But I only wanted to practice! Part 2: Oberlin Conservatory, Ohio, USA

Oberlin Conservatory, Oberlin OH, USA
(Accurate as of May 2015)

Nestled between cornfields is the first institution that I’ll explore this week: Oberlin College and Conservatory in Oberlin, Ohio, USA. For a town with a population of 8,000, the 3,000 students cause quite a stir when they add more than a third to that population upon arriving in September and take it away again when they depart in May — quite a lot of people arriving and departing twice a year! I always quip that “there is little to do in Oberlin besides practice and study” and while this is a (slight) exaggeration, the organ practicing facilities make it easy to do just that.

Practice facilities : 14 separate practice rooms / 14 practice organs
– mostly 2-manuals. one 1-manual.
– mostly tracker/mechanical action, but a few instruments with electro-pneumatic action
– mostly concave and radiating (AGO/RCO) or flat pedalboards
– one organ with swell shoe
– mostly full compass instruments (61 notes on manuals and 32 notes in pedal)
– two instruments with short octaves in the manual and pedal

Building hours: daily 7:30AM – 12:00AM (curtailed on holidays or vacations)

Number of students: approximately 15-20

Availability: always available, no sign-up needed for practice spaces

Piano practice rooms freely available, although sometimes one had to do a few “rounds” to find a free one as an instrumentalist or vocalist was leaving!

Never having to wait or sign up for a practice room is a blessing that I never appreciated until I had to do both. Oberlin’s resources are pretty incredible: not only are there nearly as many instruments as students, these instruments are themselves excellent teachers. Carefully maintained by the university’s organ curator, the practice organs are used and used well.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Oberlin played host to approximately 60 organ students, for which this quantity of instruments was essential! Stories abound of having to wait in the hallways with hopes that somebody might abandon a practice so another student can have a few hours of practice, as I believe there was no sign-up process to reserve rooms (correct me if I’m wrong!). Since many organists these days are, like me, Double Degree students (where they pursue both a Bachelor of Arts and a Bachelor of Music degree simultaneously), the proliferation of instruments makes a seemingly impossible situation possible: it allows us to practice when we have a few spare seconds, instead of having to spend the entire day doing homework in the hallway while waiting for a free room!



In addition to the practice facilities, the performance facilities on campus can be reserved in advance for an hour or two per day by signing up at the conservatory.

(A thousand thanks to Matthew Dion for the photos of Oberlin’s practice rooms!)


Performance/practice facilities (on campus):
– 1974 Flentrop III/P/44 in Warner Concert Hall (North German Baroque-inspired)
– 2001 Fisk, Op. 116 III/P/57 in Finney Chapel (French Cavaillé-Coll-inspired)
– 1981 Brombaugh II/P/15 in Fairchild Chapel (17th-century German/Dutch style, meantone)
– 1984 Bozeman & Gibson, Op. 24 II/P/23 in Peace Community Church (Bach/Silbermann-inspired)

Performance/practice facilities (in town):
– Brombaugh organ in the First United Methodist Church (North German Baroque)
– Gober organ in First Church of Oberlin (tracker, German-inspired)

Spaces like Finney Chapel and Warner Concert Hall are busy with numerous performances by a myriad of instrumentalists and vocalists throughout the semester, especially in November/December and April/May, but Fairchild Chapel (with the Brombaugh organ) is very often available, and arrangements can be made to practice in the local churches – or, if one is desperate, they can practice on the instrument at their church, since most students work at churches throughout Lorain County.


Even ideal situations have some omissions or drawbacks, and Oberlin is not an exception in this. What the campus does rather obviously lack are instruments in both the English and American styles – rather striking for an English-speaking school! Through the mid- and late 20th century, when most of Oberlin’s instruments were installed, the fashion was to look towards northern Europe for instrumental inspiration. This is evidenced by the fact that 3/4ths of the performance organs give obvious nods to Dutch and German organbuilding styles. When a student graduates, they have had limited exposure to instruments with divisional pistons or electro-pneumatic action (at least on performance instruments in the case of the latter). When thrown “into the deep end” of Anglican choral accompaniment, English organ repertoire, or perhaps given a bit of Leo Sowerby, a student with a solid basis of Bach, Sweelinck, Weckmann, and Mendelssohn may have to do a bit of research before settling in comfortably.

The Fisk in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel gives an opportunity to use divisional pistons, but since it is built “in the French style” (where one can use the pedal ventils* to play a Widor or Vierne Symphony), there are no toe studs. The only option for changing stops with the feet in “American mode” was to use the sequencer. Some students did take advantage of the “French mode,” but many of us simply used the sequencer in the pedal and manual for everything, not necessarily knowing that there were important techniques to learn for work after graduation!

What Oberlin does give is a solid foundation of learning from instruments in this northern Europe style, as well as nearly unlimited practice time. The majority of the students are undergraduates, so in the “prime time” for creating a solid foundation of technique and style.


*Ventils are a method for quickly changing sounds while playing the organ, primarily found in 19th-century French organs. Before technology allowed organists to save their personal registrations and quickly change stops/sounds with merely the touch of a button, organbuilders would place some pipes (the louder and higher ones, such as trompettes, mixtures, etc.) on a separate wind chest, the wind of which was controlled by a foot lever above the organist’s pedals. When the organist wanted to add some of these stops in the middle of a piece, he would draw the stops for theses sounds, then engage the foot lever at the opportune moment, causing air to rush into the windchest of the other stops, allowing them to speak and thus adding extra sound without lifting a hand from the keys! Many French instruments still have this system as the only option for stop additions.


3 thoughts on “But I only wanted to practice! Part 2: Oberlin Conservatory, Ohio, USA

  1. Ann Carney says:

    I look forward to reading the rest of this series! Just one note for your instrument list: there is also the new “Spanish” organ in Warner Concert Hall. I have seen photos but don’t have the specifications. Perhaps others who read this will.

    1. Absolutely, and thank you so much for this comment, Ann!
      I had indeed heard of this acquisition, but it was not there when I attended Oberlin; this is the state of the available instruments when I was personally on campus (without a trip back to each school I’m describing, it would be challenging to feel as though I were properly presenting its current resources). This description should be accurate as of May 2015. Hopefully those visiting Oberlin will see your addition and add it to their list of “things to see!”

  2. Ann Carney says:

    I remember sitting on the floor in Robertson waiting for a practice organ to open up—and debating how long a person could leave on a break before their room was considered up for grabs. A classmate reminds me that there was a period when advance sign-up was required. The rooms were not kept locked then, as they are now.

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