One in Two Thousand: Theo Cohen ’23

Bellamy Richardson

(Bellamy Richardson/The Williams Record)

Each week, the Record (using a script in R) randomly selects a student at the College for our One in Two Thousand feature, excluding current Record board members. This week, Theo Cohen ’23 discussed singing for the president of Iceland, learning Hebrew for his bar mitzvah, and practicing meditation. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Bellamy Richardson (BR): Last night, I saw you sing with the choir for the president of Iceland at the ’62 Center. What was that like? 

Theo Cohen (TC): Yeah, it was fun. We’ve been working a lot on that. Our concert is also this week, so it’s been a busy week for [the] choir. I’ve obviously never met a head of state before. It was cool, though, singing a new language. I’ve never encountered Icelandic before.

BR: What was it like to learn to sing in that language? Was it difficult?

TC: Yeah, it was. It’s just an unusual language, at least to my ears. I thought [the president’s] talk was great. 

BR: What was your favorite of the three songs you sang?

TC: I really liked “Heyr Himna Smiður,” which was the piece that was based on a medieval poem, and the music was composed by [Professor of History and Chair of Global Studies] Magnús [Bernhardsson]’s uncle.

BR: That’s so cool! So, I know that you’re an opera singer. Can you talk about that?

TC: I started taking lessons with [Artist Associate in Voice] Paul La Rosa freshman year, and it’s been really good. I’ve sung and done musical theatre for a long time. I really like orchestral music, and I played violin for a long time. So [opera] just made sense to me as the thing I wanted to start pursuing. I was in the Williams Opera Workshop in La Bohème last year. Then, this summer, I went to Italy with Peter Miles [’24], Izaki [Metropoulos ’22] and Olivia [Graceffa ’22], and we were in the rural part of Sicily. We just put on a ton of operas. I think I performed, like, 17 times. It was a really good experience and just confirmed that I want to do this. So this month I’ve been recording stuff for applications for opera graduate programs, and I’m gonna be in The Magic Flute this coming Winter Study.

BR: Switching gears a little bit. So we know each other from MUS 104 freshman year. You’re a music and math double major — what has that combination been like for you?

TC: It’s kind of interesting, because I didn’t come into Williams thinking I was gonna [major in those]. Coming from high school, I had done both of those things, but I was like, “I’m done with that, I don’t really want to do it anymore,” for both of them. But then I came here, and the first math class I took was so great. It was almost immediately obvious that I had to be a math major.

BR: What class was that?

TC: It was multivariable calculus, MATH 151, with [Professor of Mathematics] Colin Adams, who’s great, and then I just continued to have really good experiences in the math major here. And then — this is funny — I missed music, because I didn’t take any [music courses] my first semester here, so then I took 104 with you. But actually, my first music class was technically “The World of Wes Anderson” with [Associate Professor of Music] Zach Wadsworth for Winter Study in 2020. So that was really fun, and it was exciting because then I got to take another class with Wadsworth, who’s the best.

BR: Yes, shoutout to Zach Wadsworth!

TC: But I was like, “Oh, maybe I should keep on taking music classes, because I still do, obviously, like doing this.” So then, by the end of sophomore year, I had finished all the theory requirements, and I’m like, “Well, I might as well just get the major.” I wasn’t planning on doing anything with it at that point. I think I was really lucky, because then when I suddenly, six months later, had this big realization of “I want to do opera,” it just made a lot of sense. I was like, “Thank god I’m doing this. It makes my life way easier.”

BR: And now you’re applying to grad school for music.

TC: Yeah, exactly.

BR: OK, switching gears again. I know you’ve been studying Hebrew for your bar mitzvah next semester. How has that been going?

TC: I had my first Hebrew lesson with [Jewish Chaplain] Rabbi Seth [Wax] last week, and I have my second one today, [which is] very exciting. It’s been very cool because it’s hard learning a language with a different set of letters. I have to learn how to speak a lot of languages for singing, right? But whenever it’s a different alphabet, my brain just breaks when I look at the [letters]. But it’s been really fun. Right now I’m still very slow at reading, and it almost seems impossible that I’ll be able to just read it quickly and easily at some point, but I guess practice makes perfect. I’m Jewish, but I grew up in Oklahoma, so I didn’t have a home temple, except for the one that my grandma goes to that I visit maybe once every other year. I really didn’t have that much familiarity with the Jewish liturgy at all, so it’s been really cool to actually start to learn about all that stuff this year.

BR: What made you decide that you wanted to have a bar mitzvah?

TC: On Yom Kippur, I came to services, and I’ve always really liked that. I went freshman year, and it was a really powerful, meaningful experience. So I came again this year for part of those services, and I fasted, and it was really moving. I was like, “OK, maybe I should actually participate in Jewish life.” I think an unexpected benefit, besides having a more grounded spiritual tradition to work out of, is [that] there’s a great community here. I’ve got a lot of good friends, including you. 

BR: You mentioned that you grew up in Oklahoma. Can you talk about what that was like for you?

TC: It’s sort of different, but I grew up in Norman, which is where the University of Oklahoma is, so it is a college town. That being said, our congressperson is a Republican, so it’s not exactly the most “college town” place to be in. But I think the unique perspective I have is that I grew up around your “average Americans,” who are very Christian people. It was always weird growing up around people that I didn’t really share any cultural values or context with.

BR: How do you feel like things changed when you came to Williams?

TC: I met a lot of people who share values with me. For the first time, there are certain beliefs I have, or parts of my identity — like being Jewish, for instance — that I don’t have to actively hide all the time, which has been really freeing. On the other hand, it is strange, because I think most people here don’t actually have the experience of not living in a bubble. Sometimes I’m shocked [by that]. There are certain beliefs I hold about the world that aren’t shared by most people here, so it’s weird, because I’m also not exactly the normal, standard person here. But I think it’s been a really important thing for me to sort of find my identity and to leave Oklahoma, even though I do love the place.

BR: Last question: You’re really into meditation, and you told me you meditated this morning already before we got breakfast, so can you tell me a bit about that?

TC: Yeah, so I run a Zen practice group on campus, which is just a group that gets together, ideally every day, and we meditate at 8 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. I think meditation is a really valuable practice, because it gives us time to center ourselves and to step away from work, especially at Williams College. My friend Luke [Valadie ’22] was graduating, so I took over the club. For me, it’s been really nice to have a community around meditation, because I think sometimes everyone wants to try meditation, but it’s very intimidating to get started, because it’s not fun, at least at first. And it’s hard to have the motivation to sit through a whole set by yourself. But if you’re in a group, it makes it a lot easier. You hear people who have been meditating every day for years being like, “Oh, that was not easy.” So just to have that feeling of like, “We’re in it together,” is really nice.

BR: Do you have any advice for people who maybe want to start meditating but are not sure where to start?

TC: Yeah, start with short meditations, about five minutes. Ten minutes is great. Because how many times in the day do you actually just take five minutes to just sit down and let things go? And then I’d say, for easy starting meditations, just select a spot and watch your breath go in and out. And if you get distracted, that’s totally okay. That’s the point. Just start simple and start short.