Why people don't experiment and how Oberlin finds those musicians that do
Photos provided by Tom Lopez
Founded in 1865, Oberlin Conservatory of Music is the oldest operating conservatory in the United States. It is also, as stated on its website, "the only major music school in the country that shares a seamless campus with a liberal arts college," which gives its musicians an opportunity to complete a Double Degree program. Having a student body of 450 students in the institution, with more than 180 of them being double degree majors, the facilities offered at the all-Steinway school are truly mind-blowing: 150 practice rooms, 7 electronic music studios, 11 performance venues, 32 organs, more than 240 Steinways at your fingertips, to name a few.

If the above information didn't make your jaw drop a little, Oberlin was also one of the first to start a department dedicated to music technology — in fact, it has been teaching classes on electronic music since 1969. "We have a long history of working with technology," begins Tom Lopez, Associate Professor of Computer Music and Digital Arts, Chair of TIMARA. This attracts an applicant pool from all around the world, albeit there are currently about 30 TIMARA majors.
Talking about Double Degree students, Tom explains that many who are majoring in electronic music are also focusing in fields such as computer science, film, environmental science, neuroscience, physics and geology. What makes TIMARA a compelling program is that as a young composer, you are given a myriad of possibilities to create and collaborate with not only world-class performers, but also other artists. "The future of composition is going to be tied to other art forms — opportunities to survive as just a freelance composer and write orchestral music are diminishing," the professor believes, which is why so much emphasis is placed on experimentation in and out of class.
"On the other hand, if you are interested and willing to compose music that might get used for dance, film, video game or websites, you have many more opportunities for your music to move into the world."
Although a technology program, TIMARA doesn't expect much experience in computer music from its applicants. "Most kids are growing up with so much technology already and it's very easy to teach new technological tools, [but] it's very difficult to teach musicality and creativity by the time they get to conservatory level," Lopez elucidates, telling me that the latter two are the traits he looks for to develop further.

Every time I ask a professor how they determine whether someone has potential or the imagination, I get roughly the same answer: a portfolio with "unsuccessful pieces" written by one who thinks outside the box. The world is full of people who experiment and do interesting things, yet music schools only admit so many of them. How do you know you admitted the most creative students? The reply that I get quite shocks me — unfortunately, there aren't that many people willing to do that. "If an applicant submits the same style or genre of four different versions, it doesn't matter how well composed they are. For me, that signals a very narrow path of interest and experience," Tom admits. "I'd much rather hear unsuccessful pieces with wildly different approaches… that variety is a good sign."

Pondering on why exactly young musicians don't experiment and aren't creative, the professor says the reason is that it's scary. "It's like putting your soul out for critique," he continues. "Even going to the premiere is like having a child performing at a recital and you want them to be successful — will the audience applaud or will they boo?" That can, however, be debilitating if you're constantly thinking about how others will react to your piece, and you end up producing something not for yourself, but for a non-existent audience.
This is why in the TIMARA program, undergraduates have, in the professor's words, free reign in terms of what they compose or in what styles they choose, which is why their recitals have more variety compared to a traditional composition program. For instance, a February performance, that was run by two students outside, featured eight speakers, four video projectors and a program that could generate a combination of the natural sounds of insects and synthesized sounds. At the same time, musicians have access to everything from sound spatialization rooms to the Makerspace, which is famous for its textiles class where you can build circuits into clothing and actually wear your synthesizer.

A key feature in the department's curriculum is that instead of having a traditional academic year split into two semesters, it also offers a special winter semester called Winter Term. During this period of three to four weeks, composers can do anything they want — launch projects, build circuits, release albums — as long as they can find a faculty member to sponsor their endeavor. It's an academic requirement where you need to complete three winter terms before you graduate, and you also earn academic credit for it while honing your skills. Essentially, this provides a lot of valuable time for students to focus on their passion projects.

At Oberlin, it isn't so much about helping students come up with ideas — they do that naturally — but more so assisting and encouraging them to take those concepts and bring them into the world. "[Oberlin] is filled with students and faculty who encourage that kind of thinking, and suddenly it's not so difficult to turn those interesting experiment[s] into reality because you're surrounded by people who are excited [to do that]," Tom shares.
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