Calling All Interlochen Alumni!

A few weeks ago I  wrote a piece about ticket price and competition where I made reference to the infamous Interlochen challenge system.  Since then, one of Adaptistration’s readers sent in a note to say that Interlochen has planned to eliminate the challenge system for the 2004 summer camp season. 

In turn, I’ve decided to write an article about what "challenges"
have meant to Interlochen students throughout the decades.  So I have a
favor to ask from all of Adaptistration’s readers who are also
Interlochen alumni:

Please write in and tell me about your experiences, thoughts, and opinions of the Interlochen challenge system:

  • It doesn’t matter if you are pro or con, hated them or loved them,
    or just plain didn’t even care about them – I want to hear all sides of
    the story. No one’s views are unimportant.
  • I would like to hear about how you think challenges influenced your
    life, regardless if you became a professional musician or not.
  • If you are a professional musician, did they prepare you for the realities of orchestra and band life?
  • Feel free to share specific memories, pontificate on the merits of competition, and whatever else you would like to say.
  • Are you a former or current faculty member who administered challenges first hand? What are your views?
  • Are you a parent of a camper that experienced challenges? How did you see challenges affect your child?
  • Do you know other alumni who would like to offer their opinion?
    Then send them a link to this article and let their voice be included:
    "Sound the Call"

All identities and personal information I receive will be kept
strictly confidential, but please let me know if you don’t mind to have
your name published to any remarks and want to be credited.  In the
spirit of never asking anyone to do something I myself am not willing
to do, I’ll tell my story at the end of the article.

But first, I see the rest of you non Interlochen alumni out there
scratching your heads, wondering what the big deal is all about, and in
general just feeling left out.  What is this challenge system anyway?
Well the best way I can describe it is to use an excerpt from a book by
Norma Lee Browning (currently out of print) entitled Joe Maddy of Interlochen:

Every Friday was bloody Friday at Joe Maddy’s music camp.  It was
also Joe Maddy’s reminder that his camp was a work camp, not just a
play camp.  It was time for survival of the fittest, the one day of the
week that every camper referred to simply but with excitement as Blood
Friday, or "challenges".  It was the day any student in any of the
camp’s bands or orchestras could improve their position, if was good
enough, simply by challenging the player ahead of him.

The camp’s tradition of "challenges" was the outgrowth of Joe
Maddy’s own youthful annoyance at being held back to the last chair
viola because of his age in the days when he had been the youngest
member of the Minneapolis symphony Orchestra [at camp] each young
performer had their day on challenges to move all the way up to first
chair, and even right out of his own age group into the next one, if
they could play well enough Everyone congratulated both the winners for
winning and the losers for trying, and everyone knew that come next
challenge session the winners might wind up in the back of the section.

Joe’s idea in permitting the young players to do their own judging
and voting was to eliminate the possibility of any accusations of
"teacher’s pet".  He soon found that the students were their own most
severe critics.  They would even vote against their best friends if
they felt someone else deserved the chair.  But far from creating
jealousies and endangering youthful friendships as some might have
anticipated, challenges gave the youngsters an even stronger bond in
their world of music.  No "loser" was ever really left out of the game
since simply being included in the "game" was in itself a great honor.
Students were learning self reliance, a quality that has become more
and more rare in an age of groupishness. (I have to point out here that
this book was written in 1962).

My time at Interlochen was during the summers of 1986, 1988,
and 1989 as a tuba student (although back then I went by my first name:
Doug), and I can say that I am literally a poster child for
Interlochen; you’ll find me and my tuba in the lower left hand corner
of the big 20" x 32" Interlochen recruitment poster from 1987.   I
would have to say that I lost slightly more than I won in challenges,
but what our faculty coach instilled into us was that it wasn’t merely
winning or loosing that was most important.  What did matter was that
we played to the best of our ability and that with continued hard work,
next week we’ll play even better.  How I did in the challenges wasn’t a
complete measure of how I was as a player, but the challenges directly
contributed to making me a better player from one day to the next and I
improved more than I ever thought possible.  Was it depressing to
loose? Sure it was, no one likes to loose but looking back I am
grateful to have been exposed at an early age to a simple fact of life:
sometimes you can do everything right and still not win.

Was there politics among the students? Sure there was, but that’s
what the faculty coaches were there for.  They could override a vote
they knew wasn’t justified and then explain to us why they had to
overrule it.  And I have to say that there isn’t much in life that
forces you to grow up in a hurry than have someone point out – in
detail – just how much you’re behaving like a child.  I still believe
that most of my "adult peers" have never really learned this lesson
even today. 

Another positive residual effect of challenges is that it always
spurred conversation among the tuba section.  We would all go to lunch
together after challenges (how’s that for camaraderie!) and talk about
how we played; much like actors sit around after rehearsals going over
"notes".  The discussion about challenges inevitably led to discussions
about how we were playing as a section and that would open up the door
for us to talk through problems that would have otherwise never been
addressed in band rehearsals.  This was done civilly (although laced
with a liberal amount of coarse teenage vocabulary) and with an honest
desire for us as a section to better tomorrow than we were today   just
like we were learning as individuals through the challenge system!

So by my last year at camp in 1989, was I the top dog?  Did all of
this trial by fire turn me into the best of the best?  Nope.  I learned
that there was always someone better than me, no matter how hard I
tried and how much I worked.  And at the time, it did get me down
occasionally.  But having the benefit of 15 years hindsight, they were
the best days of my childhood.  During those summers I didn’t have to
suffer under the oppressive weight of having a band director or a
teacher always decide where I should sit or which part I should play.
I wasn’t just another cog in the wheel of an ensemble where older
players were automatically seated in front of me.  The natural process
of competition allowed me rise an fall throughout each seat in the
section (and I experienced everything from first to last) and I
genuinely gained the experience and appreciation of what my duty was as
a player in each of those seats.

For me, my experiences of the challenge system were both positive
and negative.  But the combination of those two points is what allowed
me to be the stronger musician, and person, that I am today.  My
faculty coach created a safe, comfortable, positive, and controlled
environment where the benefits of pure competition could have its
greatest effect.  He was a mentor that taught was far more than just
about our instrument and how to play as a section. Without that
challenge system to facilitate this process, I doubt all of those
positive results would have come to pass.

About Drew McManus

"I hear that every time you show up to work with an orchestra, people get fired." Those were the first words out of an executive's mouth after her board chair introduced us. That executive is now a dear colleague and friend but the day that consulting contract began with her orchestra, she was convinced I was a hatchet-man brought in by the board to clean house.

I understand where the trepidation comes from as a great deal of my consulting and technology provider work for arts organizations involves due diligence, separating fact from fiction, interpreting spin, as well as performance review and oversight. So yes, sometimes that work results in one or two individuals "aggressively embracing career change" but far more often than not, it reinforces and clarifies exactly what works and why.

In short, it doesn't matter if you know where all the bodies are buried if you can't keep your own clients out of the ground, and I'm fortunate enough to say that for more than 15 years, I've done exactly that for groups of all budget size from Qatar to Kathmandu.

For fun, I write a daily blog about the orchestra business, provide a platform for arts insiders to speak their mind, keep track of what people in this business get paid, help write a satirical cartoon about orchestra life, hack the arts, and love a good coffee drink.

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