College Musicians Flourish as Musical Studies Major Evolves

The Musical Studies major — an option for non-Conservatory students to pursue music at a college level — has been steadily increasing in popularity for the past several years. The major has undergone numerous changes over the decades, in part to make the program more customizable.

Senior Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and co-chair of Musical Studies, Peter Swendsen, OC ’99, says that in the past two years, the major has changed to offer more flexibility for students to tailor classes to their interests. 

“Students have a wider variety of paths through the major,” he said. “Students do it for a wide variety of reasons, and we tried to reflect this in the new requirements that better support that kind of journey and discovery.”

While students majoring in Musical Studies are required to complete some basic music theory and music history courses, they are free to pursue their electives, ensembles, and upper-level requirements in a variety of ways. Conservatory and double-degree students have specific requirements that are tied to their performance, composition, or other major, but Musical Studies students have more flexibility. The major allows students to informally concentrate on areas that may not be offered as majors, such as conducting or music education.

In addition to making changes to the Musical Studies program to make declared majors’ lives easier, the College began offering a Music minor in fall 2020,  as well as encouraging College students who are not majors or minors to participate in music classes, ensembles, and lessons at the Conservatory. 

This expansion of College music possibilities creates a plethora of possibilities, Swendsen explained. It allows students to sample a few classes initially and then add more depending on their interest level. 

College musicians pursue a myriad of paths and degrees of commitment in their musical endeavors. Third-year Computer Science major and Musical Studies minor Becky McQuilken originally intended on completing the Musical Studies major, but between having difficulty registering for courses and fitting them into her schedule, as well as the curriculum alterations, her plans changed.

“I just kind of hit a stopping point where [I thought], ‘I don’t really think I want to take this much farther, and it’d be a lot more effort and time away from something I’m really passionate about — computer science,” McQuilken said. “I just decided I have enough for a minor right now, and I’m kind of happy with that.”

Now with a completed minor, McQuilken beatboxes in her acapella group Nothing But Treble and arranges songs with skills from the Composition for Non-Majors class she took. In addition to her minor, she finds other extracurricular opportunities to perform and engage with music.

Fourth-year Musical Studies and History major Vikram Perry notes that while the Musical Studies major is undergoing many positive changes, College musicians still face some challenges navigating the Conservatory.

“Oberlin advertises the Conservatory as a way for College students to involve themselves in music,” Perry said. “That’s a big pull for a lot of College students, and the programming in the Conservatory is not always set up to let College students be a part of it.” 

Perry points out that many of the recent projects by the Oberlin Arts & Sciences Orchestra, including adding the Music minor in the fall 2020 semester, are both steps in fulfilling the promises that prospective students are given.

While many ensembles are open to all students, auditioned ensembles can frequently be difficult to get into. Some students audition multiple times and still do not get in — an especially large issue for Musical Studies majors and Music minors who need an ensemble to fulfill their curriculum requirements. While there are non-auditioned ensembles students may participate in, some find  those opportunities to be limiting. It can take several semesters of auditioning for anything to come to fruition. 

Since the recent changes in the major, the number of declared Musical Studies majors has increased dramatically: from 23 in fall 2019 to 49 currently. About half of the current 49 are double-majors, representing 18 other departments across the College and opening doors for interdisciplinary study and performance.