Roots Residency Brings Punch Brothers Back to Campus

Sam Rueckert, Staff Writer

In a Bibbins Hall classroom, Punch Brothers banjoist Noam Pikelny and singer-songwriter Aoife O’Donovan sat amid the muffled sounds of various instruments and voices echoing through the hallway. “[There’s] something very inspiring about being in the confines of a building like this [and] seeing everybody working with such focus on furthering themselves as artists and as people,” Pikelny said. “I have this real sense of jeal ousy that that wasn’t what my college experience was like.”

Given that Pikelny completed his sixth visit to campus in the last three years with the band last week, it seems like he may be getting a taste of that experience anyway. Punch Brothers and O’Donovan began their residency on Monday with a listening party where the band and O’Donovan discussed their favorite music. They also gave a professional development talk and held workshops in songwriting, chamber music, fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, ear training and bluegrass. The band and O’Donovan also led a packed room of musicians and music lovers in a jam session in the Conservatory lounge on Tuesday night.

O’Donovan, who visited Oberlin as a guest artist with the Punch Brothers, agreed with Pikelny, saying that the group’s continued residencies are beneficial to everyone involved. “My best teachers were the ones that came in with the approach that [growing as a musician] is a collaborative thing,” O’Donovan said. “I think that being in an academic environment is just really special.”

Punch Brothers’ repeated visits, along with O’Donovan’s guest feature last week, are thanks to the American Roots Residency Fund, founded by bluegrass musician and actor Ed Helms, OC ’96. “Ed donated with the hope of this program getting started, [and] he gave [the College] a list of various people to contact, and we were the first people that came as part of the program,” Pikelny said. “As it … expanded, one of [Oberlin’s] … goals was to bring in new people, and Aoife was the first person outside of Punch Brothers to be here as a guest of the American Roots [Residency] program.”

O’Donovan, whom Pikelny described as a “natural choice” for a guest musician, is best known for her role as lead singer of the bluegrassfolk band Crooked Still. A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, O’Donovan’s musical career expands beyond that band. However, she has also enjoyed a fruitful solo career and collaborated with well-known artists like Sara Watkins and Yo-Yo Ma, not to mention Punch Brothers, of which she is the self-described “annoying little sister.” Despite having already established herself as an artist, her visits to Oberlin have played a valuable role in the evolution of her flourishing career. “I’m just so excited to be here,” she said. “Maybe [Oberlin is] just an environment of positivity, which is … something I really enjoy, living in a world I [often] find to be way overly negative.”

Students across departments said they have benefited from the Punch Brothers’ residencies. In an email to the Review, College junior and singer-songwriter Rob Jamner said the residencies “have given [him] a lot of new strategies for approaching songwriting and performance.” As one of many serious musicians at Oberlin but one whose aesthetic does not fit into a standard musical category, Jamner cited jam sessions with the ensemble as motivation to practice guitar regularly and to actively seek out collaborators at Oberlin.

Double-degree senior Emily Kuhn also said that she appreciates how Helm’s funding has allowed Punch Brothers to return over the past few years, allowing students to create long-term connections with them. “This time they came,

they were able to coach all the classical chamber groups, which is something that they probably wouldn’t do if they just came and did a master class once and left,” she said. “So I think a really beneficial part of their residency is that they’ve been able to have a continued presence. They’re also really good at giving master classes that are aimed at a wide audience. I think Chris Thile especially is just very good at communicating, but really all of them are just really good at communicating and getting their point across in a way that people can understand it.”

Pikelny said that in the future he hopes the College will continue to bring in musicians from diverse music genres. “I think looking down the road, at least from the conversations I’ve had with the administration, [one] of their ultimate goals is for Oberlin to be a welcoming place … [to] great musicians … that don’t fall neatly into oneof[their]programs,”hesaid.Thatideawas set into motion this week: Musical Studies majors met with Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Eldridge to discuss how to improve as musicians. Additionally, Punch Brothers had the opportunity to work with the Conservatory’s Performance and Improvisation groups led by Professor of Advanced Improvisation and Percussion Jamey Haddad. “The PI ensembles try to reinforce that … great music is more similar than dissimilar,” Pikelny said.

Kuhn also said Punch Brothers have brought students together from the Conservatory’s classical and jazz performance departments. “There’s the classical Con, and then there’s the Kohl building, and they’re just these separate universes,” she said. “So I think it’s nice for everyone to be exposed to different things. I think it’s good for classical majors because they do play this style of music that’s very improvisatory. It’s very spontaneous, and it’s great for jazz musicians to hear improvising in a very different context from what they’re used to.”