Oberlin vocal studies for non-conservatory students?

My daughter applied to the double degree program but was not invited to audition for the conservatory. She was admitted to the college, and is now choosing between Oberlin, Dickinson, and Kenyon. She didn’t apply to any other conservatories, as she knew she wanted to combine music with another field (physics/astrophysics), and will double-major.

The question now – as a non-conservatory student, will her options in vocal performance be limited, compared to other schools? For example, she can audition for faculty lessons, but may not be selected, in which case she’ll be taking lessons with a student. At other schools, she’ll be taking lessons with faculty, but comparing Oberlin conservatory faculty to other LAC faculty in music isn’t apples-to-apples. She may not get into the faculty-directed college choirs, whereas she is virtually guaranteed to be in the college choirs at the other colleges. At Oberlin, she’ll be surrounded by musical performances and events, whereas that won’t be the case elsewhere. At other schools, she’ll be a star (she has been throughout high school), whereas at Oberlin she’ll be a second class citizen (in vocal performance). Conservatory students will have first crack at slots in classes, but on the other hand there are a lot more music courses offered. Love to hear the thoughts of current students or parents, especially those who have studied music as a non-conservatory student.

Happy to hear non-music-related thoughts about the Oberlin/Kenyon/Dickinson decision, as well!


My D was somewhat of a superstar vocalist in her HS. She was involved in arts/music practically all her life from elementary school. I have no doubt in my mind she was admitted to Oberlin (College of Arts and Sciences) partly on the strength of her involvement in arts and music. At Oberlin, however, where vocal music competes with seriously high level music, my D said she just can’t compete with the “ridiculously talented” Con students.

I also remember reading some of the Oberlin (College of Arts and Sciences) graduates (was it the famous 20th century American philosopher Willard Quine?) who said they were overwhelmed AND inspired by Con students who practiced their instruments 6-8 hrs a day to become professionals they were to eventually become.

Congratulations to your D @amcquilk on her wonderful acceptances! My D is finishing up her first year as a VP major in the Conservatory at Oberlin. I think that D’s teacher has one student in her studio (an upperclassman) who is not in the Conservatory…a male. And the College Choir (all the VP Freshman and Sophomores are required to be in the College Choir) has several non-Con kids (again, mostly males!). So, I do see a trend here… But there is a non-Con Choir, The Musical Union, that focuses on SPECTACULAR works, often with full orchestra, and often performs with the College Choir (so I do not think your D could go wrong here). The College Choir works through a LOT of rep, and fast, and is certainly a training choir for professional singers, I would say. They have regular individual part check and sight singing appointments with the conductor, as well, and do a cappella singing as well as works with orchestra and small ensembles. They work tricky modern rep, too.

Oberlin has such a fluid mix of music through the Conservatory and College… often, musical opportunities spring up and include kids from both. As a singer, if your D is interested in MT, there are multiple student led productions every year for her to audition into. I think she would be pleasantly surprised at how musically inclined and literate the student body of Oberlin is! Having said all this, I am sure you know that VP at Oberlin is top notch, and attracts some of the biggest talent around… we have been so happy with the very warm and supportive vibe within the Con and within Studios. I’m not sure what your D’s goals are, but I would check out a couple of things: if Choir is important, I might email the conductor and ask what the chances are of being placed in the College Choir. If the music theory sequence is important, I’d email a Con Dean and ask about availability of those classes to a College Student. I think language classes will be accessible for your D with no problem, but the Diction sequence may be another issue; again, I’d include a question about this to a Conservatory Dean. As to lessons, you can be assured that a student teacher will be a high level one (with excellent training), but they would still be a student. So that is something to factor in, for sure. Also, there is a Student NATS Chapter at Oberlin, which I believe your D would have access to… I’m just mentioning things that I think might interest your D. Best of luck on the decisions! Feel free to ask me any questions you may have,

Also interested in this conversation! My son is admitted to class of 2022, planning major in chemistry or physics (maybe future classmates?). He has been a “star” bassist in high school - jazz and classical - but also wants to get more involved vocally in college, probably through choirs and ensembles rather than solo work. I’ve had many of the same questions about his opportunities to participate at Oberlin in particular. He certainly has been impressed by the performances he’s seen, and he loves being surrounded by such musical people. My feel right now is that even the “less-selective” groups at Oberlin are still pretty amazing, and that your daughter would still get great opportunities - both formally and informally - but it’s great to hear from people currently having the experience!

