Sometimes, It’s Just Playing a Tambourine: Eleda Fernald on Percussion, Identity, and Joy

When Oberlin graduate Eleda Fernald thinks of drumming, she thinks of healing. “It’s kind of goofy,” she said, laughing in an interview at the end of March, but in reality, she’s realized one of the simplest and yet most complicated truths of playing music. A recent Watson Fellowship recipient, Fernald was awarded a prestigious grant given to graduating seniors for a year abroad to study their project of choice. The musician spoke at length about her life-long journey with percussion, notwithstanding a few bumps along the way. 

Music was a given in Fernald’s household in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. “It was such a normalized thing — I don’t even remember being asked if I wanted to play,” she said, adding that her sister even pursued a degree in viola at the Eastman School of Music. The percussionist looks fondly on her childhood home, where musicianship was never born out of perfectionism or discipline, but out of encouragement and a desire to learn. Cello, piano, orchestra, choir, and marching band were just a few places in which she found herself from elementary school through high school. “This is what regular kids do,” Fernald recounted fondly. “We play music all of the time!”

Fernald first played in a Balinese Gamelan ensemble at Swarthmore University, where her father teaches Linguistics, during her senior year of high school. Until then, her percussion experiences had been within a very traditional band setting. She felt inspired by the Gamelan ensemble as well as a traveling Taiko group that would annually visit Swarthmore — and would later revisit those traditions at Oberlin.

The college musician listed off all the ways she’s been involved with percussion at Oberlin: Oberlin Steel Pan and Taiko ExCo, Brazilian Ensemble, Javanese Gamelan, accompanying dance classes, and taking drumset lessons. She also studied grooves and improvisation with Jazz Professor Jamey Haddad. Additionally, she hosted an annual moving soundscape performance of Phil Kline’s “Unsilent Night” to conjure the first snow of winter, and remembers other Oberlin traditions like OSteel performing at Illumination that have all left traces of her presence on campus.   

Fernald’s track record shows how ubiquitous she has been within the college and conservatory. Yet, the times where she studied alongside classical musicians, like in Haddad’s year long “Internalizing Rhythms course,” was a mixed bag. Fernald offered a perspective outside of the Western tradition that kept her two steps ahead in terms of groove, keeping a beat, and rhythmic prowess, but when pigeonholed into the pathways other professional musicians traveled, she somehow felt one step behind. “It took quite a long time to undo that kind of mindset.”

In fact, this mindset didn’t just develop at Oberlin. Fernald had contemplated auditioning for the conservatory after her acceptance into the college because the approval of a musical institution felt like an all-or-nothing. “I had a phase of thinking, ‘If I don’t go to a conservatory, I will never play music again!’” Fernald loved percussion on the whole, but felt studies in classical music were not worth exploring for five years in a Dual-Degree program — especially since none of her interests favor the Western canon. 

Fernald’s story reveals a narrative nearly all non-conservatory musicians at Oberlin share with their passion for music: do words on a transcript or a bachelor’s degree mean anything? The short answer is no. The long answer, as Fernald learned, is a process that slowly unravels over a decade in tiny gradual shifts. “What I realized is that it’s never the end… because it’s just drums. And you can play drums forever if you want, and you’ll just keep getting better regardless of how quickly that happens.” 

Fernald on drumset

Her musical journey is a work in progress. Reflecting on a few tendencies, habits, and realizations she had collected over the years, Fernald thought that somehow, if she just had the percussion degree to put a name to things, she would feel more comfortable playing loudly in a Robertson practice room. And she would take more seriously the words of praise she received from professors and mentors. Yet, these moments of external validation would fade, leaving her feeling like an imposter. The only approval Fernald was looking for — or really, the approval any artist looks for—comes from the self.

Gender has also influenced how Fernald approaches music. Not wanting to take up space, be loud, or be heard making mistakes, were all things she feared would be attributed to her gender by male musicians. “Being socialized as a woman, and having thoughts about whether or not I deserve to take up space in a place if I feel under-qualified to be there, means I didn’t go for certain opportunities that guys would have, and did.” 

Fernald’s Watson project, “Gender Inclusivity and Pedagogical Techniques in Percussion Groups,” will focus on how female musicians around the world are transforming traditional performance spaces into ones that are inclusive. 

Tracing the male-dominated history of Steel Pan, Gamelan, and Taiko percussion, Fernald said how lucky she was to have grown up with women and “non-dudes” who made space for her in music. Recalling her all-female middle school percussion section, and her hiring as an accompanist by Oberlin Dance Professor Holly Lopez over conservatory musicians, Fernald feels that non-men offering support to other non-men in performance spaces is necessary. “I try to pay that back. I do as much of that as I can.”

Looking to the future, Fernald will hold a Watson in one hand and a Physics degree in another. Fernald says she has no plan on being a “straight up physicist,” and originally studied physics only to gain a pathway into environmental problem solving. She sees her career as open ended with a lot of ways to live a “meaningful life.” When looking back at all of her “seemingly unrelated stuff” during her Bachelor’s — she was even awarded a 2018 Winter Term Shansi Fellowship to study the environmental impact of Bamboo Bicycles in Beijing and Shanghai— she offers wisdom that many neurotic graduates might need to hear.

“The only related thing is that it’s all stuff I thought was cool and wanted to do. I don’t know how it will all fit together, but so far it’s fit together quite well, and I feel good, and I’m good with myself, and that’s all I need.” With covid-19 throwing a wrench into any future plans, the grounds are shaky at the moment for her Watson. Yet, with vaccinations in sight, the awardee still plans on traveling to Trinidad and Tobago, Indonesia, and Japan. Her Watson studies are all rooted in group practices where the strength of any performer depends on how tuned into one another they are. Fernald can only describe this sharing of energy as “joy.” The musician also reflects on how she has no end “product” in mind during her Watson year. “I’m not trying to get anything out of anyone. It’s just playing music together. That’s not the concrete objective some fellowships would look for, but I think that’s the way to do it.”

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