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Jewish World Review
July 14, 2009 / 22 Tamuz 5769
I've Found Heaven … in Northern Michigan
That is, two of my children have. This piece of heaven is called
Interlochen Center for the Arts, and having just visited, I fully comprehend
the ecstasy they feel.
In a leveling world, Interlochen is all about two unfashionable
concepts that we conservatives revere: tradition and excellence. None of
this "everybody gets a trophy just for showing up." Not here (though
arguably, just being able to be here only one in five are admitted
amounts to a valuable trophy). Twenty-five hundred students in grades 3-12
from every state in the union and 40 countries converge on this breezy
sylvan enclave between two sparkling lakes for several weeks of intensive
training and performance in music, art, theater, opera, dance, motion
picture arts, and writing. Even if you've never heard of Interlochen, now in
its 82nd year, you've certainly heard from its alumni.
This being 2009, there are kids sporting every kind of
fashion from shoulder-length hair (boys) to mohawks and even the odd nose
ring (sigh). But all submit to the camp uniform light blue polo shirts
(white on Sundays) tucked in, neat blue shorts or long pants (no holes or
fringes), and color-coded web belts to identify one's division. The girls
also wear knee socks to match their belts. For performances, everyone wears
a red sweater or sweatshirt. And all thrive on the sense of walking in the
footsteps of giants.
To wander the sun-dappled campus is a treat to the ears.
Interlochen is dotted with scores of small cabins; they are rehearsal
shacks. As you roam, glorious sounds emanate from every direction. Over here
a pianist is working on a Beethoven sonata, and from that hut waft the
strains of "Aida" on the trumpet. My 13-year-old son, Ben, explained as he
squired me around, "Mom, you can't stop every time you hear beautiful music
here or you'll never get anywhere."
They rehearse every day and are steeped in what the faculty is
not shy about calling "the Western tradition" or "our inheritance." I peeked
into a jazz technique class where intermediate boys were watching a video of
John Coltrane improvising. There are several performances each night. It
might be a jazz quartet, a Baroque chamber group, a chorus, or a dance
recital. On weekends, the large ensembles bands and orchestras and
others perform longer pieces for paying customers (though campers get in
I'm most familiar with the music program, as my sons play the
trumpet and clarinet. Music students audition for admission. When they
arrive in late June, they audition again to be placed in an ensemble. Two to
three weeks later, they get the chance to try for a higher group. We had
heard before our kids enrolled that Interlochen is based on a "competitive
model." If you can move up, you can also move down. Far from a drawback, I
regard this as a great boon for kids. If you audition and fail to make it
into the group you had hoped to play with, you may be spurred to practice
harder and longer. At the very least you will learn the incredibly valuable
lesson that it isn't the end of the world when you fall short of a goal. The
sun rises the next morning. You find pleasure in the group you're in. And
you admire all the more those who excel. Next time, you may make it and
it will be the sweeter for having been hard won.
There is no expectation that every Interlochen alumnus will
become a star or even a professional artist. Some go on to careers in
business, sports, academia, and other fields (and become patrons of the
arts). But a remarkable number do make their mark on the art world as
performers. If you look at it through the other end of the telescope say
by examining the members of major symphony orchestras, especially the
principals a significant number will have spent time honing their craft
in this idyllic setting. And just to drop a few names, alumni include
soprano Jessye Norman, conductor Lorin Maazel, clarinetist David Shifrin,
Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary), actress Meredith Baxter, actor Tom
Hulce, actress Linda Hunt, TV personalities Bruce Morton and Mike Wallace,
and pretty much the entire Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, widely considered
one of the best orchestras in America.
It's still camp. The bunks are rustic. The food is mediocre. The
plumbing is, to avoid unnecessary details, temperamental. The children
return wearing an extra layer of silt. But their spirits and their minds
have been elevated and that's magical.
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© 2006, Creators Syndicate