Congratulations @amcquilk and @Launching ! My D is also finishing her first year as a vocal performance major at the conservatory. @dramasopranomom is spot on with the ensemble opportunities (hi dramasopranomom!) at Oberlin. I would like to add that each year (it might be each semester) certain vocal teachers have auditions for secondary lessons to non vocal performance students depending on availability so you might want to check on that. Good luck to both of you during the decision making. Amcquilk, those are some outstanding choices for your daughter. Obvioiusly I’m biased on Oberlin, but she cannot go wrong with any of those choices. Launching, your S seems bright and talented so I assume he also has great choices. Wishing you both the best for your children!

You asked for non-music opinions, too. As much as I love Kenyon, I would not pick it for physics. The department is tiny. My D2 was a Physics major, and was accepted at Kenyon. She applied before she realized she wanted to major in Physics.

My D1 (not STEM) attended Dickinson and had a great experience. PM me if you want details.

You all have so many great options, and for sure, the question of whether or not to choose a place where your child can remain the “star” (or at least not shut out of opportunities) is highly individual! Opportunity is important, and there is no wrong answer! Even amongst the VP Conservatory majors at Oberlin, I will suggest there are really no “stars”; there is so much incredible talent and every musician has their individual voice! Oberlin is a special place (I know I am also biased…hi @coloraturadad !) and I think you’d have a hard time finding another school with such an integrated mix of curious academia and passionate artists. Just for example, the Musical Union and Arts and Science Orchestra have a May concert which includes Brahms: 2 Motets, Op. 74, and Brahms: Schicksalslied, Op. 54 (I mean, listen to these online…so gorgeous!), and in just a few weeks, they are performing along with the College Choir the following selections: Witold Lutosławski: Variations on a Theme by Paganini, Op. 3 (Hyeonseo Lee, piano) and Billy Childs: Voices of Angels (2005) (La Tanya Hall and Celine Opdycke, vocal soloists)… As far as I can see, the Conductor is Professor Ristow, who also leads the College Choir, so clearly high level faculty are available to these students as well. In terms of Opera roles and even Opera Chorus, honestly I think this would be a huge reach for a non Con student-the competition is stiff- but who knows?!? I am less certain about Jazz opportunities @Launching ! @amcquilk, if you are interested, I may be able to help facilitate your D talking with the non-Con vocalist who studies with my D’s teacher…just let me know. @StJohnny , hahaha (and, sigh)! If it makes you feel any better, I think every incoming first year VP Major is a little shocked by that “ridiculous talent”, and wonders secretly if someone made an admissions mistake in their case! I hope your D is very happy at Oberlin.

If you are into music or want to perform music, you can’t go wrong with Oberlin with its world-class conservatory. There are many college-enrolled students with musical interests, and there are numerous groups described above, along with students who establish impromptu groups. There is a non-conservatory college orchestra as well. She should be able to take lessons with faculty as well. This is in addition to the hundreds of performances per year. You get inspired musically repeatedly.

My D was also a vocal star at her high school. She did not apply to the Conservatory but was counting on having access to their lessons and classes. That has not panned out. Her vocal lessons have been from students rather than professors, and although she has been pleased, the scheduling has been inconsistent. She has not been able to take music theory as the classes are full. She is very involved with the student-run musical theater association and really enjoys that. She has auditioned for department-run musical theater but hasn’t been cast. It’s been both disappointing, and a reality check. I, myself, was a music major (not at Oberlin) and remember being overwhelmed with the talent in my program and realizing I wasn’t anywhere near as accomplished nor as talented as some of my peers in the program. It was a tough reality and I think my D has had her version of that. As painful as that is, it’s an important step in growing up. My D has no regrets for her decision to attend Oberlin…she loves it. She said when she returned after summer, her “heart sang” when she saw the buildings.

Launching and amcquilk, FYI, my D was taken off the Oberlin waitlist after college days of signing had passed. She was set for Vassar when her Oberlin wait list moved. Both schools are very artsy, so there is no question that both adcoms were paying attention to their applicants. We discovered to our surprise, however, that Oberlin is very strong in sciences. Some say Oberlin sciences are on the level of Pomona, Swarthmore, Carleton… I do not know if this is true or how they even decided this… Anyway, since your kids are into sciences, my 2 cents. Oberlin is not all about music. When not engaged in acapella, various extracurriculars, peer tutoring, my D can be found lurking around the science center and the libraries.

Thanks for everyone for the input. We reached out to conservatory faculty and I was impressed at how quickly they responded with willingness to meet with my daughter. That suggests conservatory faculty do not see “college” students as unworthy of their time. At the same time, had a fabulous visit today with the Dickinson music department. I’ll report back after our visit later this week!

