The “Challenges” Facing Interlochen Part 1

Picking up where I left off from the end of the decision making articles (Part 1 & Part 2), I am now going to begin examining Interlochen’s challenge system in detail.

We’ll begin by examining the challenge system that has been eliminated as well as the current system the Interlochen administration has created to replace it. In later installments of this series we’ll hear from faculty members, alumni, parents, and students about their perceptions of the challenge system.

Just The Facts

The Old Challenge System

The old challenge system is a competitive, merit based system of advancement used to determine which student musician sits in which particular seat throughout one of Interlochen’s large ensembles (orchestras and bands).

One of the most unique components of this system compared to other forms of placement procedures is that the participating students are the ones who vote between the competing candidates as opposed to teachers making all of the decisions.

A basic challenge worked like this:

  1. At the beginning of the week, the faculty section coach would assign a few excerpts to be used as that week’s challenge material. Excerpts were based on several basic musical and technical components.
  2. At the following sectional the challenges would take place. Starting at the bottom of the section, Student A would “challenge” Student B. The two would play one of the selected excerpts (as determined by the faculty coach) usually standing out of sight of the other students, effectively creating a “screened” competition.
  3. After each had played through the excerpt, the students would put their heads down and take a vote by show of hands as to which of the students they feel performed better.
  4. If the challenger won, they moved up a seat and the process started over again from there until that challenger loses a vote.
  5. Each student would get to conduct this process and wherever the students ended up in the end is where they would sit for the following week’s rehearsals and concert. Additionally, a student at the top of a lower ensemble has the ability to audition into the ensemble above.

The New Audition Policy

The following audition policy is from an internal Interlochen document dated 3/26/04 and it replaces the old challenge system as the primary method of student chair placement. Seating is determined by coaches (with input from conductors) based upon the student’s audition as well as their preparation and performance in ensembles. When appropriate, two sets of seating assignments can be made for each concert, giving qualified musicians an opportunity to sit in different positions. A qualified musician is one who can perform the part well technically, musically and with the requisite leadership skills. A player may be assigned a specific part (first, second, etc.) for the entire concert, or they may be assigned varying parts on a piece by piece basis. There will not be more than one seating assignment within a multi-movement work (like a symphony) or more than two for each concert.

  1. Comprehensive Auditions of All Instrumentalists At the beginning of weeks 1 and 4, [out of eight] a panel of at least two (or more) teachers of the auditioned instruments will listen to the entire class for seating assignments. Winds and Percussion: Week 1 auditions will be the basis for the seating assignments for weeks 1 and 2, and week 4 auditions will be the basis for the seating assignments for week 5 and 6. Strings: Week 1 auditions will be the basis for the seating assignments for weeks 1-4, and week 4 auditions will be the basis for the seating assignments for week 5-8. Players are placed according to technical AND musical ability. Sightreading is an important measure of a musician’s skill to learn the music quickly and to free oneself to focus on the conductor and their colleagues. Audition repertoire: Week 1: Player’s choice which demonstrates technique and musicality. Sightreading. (Scales at the discretion of the coach) Week 4: Coach’s choice and sightreading. (Scales at the discretion of the coach).
  2. Interim Auditions Woodwinds, Brass, Harp and Percussion only: During weeks 2 and 6, interim auditions will be held to listen to players who wish to be reevaluated for their assignment for weeks 3/4 and 7/8 respectively. This is also an opportunity for individuals to be considered for important solos that occur within the ensembles’ repertoire. The audition repertoire will be chosen by the coach. The interim auditions will also be held by two or more teachers. Players not wishing to audition are not required to play but may be required to attend. Strings are not required to hold interim auditions during weeks 2 and 6 unless important solos within the repertoire necessitate using them. Strings: Strings will be equitably rotated with the objective to give all students an opportunity to sit in various locations of their sections. Technical ability between the 1st and 2nd violins will be evenly spread to accommodate the two sections exchanging roles and positions half way through each concert. The first four seats in the violins, violas and celli and the first two seats in the basses will be assigned separately outside the general rotation and based upon the evaluation of the coaches and conductors. These positions are awarded based upon demonstrated leadership.

Now that you have the details you can start to mull over how you feel each of these systems might function.

Later this evening I’ll publish a piece that will begin to examine the stated goals of each system as well as hear from faculty members responsible with implementing them.

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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