me, so stay tuned. (Though I guess you have to make your decision before next weekend...hmmm...I know that it's going to have a ton of practice rooms that will have recording equipment in them so that you can record yourself practicing; it'll have a mind-blowing recording studio that no one will be able to use so don't get too caught up in that; a sweet jazz library with a bunch of rare vinyl; a place to get coffee; and teaching studios for most of the jazz faculty.)

Good list of artists/albums, by the way. Maybe it will help assuage your fears about relocating to the midwest to know the following:

* Artists on your list that I know have played in Cleveland in the past 1-2 years: Brad Mehldau, The Bad Plus, MMW, Christian McBride, Terence Blanchard, Cassandra Wilson, Charlie Hunter, Robert Glasper. (There are probably more, plus lots of other jazz musicians you didn't list who play here--Look up the Tri-C jazz festival, for example--but those are the ones I'm sure of.)

* Billy Hart has introduced me personally to Horacio Hernandez, Ethan Iverson (who gave me his phone number), Dave King, Joe Lovano, and put me on the phone (without my knowledge!!) with Dave Holland and Dave Liebman. He's played with a lot of the people on your list, and knows all of them personally. Gary Bartz and Robin Eubanks (not to mention Jamey Haddad) are similarly well connected and they are all available for you to study with. In general, the faculty here is really amazing and they can open a lot of doors for you--and getting to hang with them in Oberlin, where they truly have nothing else to do most of the time except teach, can make that especially true.

Good luck with your decision and let me know if you have more questions I can answer.

Posted by: Will on April 26, 2010 12:20 PM


I'm looking very very seriously at the double degree program at Oberlin, hopefully for something along the lines of a Chemistry and Jazz Guitar thing. But! I'm absolutely terrified of the admissions process. I'm serious about guitar (all around, not only jazz) as well as science, but I feel like I'm still not "good" enough to be accepted by both schools - I play in a jazz group formed by my friends, as well as both my school's Jazz ensembles, a few assorted rock/etc. groups, my grades are perfectly average (3.6 for what good it does) and I'm talking high level classes bla bla bla. I'm not entirely "normal" nor "simple," and some cool things have happened during my life, so I feel I have a shot at the college, I'm terrified about that too, but it's my feeling. My questions are, essentially, how are the auditions judged? What is it that the people judging are looking for? How did your audition go down? Is it a table of shady people staring at you or does actual conversation take place? Also, does the A&S college weigh in on musical background, life experience, individuality, not just grades?

This damn admissions thing is driving me crazy! I just want to be at Oberlin. I did the visit and no other college matches up to it. I'm just completely uncertain of how the admissions officers will look at me - my grades are average, but they don't say much about me as a person. I want them to see me.

Sorry for writing some incoherent nonsense around the questions,


Posted by: Dan Barella on May 9, 2010 3:54 PM

Hi Dan,

I'll write a post soon going into greater depth about my audition (thanks for giving me a post topic!) but the short of it is that the auditions are pretty formal. There's a table with 3-5 faculty with clipboards and they tell you what to play and you play it and they watch you and make notes. It's not a comfortable experience though they're friendly people and they won't try to scare you...they probably won't try to do or say anything, save to instruct you on what to play and, sometimes, how to play it. ("Trade with the drummer" or "put a solo chorus intro on it", etc.) In a lot of ways they're as much interested in your ability to think on your feet as they are in your technical abilities.

There's no way for me, or for anyone else, to tell you if you're good enough to get in here. I didn't even bother to audition when I was in high school: I came from a small somewhat rural area where I didn't really have any way to compare my playing abilities to those of other 18-year-olds. So my natural assumption was to assume that if I could do it, chances are lots of other people could too. When I got here, I realized that I would be more competitive than I'd originally thought (though I was, and remain, the worst drummer in the program).

My admissions advice is simply to not think about it at all. Shoot first, then shoot again, then reload, then shoot even more, and then ask questions.

Posted by: Will on May 9, 2010 5:07 PM

Hey Will
Im going to be a junior and high school and i am very interested in music. I play in my school's jazz band and i am also a drummer. however, i am not interested in continueing jazz drumming. i was wondering, does Oberlin offer there practice rooms for people not in the conservatory. also does the conservatory offer and contemporary music class's? i am interested in rock drumming mainly and would like to continue that. I also here that oberlin is great if you want to join a band and enjoy that, is that true? Also, besides playing rock drum's i wanted to focus in on radio broadcasting is that big at oberlin?

But with admissions, i have alright grades and do you think its really hard to get admitted. Also does the conservatory offer any other drum majors that is not jazz?


Posted by: Alex Antiuk on July 17, 2010 3:37 PM

Hey Will,
First off, I love your blog posts! They're so real and honest. They're brilliant to read.
Moving on to the question I have - Oberlin, with its Conservatory, attracts students who are musically proficient and play instruments and/or sing.
Aside from carrying around my iPod wherever I go, I do not really have any musical inclinations as such. Would I be a bad fit for Oberlin as viewed by the student community and the admissions officers? I am applying as a liberal-arts hopeful only, and not anything to do with music.

Posted by: Shreya on December 22, 2010 1:16 AM

I am a junior now at a high school in West Chester. I want to pursue jazz/classical trumpet performance, and am looking at Oberlin, Temple, West Chester, Berklee, Curtis (hopefully). Is the online theory test hard? Also, is Oberlin good if I'm looking at jazz AND classical performance?


Posted by: Mason on June 20, 2011 1:52 PM

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