For a high-school aged violinist, attending Interlochen Summer Arts Camp can be an experience like no other. The beneficiary of a free ride on a “Governor’s Scholar” ticket, I attended the camp between my sophomore and junior years in high school.
When I auditioned for the scholarship, I knew absolutely nothing about the camp. I didn’t even know where it was located or how long it ran. As I soon discovered, it is located in Interlochen, Michigan, and is situated on a large campus, reminiscent of a collage in the woods. The location is quite remote — the nearest airport is in Traverse City, Michigan.
Imagine my surprise when I found out that Interlochen Arts Camp can seem more like a military academy than a camp devoted to the arts. Witness: a compulsory navy blue uniform (shirt, pants, and even socks), life in unheated, rustic “cabins,” a rotating set of chores assigned to each camper every morning, and a very early morning trumpet wake-up call, followed by calisthenics — and, after that, a full day of music classes and orchestra rehearsals.
And then there is the famous (or infamous) “challenge system.” following your assignment to either the higher orchestra (called World Youth Symphony Ochestra, or WYSO for short), or to the lower ranked orchestra (HSO), campers have to “compete for your seat” each week. What that means is that a faculty member chooses a passage or two from the week’s repertoire, and then requires the rear-most seated violinist to play it, after which the player seated just one spot higher delivers his or her rendition of the same passage. Practice your music like your life depends on it, and you might “move up” several seats or even move from the lower orchestra to the higher orchestra — based on out-competing your stand-partner or the player seated just north of you.
Skip your practice session, and risk falling backwards in the seating, while other, more prepared students, advance. Practice hard, and your reward is to move forward in the seating. Skip out on your individual practice time, and you could find yourself in the back of HSO in a single day.
How are the determinations made as to who wins a challenge? The rest of the orchestra closes their eyes and raises their hand to vote for their favorite.
Stressful? You bet. Motivating? For the majority of students, definitely. For instance, I devoted more intense practice to Interlochen’s orchestra music of the week than to any other music before or since. I worked up the more difficult passages with a metronome, starting slowly and advancing, one notch at a time, when I had mastered (to the best of my ability) a passage at a given speed. Even years later, some of the passages I worked on especially hard still fall with surprising ease under my fingers.
Does all of this sound like fun to you? Maybe not. And, yet, it was one of the greatest and certainly the most intense experiences of my life. For one thing, WYSO was leaps and bounds beyond any other orchestra I had ever played in. Some of the campers who attended Interlochen with me now play in the world’s top orchestras. In addition, I met students from all over the world, from Romania to New Zealand, who (unlike my compatriots back in my high school) shared my interests. The repertoire that we played was fantastic. From Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring to Wagner’s Overture to the Flying Dutchman, this orchestra could deliver a great performance.
Further, we got to perform with world-class soloists. During my summer at Interlochen, my orchestra performed the Brahms’ Second Piano Concerto with Andre Watts, while Itzahk Perlman treated us to the Tchaikovsky Concerto. He even threw his handkerchief into the violin section after finishing the last movement.
In addition, for many of us, it was our first extended visit away from home — in this case, six weeks of living in a parent-free zone. Of course, the camp had lots of rules — which were vigorously enforced, that kept us in line (at least most of the time). But still, being away from home felt liberating in and of itself, and I certainly felt I’d earned some points in the maturity department by the end of the summer.
In my opinion, attending a world-class music camp like Interlochen can provides memories to last a lifetime. Many students attend Interlochen for several summers during their pre-college years, a testament to the fact that, despite all of the rules and discipline, the camp has a lot to offer to its students.
There are other world class music camps, but few others that have built such a “culture” around the experience they offer. Love it or hate it, Interlochen is unique, and its call continues to attract a steady stream of enthusiastic and talented campers from around the world.