Conservatory Unveils New Graduate Degree Program

From The Oberlin Review:

The New York Times has dubbed Oberlin Conservatory “a hotbed of contemporary players” and an “experimental haven” with good reason. Innovative groups like eighth blackbird and the International Contemporary Ensemble were created here, and most Conservatory students are involved with new music at some point in their studies. To continue and expand upon that forward-thinking tradition, the Conservatory is launching a new graduate degree program, the Master of Contemporary Chamber Music.

The two-year, full-tuition scholarship program is for an existing ensemble rather than an individual focusing on contemporary performance, according to Tim Weiss, the director of Oberlin’s Contemporary Music Ensemble. One ensemble of three to seven members with any instrumentation will be accepted per year. Weiss, one of the main professors involved in the program, emphasized that Oberlin wants to maintain a high quality program, and thus will not accept any group if the candidates do not meet the faculty’s standards.

“We want great artists both in their commitment to themselves as a group, but also individually as well,” Weiss said. To ensure that, members of an ensemble must audition both on their individual instruments both separately and as a group. The audition also includes an ensemble interview by a committee made up of Conservatory faculty members from a range of departments, and applicants must submit examples of academic writing about music. These requirements help ensure that the ensemble is not only musically talented but also possesses entrepreneurial and outreach skills.

For an ensemble to be successful and connect with the public today, its musicians must be able to explain and market their craft, especially with newer works, Weiss said. The MCCM program will develop these skills by helping ensembles create interesting concert programs, write program notes and engage with an audience. All of that will be put into practice in the program’s three required recitals, one of which must be off-campus.

The ensemble’s musical talent will be further developed through individual private study and ensemble coaching. Since there will be only one ensemble accepted per year, the program is flexible and can adapt to a group’s particular needs based on instrumentation or repertoire focus. MCCM students will not play in large Conservatory ensembles such as the Oberlin Orchestra to prevent distraction by other performances, avoid the loss of opportunities for undergraduates to play in large ensembles and allow the group to grow as a cohesive unit.

The program will “help groups incubate, and give them a launchpad,” Weiss said. He also said the relative isolation of Oberlin is actually an advantage: Living costs are fairly low, musicians don’t have to take the subway to rehearsal, there are fewer distractions and ensembles will have their own designated practice space where they can maintain their setup.

A Conservatory press release says the MCCM program is “designed to launch chamber music ensembles of exceptional artistic and creative potential toward careers of innovative distinction.” It will aid in jumpstarting those careers through faculty and alumni mentoring, high quality promotional recordings and providing access to financial resources for touring and competitions. After receiving a degree, ensembles may also apply for startup grants through Oberlin’s Creativity and Leadership Project.

“Oberlin has had success [in producing contemporary ensembles] before,” Weiss said. “I think small ensembles will represent a very large part of the future contemporary classical music landscape. They’re malleable, transplantable, they travel easily, they have low overhead and they have proven to be very successful in the market.”

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