{ Why I quit the Obertones and other stories by Simba Runyowa }

I love singing. In high school my favourite activity of all time was undoubtedly choir. I went to a Christian, private boarding school in Marondera, Zimbabwe, a small farming town renowned for producing high quality beef and assorted crops. The school itself, the bombastically named "Watershed College" (how posh), was nestled in the middle of a grassy veld outstandingly far away from any discernable town or city, and ironically, very far from any discernable water source. (We had water shortages throughout.)

Watershed, while academically excellent, was also a source of unspeakable boredom. There was perhaps one combination butchery and convenience store or so several million kilometres along the highway, but best of luck with trying to escape the electrocuted fences of the school's campus to get to it.

Opportunities for any form of sensible leisure activities were few and far between. They forced us to play all manner of sports including rugby, which I hated with a satanic passion. The fact that it was mandatory sapped all the fun out of it, at least for me.

Therefore, to escape the brain-melting boredom of boarding school (and rugby practices), I turned to music. I was in the school's jazz band and played piano during Sunday chapel services (mandatory, singing of hymns also mandatory.) My favorite thing, however, was singing in the college choir. My teachers were wonderful and taught us a lot of western music in addition to African music. The choruses from Handel's "Messiah" became our specialty. We delivered it almost flawlessly at the various Christmas carol concerts in the area. Hallelujah. For Unto Us A Child is Born. In African accents. You be the judge.

So when I came to Oberlin, the first thing I did was seek out the music, the singing. I auditioned for the Obertones (Oberlin's only all-male a cappella group!) and sang Sh Boom Sh Boom (Life Could be A Dream) by the Crew Cuts. There were about 7 or 8 guys, each furiously scribbling down comments as I sang, all of them intimidating to my fresh-personly eyes. I hurriedly blew out my song and left in a huff, convinced I had done calamitously bad.

Apparently I hadn't done so bad, because to my surprise I got an email from them summoning me back to Bibbins for a second round of auditions. I was pretty ecstatic. This time, they gave us a score and we had to learn the music in about a week's time. In the second audition, the guys were very cordial and warm and disarming. I made some mistakes and they diffused them and made me feel comfortable. A couple of days later I received an email saying I had got in. It was a very circuitous, sci-fi inspired email which argued that my blood had been tested and the results had come back positive for some bizarre chemical which is supposed to be found in all Obertones. That was hilarious to me, and so I decided quite easily that I had to be in the Obertones.

I enjoyed my time singing with the Obertones immensely. Our rehearsals were usually two nights a week for two hours, and then one on Saturday or Sunday for two hours. We met to discuss scores, learn the music bar by bar, and perfect our technique and distill the group sound. This always came with a heaped tablespoon of shenanigans on the side, which made rehearsals fun and hilarious. We toured the East Coast, went to competitions, sang at high schools, in Finney Chapel, at old people's homes, at the Cherry Blossom Festival, at people's homes, on the streets of New York, on trains, in Cleveland, at commencement, in vans, in barns, everywhere. We even recorded an album (Game of Tones, available on iTunes. You heard it here first, y'all). I had a good run with the guys. I met incredible people. Each of the Obertones was a talented musician. Each a beautiful person. I learned a lot about music, people, and bro culture. It was an experience.

However, this summer I quit the Obertones. I quit because it became overwhelming. While I love singing with a satanic passion, the commitment to practising 6 hours a week became tedious. Especially because our rehearsals tended to be during my most productive time slot (nights), it became difficult to "squeeze in" my academic work in between the rehearsing. I realised that there was something back to front about the order of my priorities.

By the end of my sophomore year, I was spent. Physically and psychologically, I was overstretched. Between my academics, holding a campus job, being an RA, doing community service for the Bonner Scholars Program, and the acapella group, I was coming apart at the seams. Something(s) had to give.

During the summer break, I had a long and hard think about what my priorities should be going into my junior year. I came to the conclusion that it was time for me to streamline my college life. I didn't need it to be so frenzied and relentlessly busy. So I made a list of what mattered. It mattered to me to continue to do well in school. It mattered to me to build skills that would help in my future career. I realised and then accepted that unmitigated busyness was not equivalent to productivity, but a threat to it. Even though I loved singing, I could not afford to do it anymore because it was not a priority in the grander scheme of things/my life. I learned that sometimes even doing something you love is a luxury that you should be prepared to sacrifice when faced with the exigencies of the bigger picture.

So the Obertones became the first casualty of my restructuring exercise. I also quit being a Resident Assistant in Dascomb. I'm sad that I lost the community and comfort of those places, but at the same time, I am glad for the level of sanity that I have achieved by cutting back. I'm still astonishingly busy despite these measures, but at least I have found that I have more time to focus on the things that matter (and more time to spend with friends). I don't regret it because it freed me up to be a better person to myself and those around me. I think I'm all the better for it.


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{ Responses To This Entry }

The sophomore year reassessment/cutback is a part of college. Congratulations on this rite of passage, even in how incredibly difficult it much have been for you.

Also, I love love LOVE the different ways long-standing Oberlin groups welcome their new members, and somehow I am completely unsurprised that your "You're in!" message involved chemistry (the legacy of Kevin Hu '11 lives on!).

Posted by: Ma'ayan on October 25, 2013 10:28 AM


The every year reassessment should be a part of college! Especially in a place like Oberlin, where the student culture is so manically about doing all the things all the time. I second Ma'ayan: it's hard. (I'm doing it, too.) Congratulations on your courage.

I love the in-group traditions on campus, too; I love the way that we self-select into little families. You mentioned community and comfort you're giving up by doing less things, and that rings true, but in my case, I've found that cutting back has let me build a deeper - rather than wider - support system. I hope that's true for you, too. Good luck.

Posted by: Ida on October 25, 2013 3:35 PM




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