Con Opens Doors to College Musicians with New Jazz Ensemble

Sam Rueckert

As an aspiring musician who has recently committed to taking every possible musical opportunity, I now realize that I have very little experience with auditioning. Yesterday I went to my second real audition since I’ve gotten to Oberlin.

My friend Justin invited me to audition to drum in a jazz combo for which he is the pianist. The combo is a new experiment for the Conservatory: It’s the first Conservatory-sponsored jazz ensemble consisting of only College students. I knew I would be competing against my friend Cole for the place in the combo. Having seen Cole drum before, I was pretty certain that I wouldn’t have much of a chance at winning the spot. I’ve practiced a lot this year and have gotten confident in my playing (especially after having a lot of time to practice over Winter Term), but Cole is at the point where I ideally want to be in two years — or less, hopefully. Furthermore, I’m friends with both Cole and Justin, and I was a bit nervous about the awkwardness of auditioning with one friend to be in another friend’s group.

All of that aside, I convinced myself to go in for the audition. I reasoned that I should practice being in the mindset of seeking out every musical opportunity I can, even though I was pretty certain I would not be selected for the ensemble. I did a similar thing in auditioning for OSteel last spring; I had little knowledge of steel drum music or the organization and little experience playing in groups, so I really had no expectation of getting in. In fact, at the time, I hardly considered myself a drummer. But somehow I got lucky, and by September, I was their full-time kit player.

So, trying to remain positive, I got to the audition room and was met by the group’s singer, Cordelia. Soon enough, the rest of the combo and Bobby Ferrazza, the director of Oberlin’s Jazz program, showed up.

The audition simply involved playing along with the band to one of the songs in their repertoire (“Love You Madly,” a song which I’d heard maybe once before). Cole went first and played as well as I had anticipated him to. He knew how to follow the cues of the band and used fills that I was unfamiliar with. However, I was relatively calm when it was my turn to start.

I confirmed the tempo with Justin and counted the group in. It then occurred to me that I had never actually played jazz on drums with a group before; I had never even really tried playing along to jazz while practicing. Fortunately, I knew some basic grooves that I had messed around with before, so I could hold the song together, but not much more than that. I made a few mistakes and didn’t find room for many fills but was able to get through the song okay.

One lesson I learned from the audition was to try to familiarize myself with the music I would be playing beforehand. Of course, I couldn’t have predicted the exact song they would ask me to play, but I could have at least tried to get comfortable with playing the genre, so that I could focus on perfecting my strokes rather than just staying afloat. OSteel had sent me some of their songs before their audition, so I was able to get a sense of what kind of playing was necessary for the genre. I focused more on feel and listening to the band in that audition. I don’t mean to say I regret not preparing for this audition, as I really had no idea what the audition would be like. But now I know, and I think that is valuable in itself. Needless to say, I did not get the part.

Bobby and the group, however, were extremely gracious and encouraging. Bobby explained what gave Cole an edge in the audition but encouraged me to keep practicing. He explained that the College ensemble was an effort of the Jazz department to give more opportunity to College students to play and that I should audition again come fall.

One important realization I had was that, just by showing up for the audition, I was opening up doors for myself. Just by being there, I demonstrated my interest and had the possibility of being in a combo in the future. The same thing happened with my audition for OSteel last year; I never would have thought I would be picked, but here I am a year later, regularly playing gigs with OSteel and preparing to tour over spring break.

The experience also changed my perception of the Conservatory overall. From having talked to students from both the Conservatory and the College — and from being a Musical Studies major — I was under the impression that the Conservatory was not interested in working with College students. But after talking to Bobby, it seems that he has a genuine interest in helping all students improve their musical skills.