Senior voice parent here. College students do have access to the con. As @dramasopranomom (HI there) said, the voice department is very competitive, so there should be no expectation that your child would get an opera role, but there are MANY other performance opportunities in the choir and musical union and many student run ensembles. Musical theater options are also available through the college. The con faculty are fabulous and have been easy to communicate with IMO. I would also not underestimate the quality of instruction from the students. Voice majors are taught pedagogy and do a great job and the faculty are involved in thee process as overseers. FYI, even the voice majors take piano lessons from piano upperclassmen.

I thought it would be helpful to give an update. My daughter did end up choosing Oberlin. She LOVES it there. It is true that she is surrounded by music everywhere. She has friends in the “con”, and so is frequently invited to attend performances, recitals, etc. She got into an a capella group, and the other members have become her best friends. It is her FAVORITE thing about college. However, she did not get either faculty lessons or student lessons – we didn’t even know this was a possibility! They do have a beginning voice class, but this didn’t fit into her schedule by the time she learned of this option (last day of add/drop). Unfortunately, a long-term faculty member in voice had a stroke in August, so her students had to be split up among the remaining faculty members, and that means everyone is overloaded. They are in the process of hiring another tenure-track faculty member, but he/she won’t be starting until fall 2019. She also didn’t get into the college choir, but was encouraged to try again in the spring, and is happily singing with the Musical Union this semester.

On the other hand, she did get into both Music Theory and Aural Skills after taking the respective placement exams, and is excelling at both. Getting into the intro classes is hard, but now that she is on the path she didn’t have any trouble registering for Theory II and Aural Skills II for spring semester. She hopes to audition for the double degree program again in February, but having no teacher to work with makes this problematic.

So it’s been a mixed bag, and I think a lot will depend on whether she gets lessons this spring or next fall. If so, I will chalk it up to the unexpected faculty shortage. If not, it will suggest her music opportunities at Oberlin are truly limited.

I should mention, she is loving her physics, calculus, and freshman seminar courses, so that side of her double major is a success so far.

Another update, as I imagine there are class of 2023 kids with the same question. My daughter got faculty lessons for the spring, and is loving her lessons, and loving her theory and aural skills classes. She proposed a winter term project to prepare for con auditions, in order to transfer to the double degree program, and the con faculty were extremely supportive. We don’t know whether she will be admitted to the double degree program, but my concerns about music opportunities for non-con students have been alleviated.

D was accepted to A&S with intended major of Theatre & Dance. Is not steering toward opera/classical thus did not apply to Conservatory but was told voice lessons and con classes/minor were possible. Could one get MT style voice training or is it primarily classical training? Thank you

I found this conversation very helpful. My daughter is planning in majoring in molecular biology and wanted a minor in music, music composition and/or musical theater. She wants to be a geneticist but has been performing in theater since age 7 and also plays the violin, guitar and piano. She writes music and songs too having years of voice lessons for theater. She applied and got into the college, but didn’t apply to the conservatory because genetics is her career focus. However now I am wondering if she should have applied for the dual degree and how easy it would be to add it should she choose to do so? I don’t really like that the two programs are so divided. I would like for her to explore her interst and take classes in both biology and music as she wishes. Depending on how many AP/ dual enrollment credits they accept she should have lots of room in her schedule for music classes. I guess I just want to know how easy it will be to add a minor or pick up music or theater as a double major should she choose to do so?

TheatreMomKatie: Voice lessons in the Conservatory are primarily classical training, not musical theater. (Which is not to say that they wouldn’t be valuable for MT performers–think of Audra McDonald, or Kristin Chenoweth, or Kelli O’Hara, all of whom are classically trained.)

Yssej3: All A&S students have the option of majoring in musical studies. It would be easy to add a major in musical studies and/or theater to her major in biology–many students have two majors. Applying to the Conservatory (i.e., for the double degree program) is considerably more complicated, and normally requires staying on for a fifth year. It’s important to understand the difference between double majoring in the College and the double degree program (College + Con).

As to the surprise re: Oberlin being good for sciences… Oberlin is excellent for the Sciences. My housemate was an Honors Chemistry Major. She got her doctorate at Woods Hole, MA and then both MIT and Harvard competed to get her to come on as faculty. She is now a Harvard professor. As an undergrad at Oberlin she was able to work one on one with her professor in the lab. That won’t happen at a big university where the focus is on grad students. I loved being a college student at Oberlin and being surrounded by an abundance of amazing performances. My friends from Oberlin are life-long friends.